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What a Future Middle East At Peace Might Look Like

THE Bush administration and those Middle Eastern leaders who made the Madrid peace talks possible deserve our congratulations! But the hard work of building a peaceful Middle East of the future has only just begun.In planning their present Middle East diplomacy, President Bush and Secretary of State James Baker III made some smart decisions. They opted to try to resolve both the Palestinian-Israeli and the Arab-Israeli conflicts on parallel tracks. They decided to tackle not only the "traditional" tasks of diplomacy, but also the broader challenges of controlling the region's vast arms inventories and building a shared stake in regional economic development. All those decisions were wise. But other efforts are also needed if the opponents of the peace process sniping from Tehran, Baghdad, or elsewhere are to be denied the constituency they seek. In particular, the issue of accountability of the region's leaders - to their own people and to the international community - needs to be addressed. And leaders and opinion-formers from throughout the region should be engaged in a sustained exploration of what a future Middle East at peace might look like. It is a region of tremendous wealth and creativity. For too long, those precious resources have been channeled into warfare and hatred. But the events of recent years have created an unprecedented chance to reverse that situation. Today, for the first time, there is a substantial constituency in Israel and most Arab states that is prepared to say - out loud - that they are tired of war, and that negotiation and compromise provide a better way to resolve differences. More than ever before, respected Middle Eastern opinion-formers have begun to look at their communities' security and well-being as a mutual and not just a narrowly national affair. Last September, the group that I work for, Search for Common Ground, brought 14 of these Middle Eastern pioneers together for a trailblazing meeting in Rome. They included three Israelis - two from the right of the political spectrum - and Arabs from seven different Arab communities, including a Palestinian, three nationals of Gulf countries, and one leading thinker of mixed Iraqi-Iranian heritage. These 14 individuals came to Rome to begin building a network of cooperation between private individuals and institutions throughout the region, in an attempt to build its long-term security. Each brought to the meeting his or her own rich mix of experiences and concerns. An Israeli strategic specialist brought his concern that the Arabs might launch a surprise attack against his country. A Kuwaiti human-rights activist brought his concern that all Middle Eastern governments should become less abusive of those under their control. Yet these individuals and their 12 colleagues came to Rome with the understanding that such immediate concerns could only be satisfactorily met within the context of a broad-based attempt to build the security of their region as a whole. Now, I have participated in numerous meetings over recent years in which peace-minded Israelis, Palestinians, and some other Arabs have tried to explore ways in which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict might be resolved. Those meetings broke important ground. But our Rome meeting was unprecedented - in the diversity of people it brought together and in the commitment they brought to looking for solutions to national problems through regionwide cooperation. The "regional" nature of their approach was captured in two key decisions. The group decided to deal with the Arab-Israeli conflict "as one of the local conflicts in the region." And they decided that Iranians and Turks - as well as Arabs from countries not represented - should be brought into the deliberations. In accordance with our organization's philosophy, the participants at Rome worked hard to stake out some "common ground." The participants found it was not easy to go beyond platitudes. But they all agreed that their efforts should continue. They formed subgroups that could work together in the following areas: security, conflict resolution, civil society issues, and economics. Each of the subgroups will try to develop its portion of the vision of the future, peaceful Middle East - and to define and advocate workable steps, however small, that can help move the region toward that vision. Participants at Rome agreed that all these efforts were interlinked, and that they would continue to work as a broader group to maximize the positive resonance between them. These are days of unique opportunity. But we are engaged in a race against time. We cannot say that the battle for public opinion in the Middle East has been definitively won. Powerful and frequent vindictive critics abound. Therefore, those of us working for peace in the region, officials and non-officials alike, should try to win some concrete results, however partial, as soon as possible. For without results, no amount of "vision" can save this vastly over-armed region from turmoil.

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