The First Word: America, be a peacemaker

Do we believe that violence or peace will prevail - and that what we do can make a difference?

George W Bush thinking88 (photo credit: )
George W Bush thinking88
(photo credit: )
The year 2006 closed with a myriad of hopeful signs for the most seemingly intractable of Middle East disputes: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas finally met to reignite the possibility of meaningful negotiations. Egyptian, Jordanian and Saudi leaders are publicly promoting a peace process. Syria is interested in entering negotiations in order to alleviate international pressure, according to the Israeli Foreign Ministry and security spokesmen. The Iraq Study Group report constructively called for American reengagement in ending the conflict. British Prime Minister Tony Blair began leading a new EU effort to find a path to peace. And the findings of the Joint Palestinian-Israeli Public Opinion Poll released on December 25 "indicate strong preference in both publics for the comprehensive settlement option." But we have seen hopeful signs in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before, only to watch them dashed by a spike in violence or counterproductive moves by one or more of the parties. We could focus on the negatives, as some are. The situation in Iraq, in the words of the Iraq Study Group, is "grave and deteriorating." Civil wars also loom in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. Iran's threats to Israel grow more bellicose, while it moves ahead with its nuclear program and expanding its jihadist influence into Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. So we have a choice to make: Do we believe that the forces of violence or the forces of peace will prevail - and that what we do can make a difference? During the last week in December, for example, Olmert, following his meeting with Abbas, announced measures to ease restrictions on the lives of Palestinians. This was a bold step. Unfortunately, it was followed the next day by an announcement that the government would revive a settlement in the West Bank's Jordan Valley. One step forward; one step back. The second decision runs counter to the first and undermines Israel's attempt to strengthen Abbas. It could lead to yet another promising opportunity weakened or even missed, this time by a government catering to settler demands. The next day, a Kassam rocket fired from Gaza by Islamic Jihad seriously wounded two teenagers walking down a street in Sderot. This was one of scores of rockets launched from Gaza since a cease-fire was declared between Israel and Palestinians a month earlier. One step forward, one step back. Israel has shown remarkable forbearance in the face of these attacks, which are designed to provoke a military response and thereby subvert moves toward a peace process. THERE ARE steps that the Bush administration, in partnership with the new Congress, can - and must - take now to turn the hopeful signs into a genuine peace process that would end the violence and result in two states, a Jewish state of Israel living alongside a Palestinian state in peace and security. The administration and Congress must heed the Iraq Study Group's recommendation: "There must be a renewed and sustained commitment by the United States to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace." Reports were published during the final days of December that Iran is seeking to build up Hamas to enable it to wage war against Israel similar to Hizbullah's onslaught last summer. The US and Israel must remain focused on their shared goal of weakening the extremist forces on Israel's borders and an increasingly dangerous Iran. Violent acts and rhetoric by extremists opposed to peace can only be thwarted by strengthening the Palestinian consensus for a two-state solution and bolstering Abbas (and Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora). While the Palestinians must take responsibility for the security situation in Gaza and the release of the kidnapped Cpl. Gilad Shalit, what Israel and America do also make a difference. Vigorous diplomacy by both the US and Israel with countries in the region, including Syria, is critical to reaching their shared goal of weakening the extremist elements. Engaging in a dialogue with Syria will tell us whether it can be pulled away from the regional axis of violence and Iran's sphere of influence. When Israel Policy Forum leaders met with the ambassadors from Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Syria in separate sessions last month, we found remarkable agreement among them that the Arab world is serious about negotiations leading toward a two-state solution and that the US must play a more active role in achieving peace in the region. Now is the time to take their offer seriously and assert a sustained and high-level diplomatic outreach to those nations. President George W. Bush and the 110th Congress must place bringing peace to this important region and long-term security to Israel at the top of their agendas for 2007. Doing so would also remove an important anti-American rallying cry from jihadists and begin to rebuild America's standing in the world, so severely damaged by the war in Iraq. The administration and Congress need the support of the American people to succeed in this critically important endeavor. And we need to act now, before these hopeful signs that emerged at the end of 2006 are washed away and another opportunity to bring peace to the Middle East is missed. The writer is president of the Israel Policy Forum and past chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.