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Middle East conflict calls out for insightful U.S. leadership

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Six months after the 9-11 attacks that began to define an American War against terrorism, the oldest of tribal conflicts ? Palestinian versus Israeli ? has taken international center stage. An escalating war that has the world on edge and shows high possibility of exploding into regional, perhaps global, conflict has generated massive reaction throughout the entire Muslim world and much of Europe while commanding the attention of American media.

This highly dangerous situation at the origin of several major religions signals a deep and abiding war that taps passions and hatreds hundreds, even thousands, of years old. Israelis and Palestinians are cousins ? Semitic relatives ? at war all these decades over a land they both would occupy. Dual victims of hundreds of years of discrimination, wars of conquest and exile, relocations, colonialism and all the ills created by an imperial Europe, the two peoples are locked in mutually brutalizing terror. Land claims layered upon land claims, 2,000 years old and older, now result in mayhem and carnage ? high tech bombs against human bombs ? that use different methods toward the same results.

It is the kind of conflict that may involve all of us ? including American Indians ? before it is over and it behooves the United States, as the world's most authoritative power, to do everything possible to find a real pathway to peace. It concerns us that at this most precious moment, when the U.S. could be mounting perhaps the most necessary peace offensive in history, it plays not peacemaker but justifier. U.S. spokespeople speak of the need for Israeli restraint and at the same time, tacitly approve the increasingly aggressive Israeli military takeover of the Palestinian areas. United States policy clearly supports Israel, and President Bush is virtually alone among world leaders in his linkage to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

But it is a confusing policy: just this week it has flip-flopped twice on its appraisal of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. One moment Arafat is a harborer of terrorists; next moment, he is "a pathway to peace." Yet, the Israeli army has Arafat surrounded and the Palestinian leader is in serious danger of being harmed ? in premeditated or accidental manner ? an event that would have deep repercussions.

The Palestinians, predictably, are angry, a frustration born of brutality and a humiliation bordering on madness. Theirs is not a wanton hatred; there is history behind it. There is little for the Palestinians to hang on to, except intense desperation, thus the human bombs. They will not let go of their dream of a nation-state over their traditional homeland.

The Arab world has recently moved toward engagement on seeking a solution, which is possible, just as anything is possible. They have offered, for the first time, a unanimous recognition of the state of Israel. This is as good an opportunity as Israel has had to help advance the movement toward peace, perhaps as good as the deal thrown aside by Yasser Arafat after the Camp David meetings of 2000, when President Bill Clinton persuaded Israel to offer serious concessions. The Palestinian leader could not then accept the best Israel would offer, which did not address several important issues, and neither will now Israel or the U.S. accept a major opening because the impetus is to war, a fusion of parallel visions that pits the country we live in, the United States of America, on an ever more intense collision course with the Arab and Muslim worlds. Again, this is cause for concern for all peoples living within the United States and for American Indians, who as always mobilize for military action in disproportionate numbers.

Six months into the Post 9-11 era, the saber rattling is deafening. We understand that the war on terrorism must be fought. How it is fought and what its ultimate best objectives might actually be, however, remain to be identified in a pragmatic and effective manner. Super-intelligent bombs and troops chasing down enemy soldiers in Afghanistan are one way. Unfortunately, this overall war footing has thus far been the only answer ? from Sharon and increasingly from the Bush Administration. There is lip service to peace "initiatives" but clear, fair objectives are not yet visible. True energy for the work of peace is sorely lacking. Even moderately hawkish pundits ? some with Pentagon experience ? now speak casually on the cable talk circuit of using "tactical" nuclear weapons, as if there was a world possible after committing to such horrendous destruction.

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The "nuclear" path of no return, seriously fraught with illogic, has always before been seen as the final result of a failed foreign policy. For 40 years, nose-to-nose with the Soviets, every major statesman and leader on both sides committed against such a horribly catastrophic outcome. Certainly, there are other avenues.

We emphasize: war is not enough. Violence can fight violence only so long: the work of peace must go to the roots of the problem. Terrorism must diminish but the underlying causes must also be addressed. One problem is the continuous imposition of more and more Israeli settlements on Palestinian land. This is an issue not hard for American Indians to understand. It is reminiscent of the conscious "checker-boarding" of reservations with non-Indian homesteads, weakening Indian tribal jurisdiction and in time eroding it altogether. Almost doubled since 1993, the Israeli settlements have been a major cause for Palestinian resistance to a peace accord. The enemies of peace among Palestinians ? those who will never accept Israel's right to exist ? justify terroristic tactics as legitimate responses to this policy.

Equally, American Indians intimately understand the plight of the Jewish people, who have suffered so much throughout history. Their story has been one of a people incessantly demonized and discriminated against, the victims of one of the world's most deviant persecutions. Throughout much of their existence they have had to contend with a never-ending litany of ignorant hate-mongers and purveyors of death. Their continuous challenge, in the midst of the establishment of a Jewish state, has been to sustain their own humanity amid incessant, spiteful diatribes by those whose only solution is the termination of their country. The enemies of peace among Israelis justify excessive force as a tool of education, but the lesson loses much in translation.

Situations all over the Middle East and throughout the Muslim world are on the brink (Al-Qaeda for one is apparently regrouping in Indonesia and is not yet down and out, even in Afghanistan), but the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the one that can most easily combust. It is too long a wound that will not scab but bleeds and bleeds. Every suicide bomb detonated by a Palestinian, every Palestinian kid shot, every home bulldozed by the Israeli Army only guarantees ever more brutal aggression by the other side ? what Nicholas D. Kristof of The New York Times has termed, "the Boomerang Effect." Sharon and Arafat, as the Israeli novelist Amos Oz said recently, "are handcuffed to one another," two leaders who could not be more ill-suited to the task of peace, whose hatred of each other is personal and long-standing.

As if Afghanistan and the bin Laden gang had been secured, as if the War on Terrorism had yet actually cleaned up that situation, one of the world's oldest tribal conflicts is coming to a head. Again, this most dangerous moment for the world requires the highest level of engagement, plus a fairness and impartiality that the U.S. has not apparently been willing or able to achieve. American leadership needs to do better.

Civilian minds that are not solely persuaded by military impetus are most desired. They must help their country do the seemingly impossible: accept the reality that expanded conflict in the Middle East is not acceptable and that the approach to the Arab world must broaden and deepen. America learned to live with the Chinese and it did not give up on Taiwan. Why not broker more directly with the Arab world? Why let the war-makers of every persuasion hijack the possibility of peace?

President Bush needs to reassert his leadership preeminence over Israel's Ariel Sharon (whose team had sized up the president's policy direction early in his term) and initiate a diplomatic campaign that gives earnest consideration to the Arab League's Beirut Declaration. The League called for peace in the Middle East based on a land-for-peace principle that, at its core, would have seen Israel withdraw from occupied Arab territories to its 1967 borders in exchange for peace and the restoration of normal relations with all the states in the region. That is a good beginning. Additionally, moderate Arab leaders need to be assigned more responsibility in managing Yasser Arafat and his operations.

This Middle East conflict calls out for insightful American leadership. It requires not grand pronouncements and ineffective sound bites, but a statesmanship built on pragmatic and fair involvement.