The Arab-Israeli conflict has bedeviled every U.S. president for more than a half-century. President George W. Bush now has an opportunity to bring it to an end. This is in the interests of Israel, the Palestinians, and everyone in the Middle East who prefers peace to war. From the perspective of the United States, it has become a strategic imperative.
“Life isn’t fair,” President John Kennedy said. Bush might say the same: The job now falls to him to do all in the power of the United States to resolve one of the modern age’s most emotional and long-standing conflicts.
It was not always thus. After President Anwar Sadat took Egypt out of the Arab-Israeli conflict, this key Cold War flashpoint was reduced to a troubling nuisance for U.S. administrations. American presidents acted as peacemakers from time to time, but they were not compelled to do so by U.S. strategic requirements.
Then came 9/11 and the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Like it or not, since then America has found that it again has a strategic need to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. The demands placed on the United States were underscored by the recent fighting in Lebanon -- Israel’s first failure in war to achieve its political objectives, compounded by what seemed worldwide to be the inexplicable unwillingness of America to call a timely halt to the combat.
From the American perspective, three things are clear:
Whatever Israel does with American money, weapons and backing is chalked up to the U.S. account throughout the Middle East.
U.S. standing among Arabs and Muslims -- friend and foe alike -- took a further drubbing with the recent war in Lebanon.
America’s overall position in the region and its strategic interests -- now beset from the Mediterranean Sea to the Hindu Kush -- would be immensely improved if Israel and Palestine could achieve peace as two sovereign, secure and independent states.
To make peace, America needs to demonstrate to all that it will not compromise Israel’s security and survival. Arab states, for their part, must force a sea change in attitudes toward a peace that secures basic Palestinian rights.
The way forward is no mystery. After years of negotiations, the cardinal points of a settlement have become clear to virtually everyone who has ever been an Arab-Israeli peace negotiator. Polling shows that these points are endorsed by the vast majority of Israelis and Palestinians.
Worked out in the last days of the Clinton presidency, the basic ideas could be sketched on the back of an envelope: withdrawal of Israel to the pre-1967 borders, with agreed land swaps with Palestine that would incorporate in Israel most of the West Bank settlers; Jerusalem as capital of two countries and the holy places governed by common consent of religious leaders; compensation but not return for Palestinian refugees from the 1947-48 war; and a demilitarized Palestine with security guaranteed by a NATO-led force.
For four decades, Arab-Israeli negotiations have consisted of taking one step at a time, in the hope that each small success would provide the basis for the next. But that process has also worked to the advantage of extremists who can destroy diplomacy with even small acts of violence. The time has come instead to define the end state and work unceasingly toward it as a single, coherent and comprehensive goal -- a product, not a process.
The United States should drive to that end, not episodically but with complete commitment, up to and including Bush. America needs to work most closely with Israel but also with the Palestinians -- all Palestinians -- and others.
Such a commitment would confound the enemies of peace. It would split extremists from moderates and erode popular support for the rejectionist camp. It would deprive terrorists everywhere of a recruiting tool. And it would regain for the United States the political and moral high ground.
Robert E. Hunter is a senior adviser at the Rand Corporation, a nonprofit research organization. He was U.S. ambassador to NATO, 1993-1998.
This commentary originally appeared in International Herald Tribune on August 30, 2006.