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Published: Wednesday, 6/25/2008

Tiptoeing through the Middle East in search of peace

THERE currently are some very positive developments regarding Israel and other players in the Middle East that could improve prospects for long-term peace through a more cooperative working relationship between Israel and its neighbors.

On the other hand, a number of warning lights are flashing across the dashboard, especially in Israel itself but also among the Palestinians; in neighboring Lebanon; among the usual suspects, Syria and Iran, and even in the United States, which is in the throes of a presidential campaign.

Here are the positive elements:

Israel appears to have reached agreement with Hamas on a truce in Gaza. Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian Authority elections, defeated its rival Fatah on the battlefield in 2007, and continues to hold power in Gaza, in spite of the efforts of Israel and the Bush Administration to strangle the organization through political and economic measures.

The United States refuses to talk to Hamas. Israel took the same position but now, through the Egyptians, has worked out a truce: Hamas stops firing rockets into Israel; Israel stops shelling Gaza. And so forth. Israel's cooperation with Egypt in working out the agreement with Hamas is also a positive element.

Israel is indicating that it wishes to continue to talk with Syria, through Turkey, to resolve the issue of who owns the Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syria in the 1967 war. That, too, is positive. Syria is one of the keyholders in the quest for long-term Middle East peace. It also is a viable channel to Iran, another problem party.

In addition, Israel has chosen to find the new coalition government in Lebanon, which includes Hezbollah, its enemy in the 2006 war, at least somewhat acceptable as an interlocuter. What Israel wants is two Israeli prisoners whom Hezbollah holds and for Hezbollah to refrain from shelling Israel from Lebanon.

All of this is commendably reasonable on the part of all parties. (I define "reasonable " as leading toward agreement and peace, as opposed to discord and war.)

Apart from the very bad effects of war on the Middle East, it is also dangerous for the United States. If, for example, Israel were to launch an air attack on Iran, there is no doubt in my mind that Iran's actions in response would lead to a general conflagration in the region that would almost inevitably drag in the United States.

I won't point out just how untimely and unhelpful such a conflict would be for America at this point, with our long, heavy commitment in Iraq and the growing call on our resources in Afghanistan.

Here is the truly worrisome part. There is evidence that the Israeli people are not by any means unanimously comfortable with the progress its government is making through negotiations rather than shooting.

We are told, for example, that some Israeli political elements consider the truce with Hamas to be a sort of surrender to an organization which holds some positions that are anathema to Israelis. There is no question that Hamas is hostile to the Jewish state. On the other hand, Hamas' demonstrated staying power in the face of opposition from Israel, the United States, and some European states, apart from its electoral and military victory against Fatah, makes it clear that it is here to stay and any comprehensive peace agreement must accommodate it.

Another element of concern among Israelis is the suspicion that some of the leadership and flexibility that the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is displaying is defensive - in terms of trying to maintain the position of Mr. Olmert and his Kadima Party in Israeli internal politics. Mr. Olmert has been charged with taking bribes by an American businessman, Morris Talansky.

The theory runs that visible progress on the negotiating front will raise Israelis' overall assessment of Mr. Olmert and undercut the efforts of rivals, such as Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and opposition figure Benjamin Netanyahu, to get rid of him. The complementary theory runs that if the negotiations advance and become more complicated, and if Mr. Olmert is seen as the key figure in those negotiations, the idea of getting rid of him will seem to be changing horses in midstream, thus saving him politically.

In any case, there is definitely progress, and one can see the steps ahead. Israel wants a soldier back that Hamas holds. Israel holds an estimated 9,000 Palestinian prisoners. Israel wants two prisoners back that Hezbollah holds in Lebanon. Israel also holds a parcel of land in South Lebanon, the Shebaa farms, that it is willing to part with. A deal with Syria that gave back to that country the Golan Heights in return for a guarantee that Syria would not support Israel's more active enemies could be achievable.

On the other hand, the fragility of all of this is obvious, starting with the vigorous internal dynamics of Israeli politics, not to mention how Middle East peace and the future of Israel plays in American domestic politics at this time.

Peace can be made, but it will involve tiptoeing through a minefield.



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