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Jewish Journal

Peace Opportunity Requires U.S. Action

by James D. Besser

November 18, 2004 | 7:00 pm

With Yasser Arafat in his Ramallah grave and President Bush promising to renew efforts to create a Palestinian state, speculation is mounting about exactly what the administration's next Mideast moves might be.

There's plenty of talk about what the Palestinians need to do to curb terror and begin building a democracy and some about what Washington may ask of Israel, including new restraints on settlements. But there's mostly silence about another key ingredient to any new peace effort: what the administration will ask of Arab allies that have contributed immeasurably to the current violent stalemate and the European nations that served as Arafat's willing enablers.

Israel and the Palestinians have much to do if four years of terrorism and reprisals are to be replaced by peace negotiations, but their tasks will be far more difficult if putative U.S. allies don't change their behavior. That is unlikely to happen without strong and gutsy U.S. leadership.

From the beginning of active peace talks in the early 1990s, Arafat played a two-faced game, and various U.S. allies in the region encouraged his bad behavior.

Many of those countries, starting with Saudi Arabia,

"The window of opportunity that opened with the Palestinian leader's death last week will slam shut unless the United States uses its influence to get both sides to go through it."

still refused to acknowledge Israel's right to exist even after the PLO did. Others -- Egypt is a good example -- ostensibly supported the peace process, while encouraging a raw anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism that contributed greatly to the region's terror-spawning atmosphere.

The incitement only increased after Arafat fled the peace table in 2000 and resumed terrorism, creating a climate of fury and suspicion that reinforced the Palestinian leader's worst tendencies, alarmed peace-minded Israelis and undermined support among the Palestinians for genuine compromise.

Dangling the Israel bogeyman has always been useful for authoritarian, corrupt Arab leaders eager to distract their own long-suffering people; keeping the Israeli-Palestinian dispute alive is more important to them than seeking a settlement fair to both sides. Palestinians are more useful to them as perpetual victims than as nation builders.

Then there are the Europeans, once again eager for a role in Mideast peace making, sympathetic to the very real plight of the Palestinians but indifferent to Israel's relentless quest for security. Ultimately, they fail the cause of peace by refusing to tell these hard truths to their Palestinian friends: that Israel is not going to go away and that terrorism will only undermine their goal of statehood.

That brings us to the post-Arafat present.

The window of opportunity that opened with the Palestinian leader's death last week will slam shut unless the United States uses its influence to get both sides to go through it.

Officials here have to press the Palestinians to finally crack down on terrorism and begin creating a real democracy, not the sham that kept Arafat at the helm. The administration also has to resist the temptation to use the democratic push as yet another excuse for U.S. inaction when the Palestinians fall short of their high standards.

Washington will also have to press Jerusalem to take controversial, painful steps to turn Arafat's death into an opportunity. That includes moving quickly to implement the Gaza disengagement plan and making it clear that it is not the end of the peace process or a marker for a long-term freeze, as Ariel Sharon's associates have said, but the first step toward a comprehensive settlement.

Israel also has to take concrete steps to allow genuine elections in troubled Gaza and West Bank areas, as well as East Jerusalem.

Pro-Israel leaders -- who increasingly define "pressure" on Israel as anything the current right-wing government doesn't like -- will howl, but most American Jews will go along with an assertive U.S. peace push, as long as it puts Israel's role in proper perspective.

But pressure on Israel and the Palestinians will be meaningless unless the Bush administration is willing to use every bit of diplomatic capital to press other nations -- including coddled buddies like Saudi Arabia -- to stop playing the perpetual spoilers. The first step these nations have to take is to forthrightly express their support for a secure Israel living alongside a Palestinian state and to stop the venomous anti-Israel agitation that may serve internal functions, but can only compound the misery of the Palestinians they claim to support.

These countries don't have to become lovers of Zion, but they have to be put on notice that they will be in conflict with vital U.S. interests if they continue encouraging the Palestinians to believe that Israel can still be eliminated by terror and through the force of world opinion.

Any administration attempt to restart a Mideast peace process will fail if the Palestinians continue to hear a message from their Arab patrons urging them to keep holding out for something they will never get -- a Palestinian state encompassing a shattered Israel.

European nations can play a constructive role in any new Mideast peace effort, including helping with the enormous costs of rebuilding the Palestinian economy. But their involvement will hurt, not help, if they don't work to convince their Palestinian friends to stop trying to destroy the Jewish state and start building their own.

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