Claude Salhani
The Washington Times (Opinion)
March 7, 2008 - 6:23pm

After the misplaced euphoria brought about by the Annapolis peace summit and a naive belief by some that the Middle East dispute could be solved in less than 12 months — a typically mistaken assumption of the region — events have now taken a turn for the worse.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas made it known Monday he was calling off peace negotiations with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert after a series of Israeli raids into Gaza that killed and wounded scores of Palestinians. Israel's attacks on the overcrowded narrow coastal strip inhabited by 1.5 million Palestinians was retaliation for the shelling by Hamas of nearby Israeli population centers: the city of Sderot has been a favorite target of Hamas' homemade Qassam rockets.

Once again, Israelis and Palestinians are caught in an infernal cycle of violence in which there appears to be no end in sight. Israel's strong-arm tactics are meant to break the will of Hamas. The Islamist group finds its movements restricted to Gaza and hemmed in by Israel to the north and east, while the Mediterranean Sea to the west is patrolled by Israeli gunboats, and the one-time hermetically sealed frontier with Egypt, which of late has become, well, not as hermetic as initially intended.

But in this game of who will cry uncle first, Hamas doesn't seem quite ready to holler. Reports from Gaza say that after every Israeli raid Hamas organizes victory parades to show the Israelis they are still in the game.

One of the great dangers is that Mr. Olmert may feel the need for a military victory to reassert himself as a competent leader, following the great fiasco of the Second Lebanon War in summer 2006 and the continuing harassment by Hamas of Israeli towns and settlements bordering the Gaza Strip. The war against Hezbollah in 2006 left the Israeli prime minister in poor standing and today he is one of the most unpopular leaders the young state of Israel has ever had.

That was on the northern front. On the western front with Gaza, the situation isn't much better. It was hoped that the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the occupied strip would be followed by a period of nonviolence, if not peace. Instead a far more explosive situation than ever ensued.

That won't change anytime soon, unless leaders on both sides of the conflict — Palestinians as well as Israelis — show some real and unprecedented courage and a readiness to take risks in addressing the crisis.

Indeed, it requires far more courage to come up with a viable peace offer that the other side will accept. It requires far more soul-searching and innovative thinking to table a viable peace offer than to order one's military to launch attack after attack and then sit back and await further retaliation.

Horrible as the attacks by Palestinian guerrillas have been, and as regrettable as it may be for the civilians caught in the cross-fire, to date, one may look at the less dim side (there is no bright side) and be thankful the rockets did not hit a populated building, a school bus, or a group of children in a playground.

But when playing with the devil one always plays by his rules, and those rules demand there be no winners. If the situation continues unabated it is only a matter of time before one or the other side ends up committing "a regrettable mistake."

The real courage at this point would be to launch a peace initiative attractive to all parties. As an example, Syria, due to host an Arab League summit late this month, could make an unprecedented and historic overture to Israel by inviting its prime minister to participate in the meeting. Only Damascus is in a position to take such a bold step toward peace and publicly offer an olive branch to its longtime enemy.

If Damascus undertook such a move, it would have the support of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and most of the Gulf states. Syria would also enjoy the backing of its powerful neighbor to the north, Turkey, and of course the European Union.

George Bush's administration would find itself embarrassed by having to applaud such an initiative, despite its reservations regarding the regime of President Bashar Assad. For Israel, such an invitation would represent a real dilemma: go or not go?

Indeed, if such an offer were ever made, Mr. Olmert would find himself in quite a conundrum. He would never be forgiven for turning down such a historic offer, while accepting the invitation would require as much courage as it would have taken Damascus to make it.

This may sound like far-fetched, wishful thinking, but to break the unending cycle of violence and avoid having the Middle East descend into even deeper hostility, bold steps are needed. The question is: Will someone have the courage to take those very difficult and painful steps? Miracles have been known to happen.


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