Thursday, August 30, 2007

ROGER COHEN: A Return to the Mother of Conflicts


The sources of global frustration with the Bush administration have been many and varied, but its refusal over several years to get serious about the Israel-Palestine conflict has ranked high. To dream some path led from Baghdad to Jerusalem was always upside-down foolishness.

So President George W. Bush’s discovery last month that “Iraq is not the only pivotal matter in the Middle East” was encouraging, as was his tacit relegation of the “road map” to nowhere. The Bush endgame, like Clinton’s, is going to see a push for a resolution of the mother of all conflicts.

R. Nicholas Burns, the under secretary of state for political affairs, told me a “supreme effort to help Israelis and Palestinians define a framework for Palestinian statehood” is to be made. “We don’t rule out Palestinian statehood, certainly not, within the term of this presidency,” he said.

The convocation of a conference in the United States in November ups the ante and demonstrates that the incremental has been supplanted by a thrust for the finish line.

Is this just a hopeless lunge for the history books from a lame-duck administration undone by Iraq? Bush, swagger stripped, is weak. Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, may be even weaker. The Palestinians are split, the region radicalized by Iran rising and Iraq fissuring.

But low expectations are a diplomat’s ally. It may seem foolish to speak of exhaustion in a conflict with such proven regenerative capacity. Yet that is what a senior U.S. official found recently in the region, alongside a conviction that “it’s time to change the Israeli-Arab equation.”

In fact, that equation has already changed. The Palestinian national movement and global jihadism are distinct, but to the extent the former has been permeated by the latter it has redoubled the determination of Palestinian pragmatists like President Mahmoud Abbas and his prime minister, Salam Fayyad, to deliver.

Regular Abbas-Olmert meetings of late are one sign of this. The Israelis like Fayyad, a manager and doer. Radicalizing currents are such that people see “this opportunity may not materialize again,” Burns argued.

Another shift involves Iran’s growing influence — in Shia-dominated Iraq, in Lebanon through Hezbollah and in Gaza through Hamas. The Shia crescent makes Sunni states jumpy. Israel is Iran’s enemy. The enemy of an enemy can be a friend.

“Most, if not all the Sunni countries, see Iran as disturbing, unhelpful and violent,” Burns told me. “It’s a hard question whether they now see Iran as more dangerous than Israel. But most of these states understand that Israel is not a threat to them while Iran might be.”

To coax Gulf countries to reach out to Israel — a Saudi presence with Israel at the November conference is a core U.S. strategic aim — the United States is readying a multibillion-dollar military aid package for them. It needs Congressional approval that will not come easily.

The package “says to the Iranians and Syrians that the United States is the major power in the Middle East and will continue to be and is not going away,” Burns said. It is designed to strengthen Sunni allies and bolster their conventional deterrence against Iran.

Unlike Clinton in 2000, who tried to coax Yasir Arafat to compromise and hoped Middle Eastern states would follow, Bush is trying to capitalize on Sunni unease to get the region to reinforce the Abbas-Fayyad peace push.

The other side of this approach is confrontation with Tehran. Burns argues there is no other strategic choice if Iran continues to enrich uranium and embrace terrorists.

The price, however, will be Iranian use of surrogates to attempt to sink in blood any Israeli-Palestinian progress. Why not quietly expand existing contacts with Iran in Baghdad to cover all issues?

A decisive political contest has begun. The United States must deliver by November or its conference will be a farce that only feeds the sophisticated Iranian propaganda machine.

Delivering means Saudis at the same table as Israelis: de facto, if not de jure, recognition. It means enough hammering on Israel’s “occupation” — Bush’s word — to enable Abbas-Fayyad to get the West Bank economy moving.

It means sufficient progress on territorial compromise and the principles governing the thorniest issues — Jerusalem and refugees — for Palestinians in Gaza to wonder if they are missing the statehood express.

The Bush administration, in its uncritical war-on-terror embrace of Israel, contributed to Palestinian hopelessness on which Hamas thrived. It can undo that damage only by ushering in hope.

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