WASHINGTON, April 12 (UPI) -- The United States and other nations still can play a vital role resolving the Middle East conflict, despite mistakes trying to shepherd a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Edward S. Walker Jr., president and CEO of the Middle East Institute, said Thursday at a dinner sponsored by the Aspen Institute.
"We made mistakes at Camp David by thinking that Arafat could decide the fate of Jerusalem for the rest of the Islamic world," said Walker, a former Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs and U.S. ambassador to both Israel and Egypt during the Clinton administration.
Walker said he believes the failure to understand this need for a broad multi-country consensus meant the Camp David Accord was "doomed from the start" because it excluded key Arab leaders whose support would be vital to any deal.
Walker said a solution still can be found, but only as part of a broader consensus in the Arab world and not through the bilateral debates that have dominated the process. He said Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah explained the situation best when he told Walker any settlement would have to be broadly acceptable and defensible in the Arab world.
Another key mistake, Walker said, was to underestimate the importance of the Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem by believing that Arafat should be more flexible regarding control over the Al-Haram al-Sharif, the third holiest shrine in Islam after Mecca and Medina.
Walker said that despite these failures there "is a role for outside actors" to ask questions and facilitate talks. He stressed, however, the West must understand that although the Islam religion is reflected in the world views of the Palestinians and other Arabs, the problem in the Middle East is a political and territorial conflict, not a religious one.
"Take Islam out of the equation and you will still have anti-Israeli sentiments and terrorism," said Walker. But, he said, "Islam is not the source of the terrorism problem (but) it still can be a significant part of the solution."
Walker's optimism about the United States playing a role in helping to find a potential peace is tempered, however, by his feeling that the West lacks understanding of Islam and its people who view the world "through the lens of their rich cultural past."
Understanding this viewpoint is key to understanding their motives, he said, and also to understanding that terrorists are not reflective of Islam.
Despite the Western view of Islam as backward and violent, Walker said it was important to note that many Islamic scholars are grappling with the problem of reconciling the teachings of the Koran and the modern world, while key Islamic religious leaders continue to condemn terrorist acts like suicide bombings as being against Islamic law.