&#91OUTLOOK&#93Peace in the Middle East at hand

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[OUTLOOK]Peace in the Middle East at hand

The history of the Middle East “peace process” is the history of false starts and broken hopes. But now that the Iraq war has been fought and won, a bit of optimism is in order for a change. Let’s look at the good news.
First, on the Israeli side. For Jerusalem, the defeat of the Saddam regime has brought a definite increase in security. The strategic gain is obvious. What Israelis call the “Eastern threat” ― an implacably hostile Iraq heavily armed with conventional and nonconventional weapons ― has virtually disappeared. Israel’s longest and most vulnerable border with Jordan has now become a good deal safer because an Iraqi attack through the Hashemite kingdom is no longer a realistic scenario.
But there may also be a more significant tactical gain in Israel’s war against terrorism. For there is no longer a Saddam who armed and paid terrorist groups in the West Bank and in Gaza. A second fruit of the Iraq war may ripen in Syria. Damascus hosts a number of rejectionist Palestinian groups and has allowed Iranian arms to pass from Tehran to the Hezbollah, a Shiite force that has routinely attacked Northern Israel from its bases in South Lebanon. Syria has been put on notice by the United States that its support for terror groups must stop, and it looks as if the Assad regime might begin to comply.
These strategic and tactical changes on the ground may have important political consequences. Washington can now credibly tell its Israeli ally that victory in Iraq has strongly changed the security equation in favor of Israel; hence Jerusalem should now be ready to take greater risks in the search for peace with the Palestinians.
On the Palestinian side, there is also cause for a bit more optimism. The reason is two-fold. One, Yasser Arafat is not out, but he is down. He looks ever more irrelevant, and that means that power is slipping from the hands of a man who has always manipulated the military, that is, the terrorist option against Israel. Indeed, the terrorist Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade is part of Fatah, the movement Mr. Arafat founded in 1964.
The second reason is new Palestinian prime minister. Abu Mazen, installed against Arafat’s fierce opposition, has cautiously begun to signal to his people that terrorism has not brought them any closer to a Palestinian state. Quite to the contrary, the more bloody Palestinian violence against civilians, the more hardened become Israeli attitudes. In fact, terrorist campaigns timed for the Israeli elections, twice bombed hard-liners into power: first Binya-min Netanyahu in 1997, then Ariel Sharon in 2001. Now, events seem to be turning in more benign directions.
Look at Mr. Sharon. Having refused to meet with Mr. Arafat for two years, Mr. Sharon announced that he is looking forward to an early personal encounter with Abu Mazen. In parallel, the Sharon government has promised to dismantle illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Third, Israel is again remitting tax and customs receipts to the Palestinian Au-thority, payments it started withholding when the Intifa-dah, the armed uprising, began more than two years ago. This strengthens the personal autho-rity of the new Palestinian prime minister, while providing some relief for the foundering Palestinian economy.
To sum up the good news: Israel today is more secure than it was before the Iraq war, and thus, Ariel Sharon’s argument that he cannot negotiate under threat is beginning to ring hollow. On the other side, the Palestinians, sobered by the fall of Saddam, seem more ready to go for a political solution than in the days of Mr. Arafat’s unquestioned power. Let’s not forget that it was Mr. Arafat who rejected Israel’s Camp David offer in 2000, the most generous settlement ever exten-ded by an Israeli government, because he hoped that violence would get him an even better deal.
What about the United States? If any outsider can help along the peace process, it is not the European Union, the UN or Russia. All of them simply lack weight and none of them has much credibility in Jerusalem. Only Washington has both, and with victory in Iraq in its pocket, the Bush administration is now ideally positioned to exert power on all sides: Israel, the Palestinians and the Arabs.
America has now gained “much face” in the Middle East, to use an Asian expression, and that has vastly increased its influence all round. What should be the main agenda? A critical variable is Palestinian terrorism. If it subsides or even stops, Israel can no longer refuse to negotiate by pointing to the mortal threat of suicide bombers. Another critical step would be Israel’s willingness to stop and reverse the settlement of West Bank and Gaza, for settlements are the most painful symbol of enduring occupation and Palestinian statelessness.
Stop terrorism and occupation and the vicious cycle will turn into a virtuous cycle leading to a Palestinian state. This is the good news in the aftermath of the Iraq war.
The bad news? Whenever the tender shoots of peace grow out of the Middle East’s bloody soil, terror strikes. Terror, alas, has veto power over the process and is more mighty than the victorious army of the United States.

* The writer is the editor of Die Zeit, the German weekly, and an associate at the Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard University.


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