What Bush can and should do

As readers of this column know by now, writing “Dear. . . . .” columns to prominent leaders is not my style. But today in the Israeli-Palestinian sphere so much rides on the determination and commitment of United States President George W. Bush, that I simply cannot find a better mode of addressing the issues:

Dear President Bush,

Now that you have made a strong commitment to the cause of bringing about a viable two state solution for Israel and Palestine, you should be aware that there are no half-way solutions here. Either commit fully and bear the accompanying risks, or “get out of the kitchen.” And since we saw in Afghanistan and Iraq that you can indeed take the heat of President Truman’s proverbial kitchen, we know you can do the difficult things that have to be done here.

The first, most important, and most doable task is to upgrade the rank of day-to-day supervision of the two sides’ reluctant execution of your roadmap to peace. Either keep Secretary Powell or National Security Adviser Rice here on a semi-permanent basis, following in the successful footsteps of Kissinger in 1974 and Baker in 1991, or appoint your own personal emissary and give him/her equivalent rank. So many of the current daily spats, misunderstandings and minor revolts that characterize the parties’ difficulties in adjusting to the roadmap could be resolved if there were someone on hand, all the time, who speaks with your voice. In Washington they’re whispering that you’re afraid to make this commitment lest it amplify the ramifications of a failure in the Middle East. I think you have no choice: if you don’t upgrade, failure is virtually guaranteed. And with US forces already losing a soldier a day in Iraq and your rationale for being there called into question, you simply cannot afford to contemplate two failures, linked to one another.

Secondly, while your three partners in the Quartet have been obstructionist regarding Iraq and appear to have used up their usefulness in the Israeli-Palestinian arena–don’t dump them. For one, if you succeed here, the Europeans will have to foot a huge new aid bill. Then too, you never know when they might be helpful, especially in dealing with Arafat, who will not fade into the woodwork no matter how morally justified your attitude toward him.

On the other hand, you would be well-advised to resist the European and Arab requests to somehow write Syria and Lebanon into the immediate roadmap process. We have learned over the past ten years that a two-track process does not improve our chances to make peace with either Syria or the Palestinians. Besides, Syrian leader Bashar Asad is not a mature candidate for peace, and Syria may yet require your military, rather than diplomatic, attention. Next time Bashar asks, tell him that your litmus test for Syrian readiness to deal with Israel is Syrian-Israeli face-to-face high level negotiations, with handshakes, the way real leaders deal with one another, even here. No more American messenger service.

But beyond the terrorism issue, we Israelis and Palestinians have a fearsome quarrel over land. If you are going to “ride herd” and help us solve it, you will have to be tough–unpleasantly tough–not only on Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, regarding violence and the monopoly of force, but on Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as well. Your monitors are going to have to dismount from their humvees and get some dust on their shoes, checking up on Palestinian weapons and money but also on Israeli settlements. Here the roadmap language–dismantling all outposts, freezing settlement expansion–gets you off to a good start, on paper. But in the field Sharon, the choreographer of the entire settlement deployment, will run rings around your dozen or so monitors. You need at least five times as many.

And you need to look Sharon and his followers, here and in America (where, I know, they are your followers too, and elections are not far away), in the eye and tell them that they are in danger of destroying any hope of a two-state solution and of turning Israel into an apartheid state, and that the only way to prevent this is to roll back a significant part of the settlement enterprise, whatever the cost–and not just as a “reward” for Palestinian good behavior. If you don’t, not only do your roadmap and your vision fail, but by the end of your second term you, too, will be blamed for exacerbating this conflict and poisoning the Middle East, because the conflict was “south africanized” on your watch.

Finally, Mr. President, in your spiritual sense of mission to make peace in the Middle East you may have more in common with Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton than you would like to admit. They too began their terms by not understanding, or not wishing to deal with, our conflict. They made plenty of mistakes. But they also registered some progress–and progress here has proven to be a net strategic asset for the US.

I think you can surpass their achievements. Your war against terror and the conquest of Iraq have already vastly improved Israel’s strategic security. The Israeli-Palestinian challenge is even tougher. Just don’t do it by halfway measures.

Yossi Alpher is the author of the forthcoming book “And the Wolf Shall Dwell with the Wolf: The Settlers and the Palestinians.”

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