New Hope for Mideast Peace

The chances for peace in the Middle East have never looked worse—or better. Worse because of the sharp escalation of violence between Israel and the Palestinians. Better because all the other forces in the region are aligning behind the peace process.

September 11 has broken the process wide open. In the war triggered by the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon—unlike the Persian Gulf War—the United States, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority are on the same side. All three are threatened by Islamic fundamentalism. In the middle of the war in Afghanistan, the world is facing an extraordinary opportunity for peace. And the Bush Administration is being forced, almost against its will, to respond.

A year ago, the peace process looked hopeless. President Clinton helped bring Israel and the Palestinians to the brink of a deal. Then it fell apart. President Bush was not eager to repeat that experience, so for eight months, he stood back from the peace process and let the Israelis and the Palestinians take—or fail to take—the initiative.

Since September 11, however, the United States has been under pressure to resolve the conflict and remove a major problem for itself in the Arab world. America's principal ally in the war on terrorism, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, has argued forcefully for greater U.S. involvement in the Middle East peace process. Last month, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister publicly complained that Bush's failure to commit to the peace process "makes a sane man go mad."

When Bush addressed the U.N. General Assembly on November 10, one word had the diplomatic world buzzing. The President said: "We are working toward the day when two states—Israel and Palestine—live peacefully together within secure and recognized borders." The crucial word was "Palestine." Arabs use that term. "I would like to express my deepest appreciation for what President George Bush declared in his speech yesterday," Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat said.

But Bush said something else in his U.N. speech that Arafat may not have appreciated: "There is no such thing as a good terrorist." Bush's statement repudiated efforts in the U.N. to condemn "bad terrorism" by groups such as Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network while making exceptions for groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, which some see as "good terrorists" fighting for the liberation of Palestine.

The formula for a Mideast peace deal is no mystery. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell restated it on November 19 in signaling U.S. re-engagement in the peace process. "A framework for a solution exists," he said. "It is ... rooted in the concept of land for peace."

The hang-up is over how to proceed. Israel insists on a precondition set in June with U.S. approval: seven days with no Palestinian violence. Since June, however, there have hardly been seven hours without violence. Any Palestinian with a gun or a rock knows he has the power to thwart the whole peace process.

In his speech, Powell tried to strike a balance. He did not reiterate the seven-day test, nor did he reject it. All he said was: "Get that cease-fire in place, and other things can start to happen." It's the usual problem in this process—not the destination but how to get there.

Palestinians complain that the United States is hypocritical. America proclaims war on terrorism, Arafat says, but it does little to "protect our people from the occupation, terror, and ethnic cleansing practiced by Israel."

Supporters of Israel also complain that the United States is hypocritical. It proclaims war on terrorism, they say, but it criticizes Israel for pursuing Palestinian terrorists. "We're telling the Israelis to do as we say and not as we do," protests Rep. Gary L. Ackerman, D-N.Y.

But Israel's leaders understand that it is in their nation's larger interest for the United States to win the war on terrorism, even if that means the Israelis have to restrain themselves. As Zalman Shoval, a foreign-policy adviser to the Israeli government, noted: "Prime Minister [Ariel] Sharon has said helping the United States in this war against terrorism is our first priority, because we are all in it together. If there is no victory, we shall also lose."

What's happening is a big change in the constellation of forces in the Mideast. The Russians seem fully prepared to accept U.S. leadership—a situation that has not been true for 50 years. The Europeans, led by Blair, are trying to speak with one voice and play a constructive role.

Most remarkably, Arab countries are hinting that they may be willing to make unprecedented offers: to perhaps recognize Israel and offer security guarantees in return for a Palestinian state and Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. That is because Arab public opinion has suddenly become a force, newly created by the rise of Arabic-language satellite television. Arab regimes must do something to defuse outrage in "the Arab street."

Israelis seem fully aware that something important may be happening. "I think the ground is prepared for a settlement," Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said this month. "The crisis today is very deep, but the solution is rather close."

Ironically, something terrible had to happen to put the Middle East peace process back in motion. It did on September 11.