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Mideast Needs New Mediator

By Jimmy Carter

This article appeared in the July 1, 2002, edition of USA Today.

Recently, Emory Professor Kenneth Stein and I spread a detailed map on my office floor and examined the hundreds of strategically planted Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, each surrounded by a military force and connected by a web of guarded highways. The remaining unoccupied Palestinian lands appeared as small, isolated red splotches.

Ken indicated the $350 million barrier of fences and trenches being built northeast of Jerusalem. This, he noted, may represent the ultimate desire of most Palestinians and Israelis: a permanent and impenetrable separation of the two peoples.

Sadly, such isolation already exists in the policies of Israel, the Palestinians and the USA. Each lacks real support outside its own political circles. Unless other parties come forward to bridge these divides, there is little hope to offer those suffering from daily violence.

Given these barriers, it's easy to despair for this troubled region, perhaps even to consider real progress impossible. Reassurance comes from examining the Middle East peace process as a long series of historic and often unexpected steps forward:

Until Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's startling Jerusalem visit and the subsequent 1979 peace treaty, Arab diplomatic recognition of Israel was inconceivable. When Jordan's King Hussein and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin made a similar pledge 15 years later, there was no concerted Arab boycott of Jordan as there had been of Egypt, indicating wide acceptance of Hussein's decision.

In 1993, the Norwegians proved in Oslo that Rabin could deal directly with Yasser Arafat as the Palestinians' leader. On both sides, this was an unprecedented recognition of the other's legitimacy.

With Israel's encouragement and later approval, Palestinians conducted a peaceful, transparent election in 1996, which my center monitored, and chose a president and Palestinian Authority members who were universally accepted as legitimate.

A balanced hand

Such positive changes encourage the search for a just and lasting peace. Except for the Oslo agreement, success came with balanced U.S. involvement. Our mediators treated both adversaries with equal respect and let them freely present their views, convinced that an agreement was a victory for both.

There have been other significant developments. Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia proposed normal relations with Israel in exchange for its withdrawal from occupied Arab lands to the June 1967 line and its just treatment of Palestinian refugees. This unprecedented possibility of peace between Israel and the entire Arab world is widely accepted in the region. President Bush took another important step in September, when he called for a Palestinian state.

Still, violence persists, threatening to negate or reverse many of these proud achievements. Some misguided Palestinians honor suicide bombers as martyrs and celebrate the killing of Israeli civilians. Some Israelis believe their West Bank and Gaza settlements to be sacrosanct and try to justify the sustained subjugation of increasingly hopeless Palestinians.

Unequal treatment

The United States has now joined almost all other nations in accepting the basic premises of Israeli withdrawal, peace between Arab states and Israel, and a Palestinian state. This is a notable decision, but further progress is undermined by our almost undeviating approval of Israel's demands and our refusal to deal with the Palestinian leaders who are apt to be re-elected in January. The situation seems likely to fester until then, and perhaps long afterward.

The often-surprising past achievements show we cannot abandon the search for a just peace. But there cannot be another historic step without negotiation among the principal parties, because any unilateral concessions are almost inconceivable. With the United States aligned today with Israel and making demands that Palestinians will not accept, other world leaders-- perhaps in the Arab world, Europe or the United Nations-- now need to share responsibility, as in Oslo, for the progress that must come.

Former president Jimmy Carter chairs The Carter Center, which advances peace and health worldwide.

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