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Prime Minister Tony Blair says he wants to devote his last year as Britain's leader to advancing an Israeli-Palestinian agreement.
This is not the first time Blair has made clear his view that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a major destabilizing influence in a region the UK has always considered vital to its interests.
Blair is known to have strong feelings of affection for Israel. He is also committed to the creation of a Palestinian state he believes essential to restoring some semblance of calm in the Mideast. So his pledge to work on the issue is not especially surprising.
For some, the surprise will be that one reason he wants to secure an Israeli-Palestinian agreement is political. He wants his place in history and to help New Labor in the next election.
Blair's popularity has declined dramatically during the Iraq war. He has seen poll data showing Britons want their government to work for a Mideast solution. He wants to see his numbers rise and understands that working on this issue can only help.
OF COURSE, the conventional wisdom here points in the opposite direction.
It is said that president Jimmy Carter lost his bid for reelection partly because he pushed so hard to achieve the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. Not true; Carter's tireless and skillful work to achieve the Camp David peace treaty, which eliminated the threat to Israel from its most powerful adversary, was a major Carter selling point in the 1980 election. But it was heavily outweighed by the Iran hostage crisis and the stagnant economy.
Nevertheless, it is commonly argued that a president cannot pursue Middle East peace without jeopardizing either his own political standing or his party's.
Yet there is little evidence attesting to this. It is considered a fact simply because it is repeated so often.
CONSIDER the current situation. Israelis came out of the Lebanon war depressed and worried about the turn of events. For the first time since 1948, the Israeli heartland had been hit from a state across the border.
Israel seemingly won the war, but its people know that the Hizbullah threat remains. Beyond that is Hizbullah's ally and supplier Iran, which seems hell-bent on having nuclear weapons. Most Israelis, in fact, expect that Iran will soon have them, thereby creating a new and frightening Middle East reality.
In that context, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems more of a nuisance than a serious threat. The Palestinians are weak and, compared to the Iranians and their clients, cannot today inflict significant damage on Israel.
PARADOXICALLY, solving the Israeli-Palestinian problem can prevent significant damage. And there seems to be a growing understanding in Israel that cutting a deal with the Palestinians now makes more sense than being forced into negotiations after the Palestinians achieve the ability to hit Israel hard.
Without a negotiated agreement, it is only a matter of time before radical Palestinians acquire missiles far deadlier than the Kassams. Once missiles can sail over the security barrier, its role as a defensive shield will be finished.
That is why Israel appears to be taking the establishment of a new Palestinian Authority unity government very seriously. If it is established and implements a real cease-fire with Israel (and returns Cpl. Gilad Shalit), most Israelis will be ready to negotiate with it.
This is not to say that the three conditions the West wants met (recognize Israel, renounce violence and abide by previous agreements) are irrelevant, just that Israelis care considerably more about the facts on the ground than about declarations and rhetoric.
They say a picture is worth 1,000 words. In Israel, the photograph of Gilad Shalit reunited with his family will be worth a billion, at least.
If, and it's still an "if," the government of Israel decides to pursue negotiations with the Palestinians, there can be no question but that Israel's friends in America will support that decision.
There is a growing awareness in the US that the continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could very well blow back on us here, in terrible ways that do not need describing. Reducing the terrorist threat is the number-one concern of most Americans, and they understand that defusing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would help do just that.
The bottom line: There is simply no way pursuing an Israeli-Palestinian agreement would politically harm any president, and certainly not George W. Bush, who is widely considered a strong friend of Israel.
`The writer is director of policy analysis for the Israel Policy Forum. The views expressed are his own.
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