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For Mideast peace, think bigger

Regional stability involves more than the Israelis and Palestinians.

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Four-and-a-half years after the invasion of Iraq, President Bush has launched another, equally high-stakes, gamble in the Middle East. This time, it is a gamble for peace, the one he started at the Nov. 27 conference in Annapolis, Md.

If it succeeds, it could do much to restore calm and hope to a region long cloaked in turmoil and dread. (It could also help salvage Mr. Bush's longer-term legacy.) But what if it fails?

Bush should understand that success in the post-Annapolis peacemaking effort requires a lot more commitment and vision than he and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have shown to date. Specifically, it requires much stronger direct involvement from the president himself and resurrection of the fine, old vision of an Israel at peace with all of its neighbors.

Imagine that! Israel and its five Arab neighbors would no longer need to live in mutual fear. They could freely visit religious and tourist sites in one another's countries, do business together, and become part of a vibrant network of regional growth. Interlacing rail and road networks would embrace the whole Eastern Mediterranean landmass. Jerusalem would draw pilgrims of the three Abrahamic faiths – from all around the world – and become a center for multicultural interaction and innovation.

Sadly, neither Bush nor Ms. Rice gave any hint of this compelling vision at Annapolis. Instead of talking about the benefits of a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace – one in which Israel concludes peace agreements with Syria and Lebanon, as well as the Palestinians – the US leaders focused almost exclusively on the Palestinian-Israeli negotiation. That was a mistake, for these reasons:

1. Among Israelis, Palestinians, and other Arabs, there is still considerable disillusionment with the failure of past US-led peace efforts and distrust of this US administration, which largely ignored peacemaking for its first six years. Bush and Rice need to overcome these sentiments and re-energize the large peace constituencies still present, though latent, in the region. Defining a far-reaching vision of regionwide peace, describing its benefits at every opportunity, and – most important – working visibly and effectively toward it are essential for that.

2. Most Israelis say they crave recognition and normal relations with the Arab world. The Arab Peace Plan of 2002 offers them that – but only as and when Israel makes a withdrawal-based peace with all its neighbors, including Syria and Lebanon. Only in that context will the much-needed regional integration proceed.


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