Waging peace

International | MIDDLE EAST: Iraq war critics may never acknowledge it, but isn't it possible that the capture of Saddam Hussein might have sparked momentum for peace in the region?

Issue: "Roe v. Wade @ 31," Jan. 17, 2004

Everyone remembers some of the reasons for going to war with Iraq: Toppling Saddam Hussein, freeing the Iraqi people, and finding weapons of mass destruction are constantly held up as benchmarks for success in the war effort.

But even before the first shot was fired, President Bush listed another justification for fighting, one that caused his critics to gnash their teeth at his naivetŽ. By ousting Saddam Hussein, the president promised, America could help usher in a new era of peace-even if not Western understandings of liberty (see next page)-in the Middle East.

Although the lion isn't exactly lying down with lamb, the last week did see a remarkable chain of events. India is talking with Pakistan. Israel is talking with Libya. And Ariel Sharon, Israel's hawkish prime minister, is talking peace with the Palestinians-and doing something about it.

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"It is clear that in a permanent peace accord, we will have to give up some of the Jewish settlements," Mr. Sharon told a convention of his Likud Party on Jan. 5, drawing boos and jeers. The following day, his government confirmed it had decided on a list of 28 outposts in the West Bank that would be dismantled. And that may be just the beginning: According to the Jerusalem Post, Mr. Sharon plans to close down some 60 outposts, displacing thousands of settlers.

The so-called Roadmap to Peace stipulated that all such settlements established since 2001 must be disbanded, and Mr. Sharon-after decades of support for the settlers-now seems willing to comply.

Why the sudden change? Efraim Halevy, a former chief of Israel's intelligence service, said the pullback from the West Bank stemmed from a new sense of security. Israel has long feared an attack from the east, and a populated West Bank would have served as a buffer for Israeli population centers. But with Saddam Hussein out of power, Israel may be more willing to deal with Palestinian lands on their own merits, and not merely as a strategic tool.

Israel appeared to be reaching out in other ways, as well. Despite denials by the Libyan news service, numerous sources indicate that at least three meetings between high-ranking Israeli and Libyan officials have already occurred-with more yet to come, now that Moammar Gadhafi has vowed to destroy his weapons of mass destruction.

Efraim Sneh, a lawmaker from the left-leaning Labor Party, told Israel Radio that he had met with Mr. Gadhafi's son, also named Moammar, at a recent academic conference. "My impression from this meeting was that Gadhafi has made a strategic decision, and he is not a man of small steps," Mr. Sneh said. "He will not stop halfway. He could go as far as relations with Israel, and beyond."

Other, higher-level meetings reportedly took place in Paris, under the sponsorship of the Qatari government, at the U.S. embassy in Vienna.

If relations between Israel and Libya are still too sensitive to be openly acknowledged, two other long-time enemies are talking publicly for the first time in years. India and Pakistan announced on Jan. 6 that they would hold diplomatic talks beginning in February, paving the way for the first normalized relations since alleged Muslim militants bombed the Indian parliament in 2002.

The two nuclear powers nearly went to war over that incident, and deadly scuffles along the border have been frequent since then. But Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has been a key Bush ally in the war on terror, and the administration is eager to see Pakistan brought more fully into the international mainstream. That, in turn, has pressured India to deal directly with its Muslim neighbor rather than relying on pro-Indian sentiment in the West.

All three diplomatic efforts still have a long way to go, and no one in the White House is ready to claim "peace in our time." Still, the flurry of encouraging news from across the region almost certainly has the president smiling-and his critics, once again, gnashing their teeth.


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