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(photo credit: AP)
Ahead of US President George W. Bush's State of the Union address, a group of prominent American political figures urged Bush to prioritize efforts to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by emphasizing the importance of the issue in his speech Tuesday.
The call is part of the Campaign for American Leadership in the Middle East's (CALME) overall push for greater American involvement in pursuit of a two-state solution to the conflict.
"We are the only ones who can bring the resources and the leadership to help the parties narrow the differences so that they can sit down and reach an accord," said former defense secretary William Cohen, a supporter of CALME.
The organization's coalition of American politicians and former diplomats includes Madeleine Albright, Lawrence Eagleberger, Daniel Kurtzer and George Mitchell, as well as heads of Arab groups such as the American Task Force for Palestine and Jewish groups such as Hillel and the Union for Reform Judaism.
CALME's letter to the president calling for intensified engagement comes as the administration, long criticized in some corners for taking a hands-off approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has made signs of stepping up its diplomatic activity. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's recent trip was seen as laying the groundwork for further efforts.
The president's annual foremost policy speech is expected to focus on domestic issues, including health care and immigration, but will also address the situation in Iraq and terrorism. He will be speaking from the congressional chambers, where for the first time he will be met by a majority of Democrats rather than members of his own party. Many Democrats have urged more active effort on the Israeli-Palestinian front.
The CALME missive states that its adherents "believe that resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is critical to US national security interests and essential to reduce the threat posed by international terrorism." It also asks that Bush "make this a central and sustained objective of American foreign policy. A peaceful resolution of the conflict will enhance our efforts to build a secure, stable, and more democratic Middle East" which will bolster America's security.
"Leaders in the region feel that if the United States takes a sustained leadership role it will change the dynamic in the region," said Cohen, who just came back from a visit to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Oman.
"The Israeli-Palestinian question is the prism through which the Arab and Muslim world view, even assess, the United States," said George Salem of the Arab American Institute and co-chair of CALME. "It is in our national interest to push the parties towards agreement and to have this conflict solved on the basis of a two-state, permanent status agreement as soon as possible. This will strengthen the moderates in the region."
CALME co-chair Joel Tauber, the former chairman of the United Jewish Communities, said the timing was right for American peacemaking because Bush had the final two years of his administration to devote to such efforts and because both the Israeli and Palestinians heads of government supported the two-state vision, as well as the international community.
Cohen criticized the Bush administration for not doing enough to support Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas until now.
But he acknowledged that the Clinton administration, in which he served as defense secretary, also didn't always have the answers. Despite active, personal involvement by Clinton, he was unable to cement a deal between then prime minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
"We failed, but it doesn't mean we just walk away," he said.
"We have seen what happened by just standing back. The violence has continued, has deepened. The Israelis are not more secure, nor are the Palestinians better off," he said. "If we just walk away and leave the parties to try to resolve it themselves, it means it will not get resolved."
Tauber noted that both leaders, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, faced problems as weak leaders, but said the US could be helpful in bolstering them.