In a speech Monday night at the Freeman Center for Jewish Life, U.S. Rep. David Price, D-N.C., called for vigorous American engagement in the Middle East peace process and commitment to the so-called "road map" for step-by-step Israeli-Palestinian accommodations.
Price, a professor of public policy and political science who has been on leave from the University since successfully running for Congress in 1986, was invited to speak by Duke Friends of Israel. His speech stressed the importance of keeping Israel in mind, even as terrorism and Iraq reconstruction dominate headlines.
"Any program for stabilizing the Middle East is going to be incomplete unless and until it addresses the issue [of Israel]," he said.
"Israel's long-term viability as a Jewish democratic state is at stake here."
In Price's view, relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority will remain in a "death grip" unless a third-party is involved, with the most powerful intervening country being the United States. He said 858 Israelis and 2,468 Palestinians have died since the collapse of peace negotiations in September 2000.
The best hope in the eyes of many is the "road map" that calls for incremental concessions and requires trust from both sides--which Price admitted is politically problematic and vulnerable to sabotage.
As violence in the region continues, the "road map" has been compromised and its future as a viable plan is in doubt. That, Price said, is all the more reason for a strong American presence in the region. "I'm certain it can't work without active day-to-day American engagement," he said.
He said the commitment of the United States to aggressive engagement has been divided within the executive branch of the federal government. While the State Department continues to remain actively in the region, he said, President George W. Bush announced early in his presidency that he advocates a reduced role for America in the peace process.
Quoting New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, however, Price said a credible peace deal is no longer a U.S. luxury but is essential to homeland security, as suicide bombings may soon be viewed as a viable weapon against the United States.
Also explored briefly by Price was the issue of Syria, a country that has been accused of aiding and abetting terrorists and has historically had a tumultuous diplomatic relationship with the United States. He said despite half-hearted efforts on many issues--including shutting down the headquarters of terrorist organizations Hezbollah and Hamas, expelling foreign terrorists and continuing to occupy southern Lebanon--Syria has also been remarkably cooperative on combating al Qaeda presence within its borders.
Twice in the 1990s, he said, an Israel-Syria peace agreement came tantalizingly close to reality.
"Syria's a tough customer and calls for some stern measures," Price said, "but Syria also has a unique stake in a Middle East peace that we need to somehow build upon."
As far as peace between Israel and the Palestinians, Price said the current conflict was remarkable, given that most parties involved have a similar vision for the final peace agreement. The problem, he said, was reaching a consensus in the face of mistrust and "obstacles" like Palestinian Liberation Authority Chair Yasser Arafat, who he said should not be isolated so aggressively because that gives him credibility within the Palestinian community.
He called Arafat's dismissal of a proposed 2000 Camp David peace plan "a major abdication of a historic responsibility."
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