January 9, 2007 | Scripps Howard News Service

A Time for Middle East Peace

Resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict would be a wonderful thing. But the reality is that for more than a half century, every American president has attempted to find a magic formula that would bring peace to the tiny territories between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. And every American president has seen his efforts come a cropper.

No one tried harder than Bill Clinton who, in the end, failed for this simple reason: Then-Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat could not accept the idea of co-existence with Israel. And, to be fair, had Arafat made peace with the Jewish state, he almost certainly would have suffered the same fate as Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian president who reconciled with Israel and, soon after, was murdered by Militant Islamists.

Almost five years ago, George Bush announced he would help establish a Palestinian state as quickly as possible. His one demand: It must not be a terrorist state. Subsequently, Palestinians chose Hamas, a terrorist organization, to lead them.

Despite this history, during meetings of the “expert” advisory group of the Baker/Hamilton Commission on Iraq, the Arab-Israeli conflict was a frequent topic of debate. Many of the retired diplomats, ex-CIA operatives and other assorted members of the Foreign Policy Establishment were adamant: Bush must do whatever it takes to persuade Israelis and Palestinians to settle their differences, once and for all. As a member of that advisory group, I would ask: Even were such efforts to succeed, by what wizardry would that impel Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites to stop killing each other over power and petroleum?

I received no adequate answer and the final Baker/Hamilton Iraq Study Group Report asserts: “The United States will not be able to achieve its goals in the Middle East unless the United States deals directly with the Arab-Israeli conflict.” Until now has the United States been dealing indirectly with the conflict?

In a recent op-ed, former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft goes further, arguing that “a vigorously renewed effort to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict” could produce “real progress” which would cause Hezbollah and Hamas to “lose their rallying principle.”

How would that work? What could Israel offer Hamas and Hezbollah to induce them to give up “their rallying principle” — which is, unambiguously, the annihilation of Israel?

Or, if Israel ignored Hamas and Hezbollah, with whom would they make “real progress”?

Scowcroft does not explain. He merely adds that after making such progress, “Iraq would finally be seen by all as a key country that had to be set right in the pursuit of regional security.” It would? By all? By Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and al-Qaeda? For heaven’s sake, why?

It is unlikely that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will have answered such questions before setting off soon on a new round of Middle East diplomacy. If her intention is to demonstrate energetic engagement, fine. If the goal is to find common ground between Israelis and Palestinians, good luck.

It’s hard to imagine where she would even look. In 2005, Israel withdrew from every inch of Gaza. In exchange, Israel has received no concessions, no benefits and no credit from the “international community.” Virtually every day since, Gaza-based terrorists have fired rockets at Israeli villages. Based on this experience, Israeli enthusiasm for also withdrawing from the West Bank, the other “occupied territory,” has faded.

As for Hamas, we must remember that its posture toward Israel is based not on political calculation but religious conviction. Hamas holds the Militant Islamist view that any land ever conquered by Muslims is an endowment from Allah. One can wage jihad for such holy ground, or one can shirk one’s sacred obligation. There is no third option; it is not for man to negotiate away divine gifts.

In the long run, keep hope alive. But at this moment, given the current Palestinian leadership and the support it receives from Tehran, the chance of resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict is as low as it’s ever been.

Why those who style themselves as foreign policy “realists” claim otherwise is a mystery; as is their bizarre insistence that the road to peace in Iraq runs through Jerusalem. More plausibly, it is only when al-Qaeda, the Iranian mullahs and other Militant Islamists are seen as having failed, that Palestinians will choose leaders who seek peace alongside Israel rather than the destruction of Israel.

Resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict would be a wonderful thing. But it’s not happening anytime soon. And it cannot be a predicate for salvaging the vexing situation in Iraq.

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is the president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.




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