The Palestinian issue has always been the "Rosetta stone," the key to unlocking the puzzle, of the Arab-Israeli conflict, said Geoffrey Kemp, a former National Security Council staffer now at the Nixon Center, a Washington think tank. "Resolve this and a lot of things fall into place."
Richard J. Stoll, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston, called the conflict "the single greatest impediment to convincing people in the region that we are pretty good folks."
Middle East analysts say the importance of a lasting peace agreement between the two sides cannot be overestimated because much of the world, Muslim and otherwise, believes the United States has sided too closely with Israel and must lean more heavily on its longtime ally to make compromises.
"You travel the world, that's the first issue that comes up," said Judith Kipper, director of the Middle East Forum at the Council on Foreign Relations. "The symbolic importance of this conflict is so great it must be resolved. ... And it's time. Fifty years of conflict is enough."
"This is what creates such fertile ground for the hate-filled propaganda" of militant leaders such as Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Siegman said.
Similarly, Richard Murphy, a former diplomat who held ambassadorial posts in Syria, the Philippines and Saudi Arabia, said, "There's exploitation of the issue by extreme Islamist types like bin Laden as a major case proving America is the enemy of Islam."
"The fact is, you don't have to be an extremist to be concerned that the forces of globalization are just another name for American dominance and depriving Arabs of their identity," Murphy said. That perception can be eased if the United States is seen as "encouraging and participating" in achieving peace.
Regional specialists also expressed optimism that an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement would have "an immediate and positive effect," as the Nixon Center's Kemp put it, on other Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and Syria to come to terms with Israel.
If peace is achieved, Kemp said, it "puts the Syrians under enormous pressure to complete negotiations on the Golan Heights," territory that Israel captured in 1967 and later annexed.
Siegman, of the Council on Foreign Relations, said that the United States' playing a significant role in moving Israel and the Palestinians toward peace would help the relationship with European states "in very serious ways, not marginal."
Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution who recently co-edited a book on Islam and democracy, said peace and the potential flourishing of a democratic Palestinian state could make things difficult for authoritarian regimes in the region.
For years, Diamond said, these regimes, with help from the Arab media, have diverted the anger of their people from their own misrule by portraying the Palestinians as the symbol of Arab suffering. Peace might "stimulate democratic change in the region" by causing those populations to turn inward, away from the plight of the Palestinians, and calling their leaders to account, Diamond said.