U.S. Must Lead for Middle East Progress

By Mara Rudman and Brian Katulis
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, May 28, 2007 11:26 PM

With the one year anniversaries of the kidnappings of Israeli soldiers by Palestinian Hamas and Lebanese Hezbollah fast approaching, rumblings of another major conflict in the Middle East are in the air. Palestinians in Gaza are caught in the daily crossfire of fierce fights among Palestinian militant factions, tentative cease-fires are made and broken, and Qassam rockets are firing from that chaos into southern Israel. Many worry that extremists are working towards a repeat of last summer's conflicts.

Human instinct usually is to run quickly in the opposite direction of violence, but doing so is not a realistic option for the United States. In fact, we make Americans safer by improving U.S., Israeli and regional security and America's global standing. Simply put, it is in America's interest to pursue sustainable peace agreements between Israel and the Arab world, and most immediately, to work intensively to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The bipartisan Iraq Study Group (ISG), led by James Baker and Lee Hamilton had it right. Though focused on Iraq's many problems, the ISG wisely recognized that a serious effort to better manage and resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict is among several critical ingredients for a robust diplomatic offensive that would be required to help stabilize the region and move U.S. combat troops out of Iraq by next year.

Why and how?

Key actors in the region view the United States more positively when it is addressing the Arab-Israeli conflict: the Palestinian issue to be sure, but also the Syrian-Lebanese tracks. Pragmatic leaders in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf States recognize the need to ally with the United States to push back the threat that Iran poses, notwithstanding the Palestinians. They similarly appreciate the need to help the United States find a way to stabilize Iraq; the Iraqi refugees flooding Jordan and Syria bring that point home. But these countries will find far greater support on their home fronts ¿ and greater internal security ¿ if the United States is actively pursuing resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

As the Bush Administration works to develop its strategy for the Middle East by forging bonds to fortify a common front against Iran and deal with Iraq, logic dictates an effort to engage Syria directly to offer a choice of paths. The United States must regain the confidence to talk with its toughest enemies and adversaries especially when doing so directly serves U.S. national security interests.

The most immediate regional battleground outside of Iraq, literally and figuratively, is between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. The situation on the ground in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, rarely improves in a vacuum of diplomatic activity. Neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian leaderships are operating from a strong domestic base. In such a context, near-term politics can often over-ride long-term national interests. The United States can help make the difference in this equation, aided by regional and other actors, by laying out a political horizon, a path for getting there, and committing itself to be a reliable participant in the process.

The renewal of the Arab Initiative, which offers Israel normalization of relations with the Arab world in exchange for a Palestinian state, a return to the 1967 lines and a resolution to the refugee problem, can start the conversation. Welcome, too, is the planned visit by Arab League members to Israel for further discussion on the Initiative, a historic event that deserves U.S. support.

Unaligned pragmatists within the Palestinian government, such as Finance Minister Salam Fayyad, have worked hard to rebuild the Palestinian economy and infrastructure. The United States recently approved the channeling of European Union and other funds to a separate Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) account, under Fayyad's monitoring. It needs to step up these efforts and look to build and strengthen practical voices and approaches on the ground, showing tangible results to the Palestinian people; this is as important as setting out a political horizon. Ultimately, this will start laying the foundation for a safer and more stable Palestinian state that can offer opportunity and hope to its people, and act as a neighbor that strengthens Israel's standing and security.

For the United States to stand strong and true to its values, it must take up the Saudis' constructive challenge with regards to the Arab Initiative, Jordan's King Abdullah's call for stepped up U.S. engagement in his joint address to the Congress, and the steady Egyptian efforts to reach a lasting ceasefire among rival militant factions in Gaza. The United States can and must lead in efforts to advance Middle East Progress. It is, in fact, a diplomatic surge, not a military one, that may actually make Americans and the world safer.

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Mara Rudman and Brian Katulis are both Senior Fellows at the Center for American Progress and advisors to Middle East Progress

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