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WILLIAM S. COHEN

Time to spark the Mideast peace process

IN SEPTEMBER, Israel completed its Gaza withdrawal with remarkably little conflict, confounding pundits who had predicted violence between Israeli settlers and soldiers and demonstrating the resiliency of Israel's democratic society. The ensuing weeks, however, have confounded those who hoped the withdrawal would reinvigorate Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and demonstrated the resiliency of the conflict between the two societies.

The inability of the Israelis and Palestinians to reenergize the negotiations underscores the need for high-level involvement by the United States. I applaud Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is currently in the region, for meeting with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. The Bush administration should use her visit to reenergize the peace process.

As the United States steps forward with a more active effort to facilitate progress between Israelis and Palestinians, it will gain the credibility needed to win the international support necessary to succeed in Iraq and combat Islamic terrorist networks.

Arab and other Muslim countries, whose cooperation we need to fight terrorist networks, face significant pressures from elites and masses who distrust American motives and whose barometer of American intentions toward the Muslim world is disproportionately a function of their perceptions of our actions with regard to Palestinians.

Key European governments have entered a period of increasing internal focus, which will erode their ability to tangibly support US policies on Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, and terrorism. Demonstrating US leadership in the Israeli-Palestinian dialogue would help to persuade these governments that US leadership merits their support.

Many Americans understand the national security importance of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Thousands have joined the Campaign for American Leadership in the Middle East to sign an open letter to President Bush, encouraging him to play a leading role in working toward peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.

A two-state solution, as Bush has called for, requires two viable states. Palestinian security, social, and political structures will emerge. But will they be organized around a Palestinian Authority that seeks a negotiated resolution to the conflict and an end to terror or around terrorist groups like Hamas intent on using Palestinian-controlled territory to wage war on Israel and on American interests? The answer is critical to Americans as we fight a long-term battle against terrorist networks that use Arab media coverage of the Palestinian conflict as an endless telethon for raising money and recruits.

The United States recently released a stunning letter from Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who argued that the battle for the hearts and minds of the Muslim world is taking place in the media. We need to recognize, as Zawahiri does, the importance that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has for Muslims around the world and how the conflict inhibits our ability to combat terrorist networks. Images of the debilitating effect on Palestinian civilians of the ongoing conflict with Israel generate sympathy for Al Qaeda's agenda among many Muslims torn by conflicting impulses. Al Qaeda's strategic interest will be advanced by continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. America's strategic interests will be harmed until the conflict is resolved.

Recognizing that America has a security, not just a humanitarian, stake in the issue, Bush proposed $200 million in direct assistance to the Palestinian Authority in fiscal year 2005, but Congress balked, cutting that amount by a quarter and directing that the money support Palestinians through intermediaries rather than through the nascent Palestinian state institutions that provide the only plausible alternative to the social and security structures of Hamas. Congress is poised to provide $150 million for fiscal year 2006 but again banning any direct assistance to the Palestinian Authority. While significant, the stark reality is that many billions of dollars of assistance are needed annually to make any serious progress in building viable Palestinian institutions and developing basic infrastructure.

As it prepares to finalize its next budget proposal, the Bush administration should demonstrate leadership by supporting a Palestinian assistance package that most effectively will promote US interests, including direct assistance to the Palestinian Authority with appropriate monitoring. Bush also should urge the Europeans, who have long pressed for a greater US role, to fulfill the commitments they have made to provide nearly a billion dollars in assistance to the Palestinian Authority. Finally, the president needs to remain personally engaged to ensure that concrete progress is made toward resolving this devastating conflict.

William S. Cohen, former secretary of defense, is chief executive officer of The Cohen Group in Washington.

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