Six Keys to Peace

15 minute read
Michael Elliott

With a few bland words — “this Sunday I will travel to Israel and the Palestinian territories, where I will meet with Prime Minister Olmert and his leadership and with President Abbas and his team”–U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last week linked her office not just to one summer’s crisis but also to the careers and reputations of those who preceded her in high office.

Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, James Baker, Madeleine Albright and others found themselves dragged into the business of trying to bring peace to the Middle East. Year after year, decade after decade, a region that is sacred to three religions and the home of sublime landscapes–yet drenched in blood and covered in the dust of bombed-out rubble–brings those who live in more comfortable neighborhoods back to its old quarrels. Canada, the saying goes, is a nation with too much geography and not enough history. The Levant is the world’s un-Canada–a small sliver of land in which ancient grievances are played out again and again as if they held the key to understanding tomorrow.

Rice’s trip this week marks an implicit recognition by the Bush Administration that there are some burdens that every U.S. presidency has to bear. It is not that Bush has ignored the Middle East; on the contrary, he is fighting a war there, and the commitment of the President to advance the cause of democracy in nations that have long been autocracies amounts to a policy of revolution. But in six years, Bush’s team has studiously avoided the habits of the past: shuttle diplomacy, Camp David summits, special envoys. To Bush & Co., those things are naive, incremental, Clintonian. But whether he likes it or not, the President–and his Secretary of State–is deep in the Clinton woods now; the very least that well-wishers can do is point them toward pathways through the thickets.

In truth, Bush and Rice know those paths well. Everyone does. There is no mystery to the theory of peace in the Middle East; it’s the practice that has proved so difficult. But it is worth setting out the keys to peace that–with time, patience and goodwill in an area where they are in chronically short supply–might one day allow people to concentrate on building a better life for their children rather than scurrying into bolt-holes and shelters. Here are six of them.


IT IS EASY TO SEE WHY ANY U.S. administration would want to stay out of Middle East peacemaking. Those who have tried have had little to show for their pains. Jimmy Carter’s successful effort to broker a peace between Egypt and Israel at Camp David in 1978 did nothing for his political fortunes. In 1983, during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, 241 members of the U.S. armed forces died after the bombing of a military barracks in Beirut–killed by a suspected Hizballah faction. And Bill Clinton left office bitterly disappointed that all his intelligence and charm were insufficient to bring about a comprehensive settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.

But Rice’s trip is evidence that the U.S. is involved in the Middle East, whether it wants to be or not. That is not, for once, because it is the world’s sole superpower, the policeman to which those in any tough neighborhood eventually turn. It is because the U.S. has a unique relationship with Israel and is committed to guaranteeing its security. That means Washington can talk to the Israelis and, occasionally, convince them that their best interests require them to talk to those whose motives and behavior they despise.

As the scale and ferocity of the fighting in Lebanon stunned the world, nations lined up to accuse Israel of a “disproportionate” response to Hizballah’s raid two weeks ago, when it kidnapped two Israeli soldiers. But few initially were in doubt as to who started the fight, and it wasn’t Israel. “I’m not any more fond of violence or the prospect of a major war than anyone else,” says a French official involved in counterterrorism. “But how could Israel not respond to this provocation in a most forceful way?” Even the Saudis, never quick to grant Israel favors, disavowed Hizballah’s actions in a remarkable statement that implied that Hizballah should “alone bear the full responsibility of these irresponsible acts and should alone shoulder the burden of ending the crisis they have created.” King Abdullah II of Jordan and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt likewise condemned Hizballah for “adventurism that does not serve Arab interests.”

There is little mystery about why Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan–all Arab states with predominantly Sunni Muslim populations–would distance themselves from Hizballah. The Lebanese organization is a Shi’ite fighting force, founded and bankrolled by Shi’ite–and non-Arab–Iran. As Tehran flexes its muscles in the region, pursuing technology that could enable it to build nuclear weapons and watching as Shi’ite forces gradually dominate Iraq, Arab powers have become worried. That gives the U.S. an opening. Administration officials say one purpose of Rice’s trip is to create an “umbrella of Arab allies” opposed to Hizballah. “She’s not going to come home with a cease-fire but with stronger ties to the Arab world,” says a U.S. official. “What we want is our Arab allies standing against Hizballah and against Iran.” It was, perhaps, the prospect of such an alliance that led Rice last week to say, “What we’re seeing here, in a sense, is the birth pangs of a new Middle East.”


