Op-Ed: America must exercise leadership, for its own national security

By Mark Sanford and Jeanne Shaheen
Commentary by Tuesday, August 09, 2005
The Daily Star

As individuals who have competed successfully in gubernatorial elections in our home states, we have experienced the rigors and the rewards of the American democratic process. We have something else in common: direct observation of landmark events critical to achieving a two-state resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One of us served as an observer of the Palestinian presidential election this past January; the other served on the House of Representatives' International Relations Committee during the implementation of the Oslo peace process.

Although we belong to different political parties and don't always agree on all policy issues, we do agree on this: the Bush administration is right to exercise American leadership to facilitate a two-state resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - and such a resolution is in the national security interest of our own nation and our constituents.

Sometimes, we Americans can take democracy for granted. But the Palestinians who voted in their first contested presidential election since 1996 - in the West Bank and Gaza, in remote villages and big cities, across income levels - approached the ballot box as if their future depended on this election.

Subsequent events have demonstrated that they were right. The Palestinian presidential election, along with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's success in assembling a new Israeli political coalition to move forward on Gaza disengagement, heralds what could be a new era in Israeli-Palestinian relations.

This is not the end of the conflict by any means. Yet in a very short time, the governments of Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas have made significant strides. As of this writing, the Palestinians are enforcing a cease-fire with Israel and, according to Israeli sources, have begun efforts to disarm the terrorists. The two sides have tentatively resumed security cooperation. In the 1990s, such joint efforts to thwart terror had reduced suicide bombings to the vanishing point.

Sharon, despite intense opposition from elements of his own party, is pushing ahead with withdrawal from Gaza, and has committed to pulling back Israel's military presence from key Palestinian towns, to enable Palestinian workers to get to their jobs, students to get to school, and citizens to pursue the business of daily life.

This is a moment of great promise. But Israelis and Palestinians cannot seize the moment alone. During the half century of Israeli-Arab conflict, every successful move toward peace has occurred with the direct involvement of the American administration. The Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, which has saved countless lives in over two decades, would never have come to fruition without the direct intervention of President Jimmy Carter. The first official Israeli-Palestinian contacts occurred at the 1991 Madrid conference, convened by U.S. President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker. Madrid led to mutual recognition between Israelis and Palestinians, a step that is the foundation of all subsequent dealings between the two sides.

President George W. Bush understands that direct American involvement is essential to resolving the conflict. Almost immediately following his re-election, he declared that one of the key goals of his second term would be to see the implementation of his vision of "two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security."

Why the urgency for the United States? The answer is simple. U.S. national security is threatened every day the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues. Rightly or wrongly, the anger Arabs and other Muslims feel toward America today is heavily driven by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which remains a central source of Muslim grievances against the U.S. We need cooperation with pragmatic Muslim leaders to be most effective in fighting terrorist threats around the world; that cooperation is more difficult to gain when America is not seen as actively engaged in trying to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Moving toward resolution of the conflict would not eliminate anti-American feelings, but it would reduce them. That is what happened during the Oslo period when attitudes toward both the United States and Israel were improving in the Muslim world.

We understand that working to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian agreement will involve political risks. But sustained American leadership in fostering a consensus will help secure the lives of both Israelis and Palestinians, and make safer the lives of Americans at home - as well as the lives of the 140,000 American men and women in uniform in the Middle East today.

We believe the overwhelming majority of Americans will support their leadership facilitating this effort. Polls show this is what the vast majority of Israelis and Palestinians want as well. That is why we are joining Americans of both parties - including former Cabinet members and military, business, academic and Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders - in publicly supporting Bush in his efforts to advance an Israeli-Palestinian agreement.

This is a moment when politics must stop at the water's edge. We must help Bush in seizing it.

Mark Sanford is governor of South Carolina. Jeanne Shaheen is a former governor of New Hampshire and one of 150 leaders across the U.S. supporting the Campaign for American Leadership in the Middle East. THE DAILY STAR publishes this in collaboration with the Common Ground News Service.

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