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Needed: A Bush Stand for Palestinian Rights This Could Help Set the Stage for a Wider Peace and Normalized Relations between Israel and Its Neighbors

Article excerpt

IF Saddam Hussein is facing his moment of truth, President Bush is confronting in the Middle East the defining moment of his presidency.

That the battle against tyranny is being won is now incontestable. The way things have been going on the battlefield should have sobered many doubters. What will come after the guns fall silent, however, is the real challenge. At the center of this challenge is the Palestine problem.

Now that the war has been going on for a month, the controversy over linkage or no linkage has become meaningless. The practical, cynical linkage has been nailed.

Not so the moral linkage. The cynicism with which an inherently just cause was, and is, still being manipulated does not make it less just or less urgent. Few causes have been as blatantly exploited to serve the narrow interests of some groups or rulers as the Palestinian issue.

Nevertheless, few disinterested people could now deny that among all the Middle East's problems this issue is the most important.

Furthermore, the Palestinian issue readily intertwines with and complicates all other problems in the region. How much more at ease we could all feel had we worked in a more sustained manner to resolve a problem that has been with us for some 43 years.

The nightmares that many experience when Saddam's largely "political" missiles, as President Mubarak described them, are fired at Israel should go a long way toward making people rethink their reluctance to give the Palestinian cause the priority it deserves.

Paradoxically, the Gulf war presents us with an unprecedented opportunity. The indivisibility of the security of the region has become apparent. Few states, within or outside the area, can claim they have no stake in the resolution of the Palestine problem.

Still more significant is the change in attitude of the Arab Gulf states, which in the past had reckoned they need not be involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict beyond extending financial assistance to Palestinians.

It is hardly a secret among Washington policymakers that some of these oil-rich states, which have borne most of the financial cost of the Arab-Israeli conflict, recently made it clear to visiting Americans that they would now accept full normalization of relations with Israel - provided it takes place within an overall solution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. At the root of that conflict, they firmly believe, is the Palestinian problem.

Since Israel has recently insisted on establishing peaceful relations with its neighboring Arab states as a precondition for settling its dispute with the Palestinians, this new development in the attitude of the Gulf countries is of critical importance.

In this context, a properly structured international conference should be convened. And the appropriate time is soon after the Gulf war ends.

Only in such a venue can we resolve all the complex issues related to the solution of the Palestinian problem, the normalization of relations among all states of the region, and the formulation of security arrangements needed to rid the region of all weapons of mass destruction.

All these issues require the involvement of the big powers, not to impose their will but rather to mediate, facilitate, and provide the necessary guarantees, as well as the economic aid without which the mammoth task of reconstruction will be impossible. …