This moment, when the uprising in Egypt projects out to streets and rulers’ palaces throughout the Arab world, and the contagious demonstrations could spring up at any moment in another country, this is precisely the right time to return to the negotiating table with the Palestinians.

Yes, we have shown maturity and political loyalty to President Hosni Mubarak. We’ve also not missed an opportunity to explain how volatile and worrisome the situation is. But this is not enough. As the ring of isolation around us grows tighter, we must not forget our closest neighbor, with whom we have no peace process.

In the near future, the government in Egypt will be busy with internal affairs. Whoever emerges as the new leader must first stabilize his rule, learn the lessons and rebuild governing institutions. Egypt played a significant role in our negotiations with the Palestinians, even though we were not always content with its position.

We also managed to reach unprecedented strategic understandings with the Egyptians in dealing with Gaza-related security issues. We must now assume that the Egyptian role in the process will fade, at least until summer.

Events in Egypt prove, not for the first time, that the US administration does not understand our region, and that its actions could catch us by surprise. It is precisely in such a situation that we must not sit back and do nothing. No one will do the job for us; we must not rely on allies to come to our aid, and must not assume that time is on our side. Under the new circumstances, the status quo – that is, a stagnant peace process – is particularly dangerous.

I HAVE little praise for the American role in the Egyptian turmoil – the same country that mediates between us and the Palestinians. It has acted crudely. I’m shocked by Washington’s public stance, with the president and secretary of state presiding over an anti-Mubarak agenda almost as bad as Al-Jazeera’s. They seem to want to remove Mubarak, replace him with his new vice president, Omar Suleiman, and dictate conditions relating to democracy and human rights – all while ignoring the code of tradition in our part of the world.

While the region’s dictatorial regimes must, of course, be criticized, Washington’s behavior is worrisome. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton look like elementary school teachers disciplining the naughty pupil Mubarak. They don’t care if they’re leading 85 million Egyptians toward chaos. They’re not thinking about the domino effect in countries where the young generation has the same reasons to take to the streets. Kick Zine El Abidine Ben Ali out of Tunis and Mubarak out of Cairo, and don’t give any thought to how things will look afterward: unemployment, street violence, Islamists seizing power, huge status gaps, a deep economic crisis – and all this without a reasonable plan for the future.

We must not underestimate the role played behind the scenes by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

It has branches in every Arab country, including the Palestinian Authority. Suppose, for example, that we continue to do nothing regarding peace with the Palestinians. Suppose we continue to evade. The next phase is already at our doorstep: The Islamist movement is gaining strength, leveraging the slap on the face that the US administration has delivered to Mubarak and his supporters.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is also concerned about this course of events. The streets of West Bank cities are liable to fill with more angry demonstrators – their young generation is no less frustrated than in Egypt – with Islamists conniving to drive the demonstrations out of control.

Israel must take the initiative immediately. It should seize the moment and renew talks with the PA. It should be determined to send the message that it is serious about moving forward rather than looking for excuses to blame the other side.

I suggest we be not only strong, but smart, realistic and generous. Let’s get to work. This is our opportunity to engage the Palestinians.

Whoever thinks the problem will just disappear if we continue postponing negotiations is delusional.

We are here, they are here, and the conflict hovers over our heads. The more we dodge and postpone, the more liable we are to be taken by surprise. And no one promises us happy surprises.

The writer is Middle East editor at Yediot Aharonot.
This article was first published by www.bitterlemons.org, and is reprinted with permission.

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