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US Should Press for Israeli-Palestinian Peace, say Observers on Both Sides - 2001-10-13

There's been much talk that the terrorist attacks of September 11th may, in fact, present unique opportunities to tackle some contentious international issues.

Despite numerous diplomatic efforts over the past year, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seemed resistant to external pressure to calm the situation. But some observers, in the region and outside it, say the events of September 11 could actually bring the two sides closer together.

Ever since the attacks, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has appeared eager to show his willingness to cooperate with the United States. He has thrown his support behind an Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire and recently sent his police force out against anti-American student demonstrators in Gaza. The Palestinian leadership has also taken great pains to distance itself from suspected terrorist Osama bin-Laden and his public support for the Palestinian cause.

At the same time, Arab leaders in the region have repeatedly stressed that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian issue is essential for any successful war against terrorism.

Israeli analyst Ron Pundak is director of the Peres Center for Peace in Tel Aviv. He says now is the time for the United States to pressure both sides to re-open negotiations. "On the Palestinian side, the pressure should bring the Palestinians to fight tooth and nail to fight terrorism as well as to reduce to zero tension among those who are fighting for the liberation of Palestine," he says. "At the same time, the Americans should pressure Israel - should convince Israel - to come forward with clear message to the Palestinians that yes, we are ready to move forward in the Israeli-Palestinian political process bringing a solution the Palestinians can live with."

Mr. Pundak was one of the architects of the 1993 Oslo peace accords between Israel and the Palestinians.

Palestinian legislator and Arab League spokeswoman, Hanan Ashrawi, urges the United States to move aggressively to resolve the conflict and she welcomes a recent statement by U.S. President George Bush that a Palestinian state is part of the long-term vision for peace in the Middle East. "I think this is serious and therefore it has to be translated into action," she says. "I'm encouraged, but I don't think it will translate itself by default into policy. And, I think it is also the role of the Palestinians and the Arab world to engage the U.S. in a strategic dialogue to ensure ... concrete steps ... and that the U.S. moves swiftly and effectively."

Statements by Mr. Bush about a Palestinian state have reportedly ruffled some feathers within the Israeli government. But government spokesman Ra'naan Gissin says the concept of a Palestinian state is nothing new. "I'm not so frightened by talk of a Palestinian state or entity," he says. "There is a state in being, one that is being developed already. It's a fact... Now, the question is, how do we ensure through negotiations and through agreement that such a state will not present a threat to Israel - a terrorist or military threat. But a Palestinian state is almost a fait accompli."

Most analysts here agree that achieving the goal of a Palestinian state will still require tough negotiations.

Sari Nusseibeh was among the Palestinian negotiators at the Madrid peace conference in 1991. He is president of al-Quds University in Jerusalem and has just been appointed by Yasser Arafat to handle diplomatic activities in Arab east Jerusalem. Mr. Nusseibeh believes a bold initiative is needed to pressure the two sides into negotiating and he hopes the United States will take that initiative.

"I think if we can get the two sides to negotiate, and if we ask them to do it as a high priority, then I think ... we may have something on the table that the Israelis and Palestinians can agree to, which will in fact be the end, or the beginning of the end, of our conflict," he says. "Otherwise, it this doesn't happen..., we're just going to sink further and deeper into this mud of hatred, of radicalization, of mutual accusations, lack of confidence in each other. [Then] I think we're looking at a life for both peoples that will be more like hell than a normal existence and I'm not sure it's something to live for."

Despite some sporadic clashes and shootings, violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories has dropped off since the attacks last month in the United States. It now remains to be seen whether the two sides will use the relative calm to move along a path that will lead to a resumption of peace negotiations.