What was originally billed as Dick Cheney's mission to recruit Arab nations' support for ousting Saddam Hussein became a lecture tour on the urgency of dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict--with Cheney as the lecturee. By the time he reached Israel the Vice President was promising that the United States would become "very actively engaged" in peace efforts in the Middle East.
Was this a Paul-like conversion on the road not quite to Damascus? Hardly. Whether it evolves into a full-scale US diplomatic effort to achieve a workable peace settlement remains to be seen, but there are new glimmers of hope as other key parties are now speaking out. Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah's proposal injected a fresh impetus into the bloody Israeli-Palestinian impasse. The Saudi plan--which calls for Israeli withdrawal to its pre-June 1967 borders in exchange for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza and normalization of relations with the Arab nations--is, of course, nothing new. But its source, a conservative Arab state, carried weight, and its enunciation was timely. Such a vision still offers the best framework for a lasting solution. To the Israelis it promises peace, security and commerce with its neighbors; to the Palestinians it promises an end to the occupation and the establishment of a viable Palestinian nation. As Israeli novelist Amos Oz recently wrote, "Even Ariel Sharon and Yasir Arafat know the solution: peace between two states, established by the partition of the land roughly in accordance with demographic realities based on Israel's pre-1967 borders."
The United States, for its part, has taken several mildly positive steps, including engineering a UN Security Council resolution for a Palestinian state and Bush's admonition that Sharon's massive incursion into the Palestinian refugee camps was "not helpful." US disapproval stopped Sharon's invasion, and the Prime Minister also dropped his condition that peace talks would proceed only after seven days without Palestinian violence.
The Bush Administration's let-'em-fight-it-out policy, coupled with continued military and economic aid to Israel, has been a disaster, tacitly encouraging Sharon in his admitted attempt "to increase the number of losses on the other side. Only after they've been battered will we be able to conduct talks." Also a disaster was Washington's myopic ritual of blaming everything on Arafat's alleged failure to stem Palestinian terrorism. The US stance ignores what UN Secretary General Kofi Annan recently called Israel's "illegal occupation" of the West Bank and Gaza. Annan notably followed up those words with an indictment of the Israelis for unleashing the military in what resembled "all-out conventional warfare" against heavily populated civilian areas.
The Administration must now recognize that the best tactic in this renewed peace process is to work for a political settlement in tandem with a military truce. Achieving such a settlement will require a deep and evenhanded involvement on its part. Peace in the Middle East, not toppling Saddam Hussein, should be the United States' top priority. Many Arab leaders don't like the Iraqi dictator, but they know that military action against Iraq would further destabilize the region at a time when Arab opinion is inflamed against Israel and America.
Implementing the Saudi plan would mean taking some difficult steps, including the removal of Israeli settlements and the creation of a contiguous Palestinian state. The issues of the Palestinians' right of return and the location of their capital in East Jerusalem must be faced. These aren't intractable once the principles of full withdrawal for full peace are agreed on. International monitors should be introduced into the region to implement and enforce a peace agreement--particularly on the Palestinian side, because Arafat's power to curb terrorist elements (and curb them he must) has been undermined by Israeli incursions as well as his own weakness. Once a just settlement has emerged, Washington should impose compliance, if necessary, by cutting off aid and support to the recalcitrant party.
Washington must bring to bear its immense power, in coordination with the good offices of the European Union and the UN, and work to resolve this conflict. Such an outcome would be the most effective measure yet in the so-called war on terrorism.