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Wednesday, February 8, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnists

U.S. leadership essential for Israeli-Palestinian peace

Special to The Times

Hamas' upset victory in Palestinian elections and the incapacitating illness of Ariel Sharon have cast doubts on the prospects of peacemaking efforts in the region.

While the world awaits the form and policies of new Palestinian and Israeli governments, consistent and determined U.S. leadership will be more essential than ever to prevent another disastrous spiral of violence and, hopefully, assure continued progress toward peace.

President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have responded carefully to the democratic Palestinian election results — on the one hand appreciating that Hamas' victory sends a clear message that Palestinians want a government committed to reform and responsible provision of essential services, and, on the other, warning Hamas that the United States stands firm in opposing terrorism and supporting a two-state solution.

The immediate challenge for the United States, in coordination with its other partners in the Quartet (Russia, the European Union and the United Nations), is to achieve a lasting cease-fire and then work to get both new governments to take steps toward a negotiated two-state solution.

While this vision is in conflict with Hamas' charter, which rejects Israel's existence and calls for its replacement by an Islamic state, it is clearly a vision of peace supported by majorities of Palestinians and Israelis. Remembering that until the late 1980s, neither the Palestine Liberation Organization nor Israel recognized each other's existence or rights, it is our fervent hope that Hamas will put the long-term interests of the Palestinian people ahead of its ideology.

We support Middle Eastern religious leaders who signed the Alexandria Declaration to pray and work for an end to violence and peace in the Holy Land. We join with other American religious leaders of the National Interreligious Initiative for Peace in support of a sovereign, democratic and viable Palestinian state existing alongside the state of Israel, with peace and security for both peoples and a negotiated resolution of the status of Jerusalem.

The Bush administration should take the following timely steps:

• Press for an immediate, comprehensive and lasting cease-fire, a step that both Palestinian and Israeli leaders could support. Halting the cycle of violence is essential to giving peace a chance.

• Work to assure that the Gaza agreement, negotiated with crucial involvement by Rice, is fully implemented. This is important for building on the opportunity created by Israeli disengagement and for generating confidence on both sides that future agreements on more difficult issues can succeed.

• Insist that the Palestinian Authority and Israel implement their initial reciprocal obligations in the road map to peace. Fulfilling those basic obligations remains the best possible route to peace, and U.S. pressure will be essential to getting both sides to comply.

In the meantime, we must continue to support those Israeli and Palestinian leaders, whether in government or not, in standing firm against extremists who seek to further polarize the region and prolong the conflict for their own political ends. Leaders on both sides need to publicly affirm the principles of the road map in their communities and repudiate those elements opposed to compromise and co-existence.

At this time of crisis, one can easily give in to frustration and despair. However, it is precisely at this time that we need to remember that there is a deep human longing for peace and security among people on both sides.

And we need to remind ourselves progress toward peace has been based on the hard-learned reality that neither side can make the other side disappear and that the only realistic solution is a negotiated solution.

We pledge our prayers and active support for peace. Together we will build on cooperative relationships among religious leaders and congregations in the Greater Seattle area to generate public support, including bipartisan congressional support, for U.S. leadership in a fair and lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace. We believe that, by working together to build cooperative relationships both here and in the Middle East, we will be helping to lay the groundwork for the day when governments of both sides will answer the deep longing of both peoples for peace.

Rabbi Anson Laytner is the executive director of the American Jewish Committee's Seattle chapter; the Rev. Dr. Sanford Brown is executive director of the Church Council of Greater Seattle; Hisham A. Farajallah is president of the Islamic Center of Washington. For information on the National Interreligious Initiative for Peace, e-mail usicpme@aol.com

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