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Outside View: The whole Middle East enchilada

By HARLAN ULLMAN, UPI Outside View Commentator   |   Aug. 5, 2009 at 9:00 AM
WASHINGTON, Aug. 5 (UPI) -- The visits last week to the Middle East by national security adviser James L. Jones and special envoy George Mitchell raise the question of the Obama administration's aims and expectations in bringing a greater measure of peace and stability to a conflict that so far has defied solution. Is the White House after any measure of success, however small, so as to declare victory? Or is the administration prepared to roll the dice in favor of a cosmic settlement despite the risks of failure?

The arguments for the former are overwhelming. The administration has been chided and criticized for simultaneously pursuing virtually all of the most trenchant issues facing the nation at home and abroad and therefore overloading a political system of checks and balances that was never designed for timely reaction across such a broad front. Hence, why bring another intractable issue into play before resolving such critical matters as healthcare, the economic crisis, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea?

The history of failed expectations in the Middle East for the United States dates back to Gen. George Marshall's recommendation to President Harry Truman not to recognize the state of Israel because it would prove too destabilizing to the region. President Jimmy Carter came close to success with the Camp David Accords in which Egypt and Israel recognized each other. President Bill Clinton attempted a "Hail Mary" pass in the waning days of his second administration to bring the PLO and Israel into agreement. However, whether with "roadmaps" or other initiatives, each attempt ended ultimately in tears. So why should the Obama administration look for a more cosmic solution?

There are two basic answers. First, and controversial, is that solving or at least lessening the Arab-Israeli-Palestinian conflict would have a hugely salutary effect in the Middle East and beyond. No one knows the full extent of negative consequences that conflict has held for inducing peace and stability now exacerbated by the rise of jihadist extremism. However, an effective settlement surely would reduce a huge amount of animosity against the West and the United States among Arabs and Muslims.

Second, if not now, then when? With relatively new administrations in place in Washington and Israel, surely it is better to attempt an overarching approach before policies become hardened and overtaken by other crises. Had Bill Clinton tried earlier, who knows what would have happened. That said, naysayers will be in the largest majority opposing any steps other than a tactical and technical solution that goes neighborhood-by-neighborhood and block-by-block to reduce the hatred and grounds for revenge that have been years in the making.

What might such a cosmic solution look like? The Obama administration regards the creation of a Palestinian state that links the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as a preferred solution, deferring the setting of precise borders and boundaries and the future of Jerusalem to later discussion. Indeed, such an approach might be achievable and acceptable to all participants. However, as others such as former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski have argued, the key to success is to resolve the more profound differences that have so far proven impervious to solution.

These great divides include recognition of and the right of Israel to exist; the Golan Heights; the right of Palestinian return; Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza; and the status of Jerusalem. How then to address these unresolved and divisive issues? Here is one such approach that could be termed a Middle East trifecta.

First, the Arab and Muslim worlds must recognize Israel and its right to exist. Second, in exchange, Israel must allow the establishment of a Palestinian state. Third, to start this process, a peace agreement with Syria that returns the Golan to Syria in exchange for recognition of Israel is long overdue. The Golan would be demilitarized, and that condition could be guaranteed by the stationing of even a handful of Western or U.S. troops.

In creating a Palestinian state, the stationing of Western troops in the West Bank as mentors and guarantors of security would be a precondition. For such a settlement, and despite the huge obstacles, military presence is essential. Certain NATO and EU members are amenable to that. And, while not fully satisfactory, dealing with Israeli settlements and boundaries would be part of a longer-term negotiation.

Critics will argue that Israel will be the big loser in such a broad attempt. The Arabs and Palestinians could renege once a Palestinian state is established. Negotiations on the tougher issues could fail. All of that is possible. But the prospect of a breakthrough has never been more urgently needed. So no matter how crowded the plate, go for the big enchilada.

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(Harlan Ullman is a distinguished senior fellow at the National Defense University and a senior adviser at the Atlantic Council.)

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(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

© 2009 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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