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Window of Opportunity in the Middle East

By Dianne Feinstein, The San Francisco Chronicle, 02.01.05


The San Francisco Chronicle: Dianne Feinstein

It seems as if the stars are realigning in the Middle East, creating a new opportunity for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The United States -- with high-level attention from the president and secretary of state -- must seize this opportunity and, accompanied by European allies and moderate Arab nations, lay down a peace agreement and push both sides toward a final settlement.
 
I recently visited Israel as part of a bipartisan Senate delegation. We met with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom. Both emphasized that the Palestinian leadership must take steps to reduce terrorist attacks against Israel. When it comes to the country's security, the two leaders said Israel cannot and will not compromise.
 
Our delegation also met in Ramallah with the Palestinian leadership, including presidential candidate Mahmoud Abbas. In our conversation, Abbas offered us a picture of substantive change, including reform and transparency of the financial system, an overhaul of the legal system and a commitment to fulfill the terms and conditions of the "road map" toward peace.
 
At the same time, Abbas called on the Israelis to curb the increasing establishment of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, indicating how strongly the Palestinians feel about this. He also indicated that he would take steps to better coordinate the fragmented Palestinian security apparatus.
 
Despite these issues, we found a new hope for peace -- hope that has been missing during the past four years of conflict. For one thing, the Israeli pullout from the Gaza Strip offers a unique opportunity to restore Gaza to Palestinian control and see that there is a stable and economically upwardly mobile Palestinian community. Second, the change in Palestinian leadership -- with Abbas the likely winner of the election to be held Jan 9 -- offers a negotiating partner for Israel. Finally, the Labor Party's decision to join Likud in a coalition Israeli government provides more flexibility for movement toward a lasting peace.
 
For many years, I have hoped that the parties would resolve the dispute themselves. But as I've watched the hate increase, I now believe that if the United States does not take a leadership role, continuing instead to allow the situation to stagnate, the crisis will only escalate, hope will become more remote and despair and hatred will grow. A solution is imperative. Further instability in the Middle East could well lead to
catastrophe.
 
It is also imperative that Jordan and Egypt play leadership roles in the peace process. Egypt has already been very helpful in preventing the spread of arms to the Gaza Strip. And no solution will be possible without strong support from the leadership of moderate Arab states.
 
We know what the outlines of a final settlement look like. The negotiations at Taba and the peace plan put together by private Israeli and Palestinian citizens -- known as the Geneva Accord -- can form the basis for moving forward. Only a two-state solution -- with viable Israeli and Palestinian states co-existing -- will solve this conflict.
 
Already, you can see the political terrain shifting. In just the past weeks: Israel and Egypt conducted an exchange of prisoners; Syria is seeking to reopen negotiations with Israel over the Golan Heights; Abbas ordered an end to anti-Israel incitement in controlled news media; and Sharon said he would make every effort to coordinate the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip with the Palestinian leadership.
But unless the peace process becomes a top priority of our government, this momentum could fade, and we could see a renewal of the cycle of violence that has plagued the region for four years. We must rally world support for a return to the negotiating table so that an end to this devastating conflict can be found.
 
Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein (feinstein.senate.gov) has represented
California in the U.S. Senate since 1993