George W. Bush has one last chance to leave behind a great legacy in the Middle East, and I want to help him. He has a year and a half left to support and encourage agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority and to midwife and recognize the state of Palestine.
Call this a kooky lefty dream, but it is one shared by such lefties as Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, Israel President Shimon Peres, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and, of course, George W. Bush.
“I think that’s the goal they’re shooting for,” an Israeli diplomat told me by phone last week. Olmert has said twice in the past few weeks that we want to see a Palestinian state in “as short a time as possible.”
An international meeting has been set for November for final status peace agreements between the Israelis and Palestinians. Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt have agreed to support the talks, which the diplomat said might take place in the United States.
Two weeks ago, Olmert took the unprecedented and symbolic step of meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Jericho to discuss fundamental issues in preparation for the November meeting. The Forward newspaper has reported that there is now a “frenzy of diplomatic activity aimed at reaching initial understandings before the conference convenes.”
Now, I know what you’re thinking. Why is this night different from all other nights?
Middle East summits past have demonstrated nothing but the wisdom of despair. They raise and dash expectations as surely and as quickly as, say, the networks’ fall lineup. But this fall may be different, and the difference can be explained in one four-letter word: Iran.
Iran is on its way to becoming a hegemonic power in the Middle East, something that Israelis and their Sunni Arab neighbors strongly oppose. By defeating the Iranian regime’s two biggest foes — the Taliban and Iraq — America has greatly strengthened Iran’s power.
Israel’s war in Lebanon last summer against the Iran-backed Hezbollah and the Iran-backed Hamas victory in the Gaza elections have combined to make the specter of waxing Shiite power a common cause among the Jewish state and her Arab neighbors. Who would have thought: The enemy of my enemy is a Jewish state.
There are other reasons for optimism. The rise of Hamas in Gaza has made Israel aware that the time to support Palestinian moderates like Abbas and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is now.
Olmert and Bush and Livni and Rice share close relationships. Olmert stood up for the president long after the American public turned against him.
On the Palestinian side, there are two decent leaders in Abbas and Fayyad. The latter is a man with a reputation for honesty and incorruptibility.
Abbas himself has seen one possible future — Hamastan — and chosen to resist it.
“Hamas scarred Abbas,” Dr. Ziad Asali told me. “He found the testosterone he was accused of lacking.”
Asali, a Washington, D.C.-based endocrinologist, was in Los Angeles representing the American Task Force for Palestine, of which he is chairman. The scion of an old Jerusalem family, he has close ties to Palestinian leadership.
He made it clear that mainstream Palestinian thinking can be summed up in two words: security and dignity. The elements of such an agreement, which would bring physical and economic security to the Palestinians and dignity to their cause, are well known to all parties and hardly elusive.
“The Palestinians are psychologically ready to make this deal with Israel,” he told me. “If the U.S., Israel and the moderate Arab states get involved, it will be very hard for rejectionists to win this thing.”
What about Gaza? How can Israel even think of making peace when rockets are raining down on its citizens from Gaza?
The Israeli diplomat said the key is a “West Bank first” approach that retains some settlement blocs in exchange for other land, and that will produce an agreement that can only strengthen moderate forces. Asali said such an agreement would be a blow to Hamas.
“If Hamas doesn’t want it, they can fight it in elections. Let the Gazan people see what’s happening in the rest of the Palestinian state and let them choose.”
The key, in short, is to build a bipartisan, interdenominational coalition of nonfanatics. But Bush can and must lead the way. “I don’t think the Palestinians and the Israelis will get out of this mess on their own,” Asali said.
No one can say with a straight face that an agreement will automatically bring Israel peace and harmony and acceptance, but it will lift a major roadblock along the path. Bush may believe that eventual progress in Iraq will one day vindicate his decision to go to war there, but he must know that presiding over the international agreements that birth a state of Palestine will be an instant, enduring and irreplaceable legacy.
I want to help him. And considering the firestorm of opposition he will face from some Jews and Christians here and abroad and in his own circle, you should, too.