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To Those Who Would Count Stones Thrown

Crunch time approaches, as we have known for years it one day would. The texture of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is about to undergo a seismic shift.

Very soon now — in mid-December, it’s said — we will have the report of the Iraq Study Group, co-chaired by former secretary of state James Baker and former congressman Lee Hamilton. While no one can be certain just what the study group will recommend, there is foundation to the persistent rumors that it will propose the involvement of Syria and Iran in resolving the Iraq crisis.

Given President Bush’s stated views regarding both Syria and Iran, it is difficult at first blush to imagine that the administration in Washington will accept such a proposal. At the same time, given the ever-deepening disaster in Iraq and the urgent need to go beyond the idle hope that the Iraqis themselves will take control of their country, the president does not have an array of appealing alternatives at his disposal.

At this particularly ugly stage of the chronic crisis in the Middle East, a stage that has brought the United States to near desperation in its search for a face-saving exit strategy, the readiness of Syria and Iran to become part of the solution will come, if at all, at a very high price.

No, that price will not include the destruction of Israel. Syria and Iran both know that neither the United States nor the European Union — to say nothing of Israel itself — would agree to such a price. But those who have followed the careers of both Baker and Hamilton know that both have an abiding interest in resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict. They are quite likely, therefore, to make a resolution of that conflict part of their proposal for ending the Iraq war.

When Yitzhak Rabin endorsed the Oslo process, he did not do so out of an excess of dovish sentiment. Rabin was, in fact, a peculiarly unsentimental man. He had a sophisticated strategic grasp: Following the end of the Cold War, he came to believe that a window of opportunity had opened for Israel and that Israel, for its own safety and security, had to use that window before it closed. It would close, he believed, as Iraq (then) and Iran (then and now) became serious regional powers.

Now it closes. Here are Iraq and Iran and Syria, too, potential key players in the resolution of America’s most aggravated current crisis, and now, through a back door that could not have been predicted during Rabin’s time, substantially more directly involved in the “other” Middle East crisis, the chronic Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

For months now, Israel’s political leaders have been beating the Iran drum, seeking to warn the world of Iran’s malicious intentions and its gathering capacity to pursue those intentions, calling for decisive action to blunt the threat. Yet there is zero prospect that the United States will decide to destroy that capacity through military action.

American intelligence cannot be certain it knows where all Iran’s nuclear projects are taking place, and it certainly does not know the location of all Iran’s strategic missiles. Even a spectacularly successful bombing raid against Iran would need to be followed up by ground troops, and that is simply not going to happen.

Hence diplomacy, likely on a grand scale, a search to resolve as many of the destabilizing regional issues as possible. If Israel and the Palestinians are hopelessly stuck — and they are — pull them, kicking and screaming as they will, into some sort of comprehensive settlement of their conflict, most likely based broadly on the Saudi-Arab League proposal that Israel has stonewalled since its first articulation in 2002.

It is neither friendship nor enmity toward Israel that will prompt such an approach, but the emerging grand strategy for the Middle East, as also a rising impatience with a conflict that, always lethal, has now become tedious — and a declining confidence that an obdurate and even hateful Hamas, a terminally timid Mahmoud Abbas, and a clueless Ehud Olmert will suddenly find their own way toward peace, the new and surprising six-month cease-fire notwithstanding.

Yes, clueless. It is sufficient to recall Olmert’s nonsensical statement at his joint press conference with Bush on November 11: “We in the Middle East have followed the American policy in Iraq for a long time, and we are very much impressed and encouraged by the stability which the great operation of America in Iraq brought to the Middle East. We pray and hope that this policy will be fully successful so that this stability which was created for all the moderate countries in the Middle East will continue.” Even Bush must have wondered what Olmert had been smoking.

And Amir Peretz? He regards the “smear campaign” against him as “first and foremost a strike at the national morale,” as if unaware that his approval rating in Israel stands at 14%, and that his departure from the Defense Ministry would immediately raise national morale.

One may lament or celebrate the prospect of a solution essentially imposed. One may lay principal blame on Israel’s failures, on the Palestinians’, or at the feet of the international community, especially the United States. Or one may choose to refrain from blame, instead welcoming an imperfect peace as an option more appealing than today’s hopeless misery — unless, improbably, the cease-fire leads to productive negotiations.

As to those who prefer to argue who it was that threw the first stone, or the most recent stone, they are delusional if they see any purpose to their pursuit. Who cares? By now there have been so many stones the skies are dark. No new sun will be summoned by those who spend their time counting and tagging the stones.

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