LIKE ANY BIRTH, THIS ONE WON’T BE EASY. The leading Sunni Arab states, if they are to join the U.S in opposition to Hizballah and Iran, are likely to ask for something in return, and it is not hard to divine what it would be: a full-hearted U.S. commitment to revive the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.

For the Arab states, it is axiomatic that a second key for curing the ills that have plagued the region is peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Settle that, many believe, and economic development will proceed apace, extremist groups will lose their reason for being, and public support for violence will evaporate. Even if some of those claims are far-fetchedwhat, precisely, has Israel done that would explain the woeful economic performance of the Arab world for a generation?they are deeply held and widely shared. “Terrorism,” British Prime Minister Tony Blair told the U.S. Congress in 2003, “will not be defeated without peace in the Middle East between Israel and Palestine. Here it is that the poison is incubated.”

There is little disagreement among states in the region or outside it about what an ideal peace between Israel and the Palestinians would involve. Since before World War II, most reasonable observers have known that sooner or later, two states–one with a Jewish majority, one with an Arab one–would share the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. That was the basis of the talks between Israel and the Palestinians in the last year of the Clinton Administration; it was acknowledged by the meeting of Arab states in Beirut in 2002, when they committed themselves to “normal relations” with Israel if it withdrew to its pre-1967 borders; it was the basis of the road map adopted by the U.S. and other powers in 2003; and it was accepted, finally, by Israel’s old warrior Ariel Sharon, although he ultimately lost faith in negotiations and adopted a policy of unilateral “disengagement” from the Palestinians. As Sharon’s heir and successor, Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert also knows that one day a Palestinian state will come. The belief is nearly universal. “We know we can’t wind this up with guns and tanks,” Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres told TIME. “The final solution has to be done diplomatically.”

But 2006 is not 2000, when negotiations at Camp David got mired in the devilish details of a deal–how Jerusalem would be governed, how much land Israel would retain on the West Bank, how Palestinian refugees should be handled. Since then, Israel has seen suicide bombers flock to its cities from the West Bank and watched rockets sail into its towns from Gaza and Lebanon, areas from which it had withdrawn all its soldiers–in the case of Lebanon, a full six years ago. Within that context, it isn’t the details of a two-state solution that matter now; it is something much more elemental. Israel needs to know that in any deal with the Palestinians, its people will be safe.


FOR THAT REASON, THE THIRD KEY TO PEACE is to find a way to convince Israelis that they and their children can sleep easy at night. And here Israel finds itself in a dilemma. The Jewish state’s superb armed forces never failed when asked to fight against massed armies in conventional wars. But Israel is not fighting a standard war now; with Hamas and Hizballah, it is battling against cells of well-trained militias energized by religious fervor. Armies surrender when their leaders tell them to; guerrillas just slip back to a safe house and wait to fight another day. Worse, today’s irregular foes live in villages, hide in houses and are sheltered by civilians (or force civilians to shelter them).

All that means that Israel has to fight a war that inevitably results in terrible and visible damage to towns and cities–and costs innocent lives. In the court of world public opinion, that is a fight Israel ultimately can never win. Worse, precisely because the collateral damage of such a war is so immense–witness the areas of southern Lebanon that have been turned into a wasteland of shattered masonry–Israel risks creating a new generation of Arabs that hates it with a passion. By trying to guarantee its security today, Israel may be merely threatening its security tomorrow.

In any two-state solution, Palestinians would control the West Bank. But the need to maintain Israeli security has compelled some observers to rethink how an Israeli withdrawal from the region should be handled. Dennis Ross, Middle East envoy for Presidents George H.W. Bush and Clinton, criticizes the way Israel left Gaza last year. “The withdrawal,” says Ross, “should not have taken place unless the Palestinians were going to create the security force to ensure security on their side, so that there weren’t attacks out of Gaza into Israel.” Given all that has happened, says Ross, Olmert will be able to pull out of the West Bank only if one of two conditions are met: “Either his withdrawal is geared only to [Israeli] settlers and not soldiers … or the Palestinians are able to put together a credible security force.”


