U.S. should rethink its hands-off role in Mideast

September 19, 2004

Things are going so badly in Iraq for the United States that the other major issue in the region - the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - has been put on the back burner. It shouldn't be left there.

The Bush administration has taken a significantly different approach to the situation there, keeping a lower profile than any administration in recent memory. Instead of being an active participant in trying to bring the parties together, this administration has taken a more hands-off approach and has often sided with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

In some ways, this made perfect sense. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has proven such a disappointment that there has been little hope of moving the peace process forward as long as he is in charge.

But there has been a major development in recent months that will eventually call for a major United States role in the region again. That is Sharon's plan to disengage Israel from the Gaza Strip and even remove a few West Bank settlements. It reflects a change in outlook by one of Israel's most hawkish leaders, but one that his own Likud Party does not embrace.

If the disengagement process is to lead to a revival of the peace process - that is, a move toward a two-state solution - it will take the active participation of the United States to make that happen. The alternative is a continuing spiral into violence, hatred and war. That's not in the interest of the United States, nor of Israel, nor of the Palestinians.

For Gaza disengagement to lead to anything positive, it must be viewed as a first step toward disengagement from most of the territory Israel occupied in the 1967 War. Not all. But it will also be essential for the Palestinians to demonstrate that they can govern the Gaza by themselves, without turning the territory into a haven for terrorists against Israel. If the area harbors terrorism, Israel will regularly counterattack in the harshest possible manner. That will only lead to more bloodshed.

The result of almost four years now of terrorism and violence against Israeli citizens and Israeli counterattacks has been an almost complete breakdown of trust between Israelis and Palestinians. They cannot rebuild any trust by themselves. This is where Washington must come in.

Unfortunately, merely listening to campaign rhetoric won't help U.S. voters judge which presidential candidate will step up to this dilemma. That is almost always true in American elections, where the candidates, both Democrat and Republican, make all types of statements about protecting Israeli security in order to woo the Jewish vote.

The situation in Israel is precarious. The fanatics of the settler population threaten violence against Sharon, and his own party will not support his proposal, although a majority of Israelis do. It's not clear whether Sharon can form a new coalition or will call elections first. He is challenged on the right by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This could lead to a fundamental shake-up of Israeli politics.

Whatever happens in Israel, it will be an issue for the next president from Day 1 of his new administration.

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