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US Envoys Face Mideast Challenge

After much debate, the Bush Administration has re-engaged with the Middle East peace process and sent two senior envoys to talk with Israelis and Palestinians. They left in some haste because Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is due to come to Washington in a few days.

The war in Afghanistan could lead to peace in the Middle East, says Philip Wilcox, a former U.S. ambassador who is president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace.

Speaking at a meeting of combined organizations dealing with the Middle East, Mr. Wilcox said there is growing awareness that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict adds to an atmosphere of violence. "I think inactivity by the United States would be the greatest favor we could do to appease and support the terrorists, because as this conflict continues to fester the specter of violence and terrorism grows even worse," he said.

There are serious obstacles to a settlement, said Mr. Wilcox. One of them is the weak leadership of Yasser Arafat, who has shaky control of his coalition partners and has not been able to stop the violence against Israelis.

Edward Walker, a former U.S. ambassador and now president of the Middle East Institute, said Mr. Arafat has never clearly described the Palestinian state he envisions. "He talks in terms of territorial boundaries, but he has never talked about democracy," he said. "He has never talked about transparency. He has never talked about the balancing of powers within a governmental structure. He has ignored all that."

But the Palestinian state offered by Israel's Sharon is hardly acceptable, said Mr. Wilcox. It would provide the Palestinians with a mere 42 percent of the West Bank, and the Israeli settlements would remain in place. "What he has offered is disconnected fragments, surrounded by Israeli settlements, Israeli soldiers, and Israelis roads," said Philip Wilcox. "That is not a realistic formula for peace at all. Settlements are at the heart of this conflict. If the settlements remain, there will be no peace. There will be permanent civil war."

These settlements are still expanding, said Mr. Wilcox, even since the September 11 attack on the United States.

While the conflict continues, said Mr. Walker, Arab opinion is enflamed by television coverage of suffering Palestinians. On a recent trip to the region, he found a grim climate of opinion. "I was told in virtually every Arab country that the younger generation - the under-25-year-olds - are tending toward fundamentalism, toward Islamism, toward anti-Americanism, and toward dissatisfaction with the status quo," said Edward Walker.

The United States is hardly to be blamed for this trend, said Mr. Walker. The Arab states are weak economies with severe unemployment. But the Palestinian issue is a contributing factor.

We have to stop this polarization in its tracks, said John Duke Anthony, president of the National Council for U.S. Arab Relations. He said a firm U.S. effort to move along the peace process would be welcomed throughout the Muslim world and beyond. "I believe that the heads of no major international, regional or sub-regional organization in Africa, Asia, Latin America, Europe, the Arab countries of the Middle East or the Islamic world would likely oppose," he said. "On the contrary, they would all likely support and applaud the exercise of decisive American Presidential leadership on this issue at this time."

Mr. Anthony and the other conference participants agreed the United States might underestimate its ability to influence negotiations. Now is the time, they said, for the U.S. commitment to peace to equal its resolve in war.