Friday, September 29, 2006

Out of the Mouths of Aides

NYT Editorial

It has taken five and a half years, but at least some of President Bush’s aides have begun to acknowledge the patently obvious: There needs to be a serious effort to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Without one, the United States has no chance of salvaging its battered reputation in the Islamic world. No chance of rallying moderate Arab leaders to fight extremists or contain Iran. And no chance of ensuring Israel’s lasting security. We just hope that Mr. Bush will now make the long neglected peace effort a central priority for the remaining years of his presidency.

With Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice traveling to the region next week, Mr. Bush should give her an explicit mandate to press Israel, and not just the Palestinians, for real compromises. He should also give her the authority to talk to adversaries, and not just friends, about how to support the effort.

For years, Mr. Bush’s advisers have woven an entire mythology about how Middle East peace required tanks on the road to Baghdad, rather than diplomats on planes to Jerusalem, Ramallah and Damascus.

So it was surprising to hear one of Ms. Rice’s closest aides, Philip Zelikow, the State Department counselor, tell a think-tank audience that some sense of progress on the Arab-Israeli dispute is “just a sine qua non” for getting moderate Arabs and the Europeans to cooperate on Iran and the region’s many other dangerous problems. “We can rail against that belief. We can find it completely justifiable. But it’s fact,” Mr. Zelikow said.

We fear that Mr. Bush and his secretary of state haven’t yet caught up to that. As Ms. Rice prepared to leave, other aides said that the most she would do would be to rally support for the moderate Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, and to solicit ideas on how to revive peace talks.

Ms. Rice should use this trip to commit herself to negotiating a comprehensive cease-fire. She can start by telling the Israelis they need to immediately end targeted killings and halt all settlement construction. Ms. Rice needs to make clear to the Palestinians that while words are important, she is less concerned with rhetoric than the ability and willingness of any Palestinian government to halt, rather than abet, all attacks on Israel.

Washington is already encouraging Israel’s prime minister, Ehud Olmert, to meet with Mr. Abbas, for more symbolic support. Ms. Rice should instead tell all sides that President Bush’s goal is a full resumption of peace negotiations — and that he will commit the full resources of his presidency to the effort.

Ms. Rice should be willing to go to Damascus — or send a top aide — to tell President Bashar al-Assad that relations can improve if he restrains his clients Hamas and Hezbollah. The Europeans — who have been desperate for the United States to engage — should make the same trip to warn of real punishments should he refuse.

The lesson of this summer’s disastrous wars in Lebanon and Gaza is that the time for listening tours and tactical steps is far past. We hope that Mr. Zelikow’s bosses start paying attention.

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