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Middle East vortex

Beyond Iraq and the fight against terrorism, serious security and foreign policy challenges face the winner of the 2004 election.'s Kari Huus reports on 5 crises that can't be ignored.

Since the collapse of Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations shepherded by President Clinton at the end of his second term, the two sides have been sucked back into a vortex of violence.

It was just over four years ago that Israeli opposition leader, now Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, made a controversial visit to a Jerusalem holy site valued by Jews and Muslims, setting off the current intifada against Israel.

Since then at least 3,070 Palestinians and 940 Israelis have been killed in a seemingly unending series of suicide bombings and Israeli incursions and rocket attacks.

The Bush administration has promoted the idea of the “road map” for peace, calling for mutual steps toward and interim Palestinian state in 2005. But since its adoption last year by the “Quartet” peace mediators -- the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations the process has been in paralysis. Ministers of the group said after a meeting last Wednesday that no significant progress has been made in implementing it.

“I would say, without qualification, there has been no peace process since the end of the Clinton administration,” said Dennis Ross, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy at a recent speech for the Council on Foreign Relations.

While President Clinton can be faulted for gambled heavily on Israeli-Palestinian peace, and ultimately lost, Ross faults Bush for not investing in Mideast peace at all, but deciding instead to assert U.S. power in the region by going after Iran and Iraq. “There was a sense that the Clinton administration had made the effort, it didn’t work -– what’s the point of throwing good money after bad?” said Ross, who was deeply involved in U.S. policy in the region from the 1980s through the end of the Clinton administration.

But the conflict is clearly not going away. And it will be difficult to ignore because it has an impact on the whole region – providing a rallying point for militant groups and terrorists. And the perception of U.S. indifference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict makes it more difficult to rally Arab support for other U.S. initiatives, such as halting Iran’s likely pursuit of nuclear weapons.