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Tentative steps on the road to peace

By Wolf Blitzer

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Having covered the Arab-Israeli conflict for some three decades, I tend to take a big picture look at the issues. When I was a young reporter in the early 1970s, Israel was literally at war with all its Arab neighbors -- Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon as well as the Palestinians.

But in the aftermath of the 1973 war, peace negotiations got off the ground, thanks in part to the active involvement of U.S. mediators, led first by then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and, later, by then-President Jimmy Carter. Israel signed a peace treaty with Egypt, the largest of all the Arab countries, in 1979.

That treaty survived the tensions of the 1980s, including the fallout from Israel's invasion of Lebanon. In the early 1990s, following the first Gulf War, the Israelis and Palestinians reached their so-called Oslo Agreement that was signed on the White House lawn in September 1993 -- with then-President Bill Clinton bringing together Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for a dramatic handshake. A year later, Israel signed a formal peace treaty with Jordan. I covered that signing ceremony at the southern Jordanian port city of Aqaba -- along the Israeli border.

Next week, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas will travel to Aqaba for a summit with President George Bush. Jordan's King Abdullah -- the son of the late King Hussein of Jordan and an early promoter of peace with Israel -- appropriately will host the meeting. It's an opportunity to reverse the death and destruction that followed the collapse of the Camp David peace process advanced by President Clinton more than two years ago. There's some reason for hope even as the dangers remain enormous.

Prime Minister Sharon has convinced his cabinet to accept a so-called two-state solution -- meaning Israel living alongside Palestinians. And Prime Minister Abbas has vowed to crack down on terror strikes against Israel. U.S. officials say Abbas is a good man who might be able to deliver. And even some of Israel's strongest supporters on Capitol Hill agree. "He's a very intelligent man," says Congressman Tom Lantos, the ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee. Lantos recently met with Abbas. "I made it very clear to him that we in the Congress are fully supportive of his efforts if he's serious," Lantos told me. "This is a chance that we should support."

President Bush already has his hands full dealing with nation-building in Afghanistan and Iraq. Now, he's about to take on the challenge of building a new state of Palestine while making certain that Israel's security concerns are protected. While some may call this mission impossible, I sense this is a moment the U.S. must seize because the alternative is even worse.

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