WASHINGTON, Jan 22 (IPS) - As U.S. President George W. Bush puts the final touches on his State of the Union Address, an unusually broad group of Middle East specialists here is hoping that he will make his proposed two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a centrepiece of both his speech and his last two years in office.
Despite the political weakness of both Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the group, the Campaign for American Leadership in the Middle East (CALME), believes that the current moment offers a major opportunity for a breakthrough in the 60-year-old conflict, so long as Bush is prepared to become far more deeply involved in the effort than he has in the past.
The group includes a large number of regional and national security specialists, including most of the members of the 10-person bipartisan Iraq Study Group (ISG), such as its co-chair, former Rep. Lee Hamilton and former Republican Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, as well as a number of other cabinet members of both Republican and Democratic administrations.
“Momentum is building,” said CALME chairman William Cohen, who just returned from a trip to Saudi Arabia and Egypt — which have also been calling with growing urgency for Bush to commit himself to a peace settlement. “We must seize this opening.”
Promising signs, according to Cohen, who served as a prominent Republican senator for almost 20 years before becoming former President Bill Clinton’s secretary of defence in 1997, included last week’s announcement by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that she will host an informal summit between Abbas and Olmert next month and the release to Abbas of 100 million dollars in tax revenues that Israel had withheld from the Palestinian Authority (PA) after Hamas won last year’s parliamentary elections.
In addition, an international consensus in favour of pursuing a final settlement to the conflict, rather than going through a more lengthy transitional process as prescribed by the 2003 “Road Map” appears to be growing, particularly in Europe and among both Israeli and Arab leaders.
“Circumstances have changed since the Road Map was launched, and the sort of long drawn-out phase approach I don’t think really works anymore,” Jordan’s King Abdullah II told an Israeli newspaper last week. “So, we’re looking at combining phases, I think, to move people as quickly as possible.”
A breakthrough on the Israeli-Palestinian front, according to most Middle East experts here, has become increasingly important to reversing Washington’s declining fortunes in the region resulting from the fast-deteriorating situation in Iraq and the perception that Iran and its allies — Syria, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and Hamas — are ascendant and have become the major threat to U.S. interests there.
Since last summer’s war between Israel and Hezbollah, Washington has tried to forge a de facto alliance between Israel and the leaders of “moderate” Sunni-led states, such as Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, to counter Iranian influence.
But the latter have stressed that, given the growth in radical and anti-U.S. sentiment among their populations, particularly since the invasion of Iraq, only real, tangible progress toward reaching a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians will make it possible for them to fully cooperate.
“The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the prism through which the Arab and Muslim world views the United States,” said CALME co-chair George Salem, who also serves as chairman of the Arab American Institute here.
“It is in our national interest to push the parties toward agreement on a two-state permanent status agreement as soon as possible,” he noted. “This will strengthen the moderates in the region who are working toward a more stable Middle East.”
“We’re thinking that the timing is right for a two-state solution now,” said Joel Tauber, the second co-chair and a trustee of the United Jewish Committees. “If the president will make the effort, this is a good time, but American leadership is absolutely necessary to make this happen.”
This was also the message Cohen brought back from his recent trip. “Virtually every official with whom I met on this trip and previous ones emphasized the urgency of the U.S. becoming re-engaged in efforts to reach a comprehensive settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.”
The Saudi government, which in 2002 persuaded the Arab League to endorse a peace proposal that offered full normalisation of ties with Israel in exchange for its return to its 1967 borders, has become increasingly outspoken on the question as Washington has pressed them to cooperate with U.S. policies in Iraq and Iran.
“Should the Palestinian issue be resolved equitably, there is nothing to hold us back from entering any relationship with the state of Israel,” Riyadh’s outgoing ambassador, Prince Turki al-Faisal, told a gathering of the New America Foundation here last week. “(But) the Israelis have to rectify that situation before we can go forward.”
After becoming president, Bush rejected appeals to become deeply involved in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations as Clinton had done. At the height of the violence during the second Intifada in June 2002, however, he became the first president to formally endorse the creation of a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel, the so-called “two-state solution.”
While that vision was well received both in the region and internationally, Bush has resisted calls for him to become actively engaged in bringing it to fruition. In doing so, he has followed the advice of neo-conservatives associated with Israel’s right-wing Likud Party and the Christian Right, including many of the same figures who championed the Iraq war.
Some observers here believe that Bush may now be more inclined to become engaged both for the strategic purpose of lining up Sunni Arab states against the alleged Iranian threat and to help redeem his place in history, which is now likely to be dominated by what appears to be a debacle in Iraq.
“I can’t think of any action that would be more important to his legacy,” said former House Republican Whip Jennifer Dunn, another CALME associate.
Others who have joined CALME’s appeal for Bush to make an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement a major focus of his remaining time in office include former secretaries of state Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright; former defence secretary William Perry; the chief U.S. negotiator under Clinton and George H. W. Bush, Dennis Ross; several former U.S. ambassadors to Israel, including William Harrop, Samuel Lewis, and Martin Indyk (currently head of the Saban Centre for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution), and Ned Walker; and former UN ambassadors Thomas Pickering and John Danforth.
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