Surge here first
Jordon king sees swift creation of Palestine state
as a must to avoid war from Beirut to Bombay

By H.D.S. Greenway
The Boston Globe

DAVOS, Switzerland — It was an electric moment in this mountain town last week when the young Hashemite king, Abdullah II of Jordan, stood in front of the World Economic Forum and warned of a conflagration that could spread "from Beirut to Bombay" — pitting Shiite against Sunni, Persians against Arabs with untold consequences for all.

The king saw three potential civil wars on the boil, involving the Palestinians, the Lebanese and the Iraqis. The number one issue that could soothe the region would be the swift creation of a Palestinian state.

"The continued denial of Palestinian rights is a fire starter," he said. "If you don't fix the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, you can't have stability in the region. We will all pay the price for what I think may be the last opportunity."

Nothing frustrates Israelis more than the suggestion that solving the Palestinian problem has any bearing on Al Qaeda's doings or Iraq. Rabbi David Rosen called that notion a "ridiculous canard."

The United States is now absorbed with Iraq. But before Iraq, President George W. Bush made the decision to not even try to be an honest broker between Israel and the Palestinians, reversing 30 years of American foreign policy, as Colin Powell pointed out to the president during one of their first national security meetings.

But as part of the new "surge" strategy, the administration has decided to adopt at least one of the Iraq Study Group's recommendations: revive the effort to bring about a two- state solution between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently visited the region, and a meeting of the so-called Middle East Quartet — the United States, the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations — which so far has made no progress, is planned for Friday.

Other voices from the region share the king's urgency. Amr Moussa, the long-serving secretary general of the Arab League, said a Palestinian state should be brought into being in 2007.

Common fear

The reason for the new urgency is a common fear of Iran shared by Arabs and Israelis alike. Recently, the Israelis have sent out feelers to their Arab neighbors to explore this mutual concern.

The new Arab plan would be to build on the 2002 Saudi initiative that offered peace and full recognition of Israel in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories to pre-1967 lines. Surprisingly, all of the Arab League members signed on. It was a nonstarter, as far as the government of Ariel Sharon was concerned. But the talk in Davos is that a new offer, much more to Israel's advantage, will be made.

The politics of both Israel and the Palestinians are in disarray. Hamas and the Palestinian Authority are at daggers drawn. The government of Israel is weak and divided and still licking its wounds from losing its summer war in Lebanon — a conflict that did much more to destroy the infrastructure and government of Lebanon than it did Hezbollah, as well as bringing Lebanon to the brink of civil war.

The Arab initiative, King Abdullah said, would go to the people over the heads of the politicians. Palestinians would be asked to vote in a referendum; Israelis would be offered a package that would prove irresistible.

Israel's foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, who also attended Davos, talked about a "process," but King Abdullah's vision is that process is what killed the Oslo agreement — the long confidence-building measures and stages of disengagement so mired that initiative that neither Israelis nor Palestinians saw any clear end in sight.

The new Arab offer would be clean and swift and once-and-for-all: a two-state solution, which the king is confident most Israelis and Palestinians want.

The Sunnis of the Middle East saw in the botched hanging of Saddam Hussein a gauntlet thrown down by Iran. If the open sore of a Palestinian state could be finally healed, the empowerment of Arab moderation could extend to a settlement in Lebanon — perhaps even to a settlement between Israelis and Arabs on their remaining territorial disputes, including the Golan Heights, because by then Syria would not want to be left out.

It wouldn't solve Iraq, but it would, as the Iraq Study Group saw, remove the greatest emotional issue in the Middle East, and do much to undercut Iranian influence in the Arab lands. That would be to everybody's advantage, and may even rescue the shattered legacy of the Bush administration.

H.D.S. Greenway's column appears regularly in The Boston Globe.