WASHINGTON – The Pentagon's No. 2 official voiced support Thursday for an unofficial drive for a two-state solution to conflict in the Middle East, showing the administration's frustration with hard-line leaders on both sides.
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz (search) praised the petition drive by a prominent Palestinian moderate and the former head of Israel's secret service. Wolfowitz said he met last week with Israeli Adm. Ami Ayalon (search) and Palestinian professor Sari Nusseibeh (search), who say they have collected 100,000 Israeli and 60,000 Palestinian signatures on their petition in just three months.
Their petition calls for Israel to withdraw to the borders it had before the 1967 war in which it captured the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The document calls for a demilitarized Palestinian state in those territories.
In a lecture at Georgetown University, Wolfowitz said the petition's principles "look very much like" the Bush administration's "road map" to a peaceful, two-state solution by 2005.
"One of the keys to achieving peace is to somehow mobilize majorities on both sides so the extremists who oppose it can be isolated," Wolfowitz said. "As Americans, we know there are times when great changes can extend from the grass roots."
Wolfowitz said the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was a huge obstacle in the United States' efforts to cultivate better relations with the moderate Muslims who are the best defense against terrorism.
"It is clear the solution to this problem can only come through political means," he said.
Wolfowitz did not mention Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat (search) or Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) by name. Instead, he praised past "great leaders" such as the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat (search), King Hussein of Jordan and former Israeli leaders Shimon Perez and the assassinated Yitzhak Rabin (search).
The deputy defense secretary suggested that bypassing current leaders on both sides was key to a peaceful solution.
"The cause of peace in the Middle East will be enormously advanced if Israelis and Palestinians can demonstrate overwhelming numbers in support of compromise and in opposition to terrorism," Wolfowitz said.
He had harsh words for both sides, criticizing Israel for continuing settlements in the occupied territories and causing Palestinian suffering in those territories. He said Palestinians must stop terrorist attacks on Israel.
"If the Palestinians would adopt the ways of Gandhi (search), I think they could, in fact, make enormous changes very, very quickly," Wolfowitz said. "I believe in the power of individuals demonstrating peacefully."
Wolfowitz said a series of suicide bombings and Israeli reprisals in recent months seriously hurt the peace process.
"The bombings and the violent response to the bombings in the last several months have certainly been a big setback, and we've got to get it back on track," Wolfowitz said.