The year 2006 closed with a myriad of hopeful signs for the most seemingly intractable of Middle East disputes.
Egyptian, Jordanian and Saudi leaders are publicly promoting a peace process. Syria is interested in entering negotiations in order to alleviate international pressure, according to the Israeli Foreign Ministry and security spokesmen.
The findings of the Joint Palestinian-Israeli Public Opinion Poll released on Dec. 25 indicate a "strong preference in both publics for the comprehensive settlement option."
But we have seen hopeful signs in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before, only to watch them dashed by a spike in violence or counterproductive moves by one or more of the parties.
We could focus on the negatives, as some are. The situation in Iraq, in the words of the Iraq Study Group, is "grave and deteriorating." Civil wars also loom in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. Iran's threats to Israel grow more bellicose, while it moves ahead with its nuclear program, and expanding its jihadist influence into Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.
So we have a choice to make: Do we believe that the forces of violence or peace will prevail?
During the last week in December, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, following his meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, announced measures to ease restrictions on the lives of Palestinians. This was a bold step. Unfortunately, it was followed the next day by an announcement that the government would revive a settlement in the West Bank.
One step forward; one step back.
The second decision runs counter to the first and undermines Israel's attempt to strengthen Abbas. It could lead to yet another promising opportunity weakened or even missed, this time by a government catering to settler demands.
The next day, a Kassam rocket fired from Gaza by Islamic Jihad seriously wounded two teenagers walking down a street in Sederot. This was one of scores of rockets launched from Gaza since a cease-fire was declared between Israel and Palestinians a month earlier.
One step forward; one step back.
Israel has shown remarkable forbearance in the face of these attacks, which are designed to provoke a military response and subvert moves toward a peace process.
There are steps that the Bush administration, in partnership with the new Congress, can — and must — take now to turn the hopeful signs into a genuine peace process that would end the violence and result in two states: a Jewish State of Israel living alongside a Palestinian state in peace and security.
The administration and Congress must heed the Iraq Study Group's recommendation: "There must be a renewed and sustained commitment by the United States to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace."
The United States and Israel must remain focused on their shared goal of weakening the extremist forces on Israel's borders, in addition to confronting an increasingly dangerous Iran. Violent acts and rhetoric by extremists opposed to peace can only be thwarted by strengthening the Palestinian consensus for a two-state solution and bolstering Abbas.
While the Palestinians must take responsibility for the security situation in Gaza and the release of the kidnapped Cpl. Gilad Shalit, what Israel and America do also make a difference.
Vigorous diplomacy by both the United States and Israel with countries in the region, including Syria, is critical to reaching a shared goal of weakening the extremist elements. Engaging in a dialogue with Syria will tell us whether it can be pulled away from the regional axis of violence and Iran's sphere of influence. Now is the time to take their peace offer seriously, and assert a sustained and high-level diplomatic outreach to those nations.
President George W. Bush and the 110th Congress must place bringing peace to this important region and long-term security to Israel at the top of their agendas for 2007. Doing so would also remove an important anti-American rallying cry from jihadists and begin to rebuild America's standing in the world, so severely damaged by the war in Iraq.
The administration and Congress need the support of the American people to succeed in this critically important endeavor. And we need to act now, before these hopeful signs that emerged at the end of last year are washed away, and another opportunity to bring peace to the Middle East is missed.
Seymour D. Reich is president of the Israel Policy Forum.