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Archive for September, 2006

[Originally published in The Valley News.]

Given President Bush’s total lack of viable options in Iraq, it seems likely that history will judge him harshly for his foreign policy of pre-emptive unilateralism. This failure, combined with the continuing instability in Afghanistan and a world that regards his policies with scorn, must be deeply troubling for a president who reportedly is concerned about his “legacy.”

However, there remains one move that Bush could make that has the potential for counterbalancing the disaster in Iraq, not to mention his administration’s other failures. Bush could pull out all the stops in facilitating peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. If he is prepared to really use American power and influence, he could make it work. Of course, he would have to overcome two major problems: the vow of some Palestinians and Arabs to push the Israelis into the sea, and the current Israeli government’s clear desire to keep and perhaps even ultimately increase settlements on the West Bank.

American and Israeli national interests have a great deal in common, starting with the continued viability of the state of Israel. However, they are not always identical. Our interests regarding the West Bank settlements definitely don’t converge. We cannot support Israel’s plans to defy virtually the rest of the world by clinging to its settlements in the West Bank.

Over the years, a majority of Israelis have indicated they have no desire to keep or expand those settlements, preferring to trade them for peace. Polls of Israelis consistently show that a solid majority would not take part in any protest activity against evacuating the settlements if it brought the country peace. Even among those who describe themselves as right-wingers, healthy majorities have voiced this opinion.

This notion that the two states of Palestine and Israel can live peacefully side by side has been out there since 1967. It has from time to time been an attainable goal. The problem is that during those 39 years, no U.S. president has been prepared to spend the U.S. and international political capital required to tell both sides what they would have to do to reach such a peace.

The critical issue here is whether or not America has been so damaged by its foreign policy of pre-emptive unilateralism that it no longer has the standing and influence required to broker a Middle East peace. The big issue is the settlements.  Without an end to those settlements, there will be no peace.

Only America has the influence with Israel that might persuade it to trade the settlements for peace. Despite broad support for this policy in Israel, any U.S. president who pursues this course of action invites the wrath of the Israel lobby and other Americans who unquestioningly and unstintingly support Israeli settlement policy. Only a lame duck president could undertake this task with any hope of success.

Things in the Middle East have gotten so bad that something positive might be accomplished. In fact, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has recently made a peace overture toward the Palestinians, declaring a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip and promising to release frozen funds to the Palestinian Authority, free Palestinian prisoners and ease checkpoints if Palestinians choose the path of peace. About the same time, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has had meetings with Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas. Things seem to be stirring out there.

he Israelis are smarting from a defeat suffered at the hands of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which Israelis regard as nothing more than a terrorist group. The Olmert government might be persuaded that in the 60 years of Israel’s existence, military force has never brought peace or security. For their part, the Palestinians are desperate. It’s all well and good that Hezbollah beat up on the Israelis in Lebanon, but life is miserable in Gaza and the West Bank. Palestinians are bombed, shelled and daily humiliated by Israel. The situation is now so bad that, according to current polls, two thirds to three quarters of Palestinians and Israelis would like to have negotiations.

Add to this mix a U.S. president who is desperate to salvage his reputation. If Bush were to become involved in an attempt to solve the Israel-Palestine problem, the prospects for this much delayed, desperately needed peace might be a bit brighter. If he could muster and use the necessary, and probably still available political capital, he might solve this decades-old dilemma. That would be an accomplishment for which he — or anyone on this planet — could be proud, the kind of success that could earn him a Nobel Prize and which could completely overshadow his failures in Iraq. Considering that longstanding grievances against Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands are a major motive in radical Muslim terrorism, it might even bring a diminution of many of our problems with that plague.

Haviland Smith retired as a CIA station chief in 1980. He served in East and West Europe and the Middle East and as chief of the counterterrorism staff. He lives in Williston, Vt.

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