BY LEAVING SOLDIERS IN THE WEST BANK after any withdrawal, Israel might hope to guarantee security on its eastern border. But the same tactic wouldn’t work to the north; nobody is going to countenance Israel’s occupying a swath of southern Lebanon again (as it did from 1982 to 2000) to deny Hizballah room from which to fire its rockets–least of all Israelis themselves, who are horrified by the idea of a re-occupation. That is why the fourth key to peace is to stabilize Lebanon. In part, that means propping up the fragile government of technocrats led by Fouad Siniora and pumping donors to help Lebanon rebuild itself (again)–which will be the focus of a high-level international meeting in Rome this week. But it also means ensuring that Hizballah can no longer use its strongholds in the south to threaten regional peace. That explains why Rice has been at pains to insist that her mission is not to restore the status quo ante but to change the game in Lebanon so that Hizballah is out of the picture. Rice and other top U.S. officials do not expect that Hizballah will be completely disarmed by Israel anytime soon; but they would not be sorry to see its power sufficiently undermined so that other nations can contribute to what Rice calls the “robust” force that will be needed to police the border when hostilities cease.

Getting those forces in place may be easier said than done. When Israeli officials are pressed on who, precisely, might man the border and face down the remnants of Hizballah, they throw out names–Turkey, Egypt, “the Europeans”–in a way that suggests the plan has not yet been thought through. Israeli officials take refuge in the hope that other nations will recognize that Iran, Hizballah’s sponsor, is sufficiently dangerous to regional peace that defanging its proxy becomes something that every sensible party would want to do. “Iran,” says Peres, “is trying to make a mockery of world institutions.” That thought leads to the fifth key to peace–and perhaps the hardest of all to pin down.


THE ONE FACTOR THAT TRULY DISTINGUISHES this summer’s crisis from earlier ones is the realization that Iran is a central player. Among Israelis, it is generally assumed that Hizballah had Iran’s encouragement when it kidnapped the soldiers. And that view isn’t held just in Jerusalem. “There isn’t the slightest degree of ambiguity or doubt as to Iran’s role in this,” says a French foreign-affairs official. “How much coincidence could there be in Hizballah kidnapping the Israeli soldiers on the same date that ministers met in Paris to decide what measures to take on the Iranian nuclear issue? None, in our opinion.” Avi Dichter, Israel’s Internal Security Minister, calls on other countries to help Israel show that “Iran’s strategy has failed in Lebanon” and claims that if Iran is not faced down, it will try to destabilize oil states in the Gulf.

Assuming Iran was indeed behind Hizballah’s raid, what happens next? The U.S. and other powers are discussing how to rein in Iran’s nuclear program, and it may be easier to jointly impose sanctions now that Iran is viewed as responsible for mayhem in Lebanon. But what then? Take a look at a map. Iran is an oil-rich nation that borders Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkey and Iraq, among others. It has a strategic position in Eurasia that cannot be wished away. European officials talk of a “constructive dialogue” with Tehran that involves recognizing it as an important regional power while maintaining the right to sanction it if it breaks the nuclear rules. But Israel–along with many supporters in the U.S.–thinks dialogue with a nation whose leader has said that Israel “must be wiped off the map” is a waste of breath. The U.S., meanwhile, has had few substantive talks with Iranian officials for the past 26 years–and it is anything but clear what levers Washington and its allies think they can pull if Iran really does seek a position of hegemony in the region. Yet even if Iran was to be contained or if it changed its tune, it is hardly certain that Hizballah would follow suit. There is even less reason to think Hamas would. Israel’s Dichter claims that Iran made its first overtures to Hamas in 2001 and that Khaled Mashaal, the Syrian-based leader of Hamas, is a “frequent flyer between Damascus and Tehran.” But Hamas is a Sunni organization rooted in Palestinian resistance. It doesn’t need Iran’s encouragement to fight Israel.


THERE IS, FINALLY, THE MATTER OF IRAQ. The original U.S. hopes for Iraq were not implausible: a successful democracy there would indeed help bring stability to the whole region. But the failure of the U.S. to impose order in Iraq after the invasion of 2003 has emboldened all those who believe that further spasms of violence will force Washington and its allies to give up their push for fundamental change. And there are worse possible outcomes. Iraq could become the launching pad for a full-on war between Sunni and Shi’ite, with Iran entering the fray on the Shi’ite side and the Arab states defending Iraq’s Sunnis. In the bitter Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88, more than a million people were killed or wounded–and any repeat of that carnage would take place in the context of a region where at least one power, Iran, is determined to develop nuclear weapons.

Seen in that light, there’s little wonder that Rice is off on her travels. Her predecessors may have found their shuttles around the Middle East both vexing in their detail and disappointing in their outcome. But they knew that for the U.S. and the world, staying at home was more dangerous still. Rice and her boss, it seems, have got that message.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at