WASHINGTON – A former CIA officer warned Thursday that a new conflict in the Middle East awaited if there was no progress in making peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

“In the absence of a new American initiative to try to break the stalemate, there will be another war in the Middle East,” argued Bruce Riedel, who said that building economic prosperity for Palestinians in the West Bank was not sufficient, as history has demonstrated.

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Riedel, who was speaking at a Middle East Policy Council event on Capitol Hill, said the issue has added urgency because “American lives are being lost today because of the perpetuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

According to Riedel, a Brookings Institution expert on terrorism, “The Arab-Israeli conflict is at the heart and center of al-Qaida’s ideology and its narrative,” including its declaration that every American is a legitimate target for murder, and has been since the group’s inception.

Frank Anderson, president of the policy council and another former CIA official at Thursday’s event, agreed that “we are paying an increasing price in blood for their failure and refusal to reach an agreement.”

Riedel stressed that the solution wasn’t to push through a peace initiative to “appease” al-Qaida, since in any case the Islamic radical groups wouldn’t support it, but to “isolate extremism,” which is fanned by the conflict.

Riedel argued for the American administration to put down its own map of a two-state solution as a means to spur Israelis and Palestinians to engage seriously with the issue. He anticipated tremendous political fallout, he said, but that was a necessary price to pay.

But his co-panelist Brian Katulis, who also warned of violence with movement towards a peace agreement, cautioned that the Obama administration shouldn’t make any rash moves without having a back-up plan in place.

Given the risks involved, he said, “You better have Plan B, C, D, E and F [and] I’m worried that they don’t even have a Plan A.”

He assessed that “there’s a dangerous gap between the rhetoric of the president and top leaders and the mapping out of clear strategies to deal with this complicated issue.”

Phil Wilcox, founder of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, suggested during his presentation that the US administration take a harder line with Israel and not shy away from trying to directly influence the Israeli and Palestinian publics to take positions more amenable to American efforts to achieve a peace deal.

“People say we have no business interfering in the vital affairs of other societies and nations,” he said. “Let’s remember that the government of Israel interferes daily in American affairs. It is quite normal for democracies to do this.”

Riedel agreed that there was nothing objectionable in meddling in Israel’s politics and noted several occasions when the White House pushed to topple coalitions and build them, suggesting that during the current impasse the administration was trying to figure out how to better influence Israel.

But he cautioned that, with the Israeli public, positive overtures could often be most effective.

“Israelis need that hug,” he said. “Implicit in the hug can also be, you’ll get a cold shoulder if we’re not moving in the right direction.”

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