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Jewish World Review Nov. 27, 2001 / 12 Kislev 5762

Bill Schneider

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Out of War, Peace? -- SOMETIMES a tough problem gets easier to solve if an even bigger problem arises. That may now be happening in the Middle East.

Sept. 11 has broken the Israeli-Palestinian peace process wide open. In this war, unlike the Gulf War, the U.S., Israel and the Palestinian Authority are all on the same side. All three are threatened by Islamic fundamentalism. Even Iran says it may be willing to accept Israel if the Palestinians do. In the middle of a war, the world is facing an extraordinary opportunity for peace. And the Bush administration is being forced, almost against its will, to respond.

A year ago, the Middle East peace process looked hopeless. President Clinton helped bring Israel and the Palestinians to the brink of a peace deal. Then it all fell apart. President Bush was not eager to have the same experience. For eight months, he stood back from the process, letting the Israelis and Palestinians take--or not take--the initiative. Since Sept. 11, however, the U.S. has been under pressure to resolve the conflict and remove a major problem for the U.S. in the Arab world. America's principal ally in the war on terrorism, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, has argued forcefully for greater U.S. involvement in the peace process. Early this month, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister publicly complained that President Bush's failure to commit to the peace process "makes a sane man go mad."

When President Bush made his maiden address to the United Nations General Assembly two weeks ago, one word had the diplomatic world buzzing. The president said, "We are working toward a day when two states--Israel and Palestine--live peacefully together within secure and recognized borders." The crucial word? "Palestine." Arabs use that term, but no American president has ever said it publicly before.

The next day, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat addressed the U.N. and acknowledged Bush's gesture. "I would like to express my deepest appreciation for what President George Bush declared in his speech," Arafat said.

But President Bush said something else in his U.N. speech that Arafat may not have appreciated: "There is no such thing as a good terrorist." Bush said that to repudiate efforts in the U.N. to condemn "bad terrorism" by groups like Al Qaeda while making exceptions for groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, which some in the U.N. see as "good terrorists" fighting for the national liberation of Palestine.

To President Bush, a terrorist is a terrorist. As National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice put it, "You cannot help us with Al Qaeda and hug Hezbollah. That's not acceptable."

The Bush administration is pursuing a policy of balance. The president used the term "Palestine," but he did not meet with Arafat--or even shake hands with him--in New York. Bush's snub got Arafat so upset the U.N. had to send an envoy out to calm the Palestinian leader down.

A policy of balance is fine with Americans. A poll taken this month by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland asked people which side they thought the U.S. should support in the Middle East. Only 20% of Americans said Israel. A negligible 1% said the Palestinians. The overwhelming majority, 70%, said the U.S. should favor neither side.

The formula for a peace deal is no mystery. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell restated it in his speech Monday aimed at reengaging the U.S. in the peace process. "A framework for a solution exists," Powell said. "It is ... rooted in the concept of land for peace."

The hang-up is over how to proceed. Israel insists on a precondition set back in June with U.S. approval: seven days with no Palestinian violence. Since June, however, there have hardly been seven hours without violence. Any Palestinian with a gun or a rock knows he has the power to stop the whole peace process.

In his speech, Powell tried to strike a balance. He did not endorse the seven-day test. Nor did he reject it. All he said was, "Get that cease-fire in place and other things can start to happen." It's the usual problem with the Middle East peace process:not where it's going, but how to get there.

Palestinians complain that the U.S. is hypocritical. America proclaims war on terrorism, Arafat complained, but it does little to "protect our people from the occupation, terror and ethnic cleansing practiced by Israel."

Supporters of Israel also complain the U.S. is hypocritical. The U.S. proclaims war on terrorism but criticizes Israel for pursuing Palestinian terrorists. "We're telling the Israelis to do as we say and not as we do," Rep. Gary L. Ackerman (D-N.Y.) protested.

But Israel's leaders understand that it is in Israel's larger interest for the U.S. to win its war on terrorism, even if it means the Israelis have to restrain themselves. As Zalman Shoval, a senior foreign policy advisor to the Israeli government, noted, "Prime Minister [Ariel] Sharon has said helping the United States in this war against terrorism is our first priority because we are all in it together. If there is no victory, we shall also lose."

What we're seeing is a big change in the constellation of forces in the Middle East. The Russians seem fully prepared to accept U.S. leadership--something that has not been true for 50 years. Here's another novelty: The Europeans, led by Blair, are trying to speak with one voice and play a constructive role. Most remarkably, Arab countries are hinting that they may be willing to make offers to Israel never made before--perhaps to recognize Israel and offer security guarantees in return for a Palestinian state and Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank.

Israelis seem fully aware that something important may be happening. "I think the ground is prepared for a settlement," Israel's Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said this month. "The crisis today is very deep, but the solution is rather close."

When Israel, the Palestinians, the U.S., Europe, Russia and most Arab and Muslim countries all find themselves on the same side in the war on terrorism, that's something new. When they also all feel a need to pursue a policy of balance and restraint in the Middle East, it's no small thing. Something very big had to happen to put the Middle East peace process back in motion. It did. On Sept. 11.

To comment on JWR contributor William Schneider's column, please click here.

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© 2001, William Schneider