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The room broke into applause. Abbas and Olmert delivered speeches of their own. “Freedom is the single word that stands for the future of the Palestinians,” President Abbas said. “I believe that there is no path other than peace. … I believe it is time. We are ready,” Prime Minister Olmert said.

It was a historic moment to see the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia listen respectfully to the prime minister of Israel and applaud his words. The Annapolis conference was hailed as a surprise success. “The cynicism about the Annapolis talks shouldn’t overshadow the hope that came out of the effort,” the Los Angeles Times wrote.

Shortly after Annapolis, the two sides opened negotiations on a peace agreement, with Ahmed Qurei representing the Palestinians and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni representing the Israelis. Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, an economist with a Ph.D. from the University of Texas, began carrying out long-needed reforms in the Palestinian economy and security forces. We sent financial assistance and deployed a high-ranking general to help train the Palestinian security forces. The day he left Downing Street, Tony Blair accepted a post as special envoy to help the Palestinians build the institutions of a democratic state. It wasn’t glamorous work, but it was necessary. “If I win the Nobel Peace Prize,” Tony joked, “you will know I have failed.”

The negotiations resolved some important issues, but it was clear that striking an agreement would require more involvement from the leaders. With my approval, Condi quietly oversaw a separate channel of talks directly between Abbas and Olmert. The dialogue culminated in a secret proposal from Olmert to Abbas. His offer would have returned the vast majority of the territory in the West Bank and Gaza to the Palestinians, accepted the construction of a tunnel connecting the two Palestinian territories, allowed a limited number of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel, established Jerusalem as a joint capital of both Israel and Palestine, and entrusted control of the holy sites to a panel of nonpolitical elders.

We devised a process to turn the private offer into a public agreement. Olmert would travel to Washington and deposit his proposal with me. Abbas would announce that the plan was in line with Palestinian interests. I would call the leaders together to finalize the deal.

The development represented a realistic hope for peace. But once again, an outside event intervened. Olmert had been under investigation for his financial dealings when he was mayor of Jerusalem. By late summer, his political opponents had enough ammunition to bring him down. He was forced to announce his resignation in September.

Abbas didn’t want to make an agreement with a prime minister on his way out of office. The talks broke off in the final weeks of my administration, after Israeli forces launched an offensive in Gaza in response to Hamas rocket attacks.

While I was disappointed that the Israelis and Palestinians could not finalize an agreement, I was pleased with the progress we had made. Eight years earlier, I had taken office during a raging intifada, with Yasser Arafat running the Palestinian Authority, Israeli leaders committed to a Greater Israel policy, and Arab nations complaining from the sidelines. By the time I left, the Palestinians had a president and prime minister who rejected terrorism. The Israelis had withdrawn from some settlements and supported a two-state solution. And Arab nations were playing an active role in the peace process.

The struggle in the Holy Land is no longer Palestinian versus Israeli, or Muslim versus Jew. It is between those who seek peace and extremists who promote terror. And there is consensus that democracy is the foundation on which to build a just and lasting peace. Realizing that vision will require courageous leadership from both sides and from the United States.

Jacques Chirac and I didn’t agree on much. The French president opposed removing Saddam Hussein. He called Yasser Arafat a “man of courage.” At one meeting, he told me, “Ukraine is part of Russia.”

So it came as quite a surprise when Jacques and I found an area of agreement at our meeting in Paris in early June 2004. Chirac brought up democracy in the Middle East, and I braced myself for another lecture. But he continued: “In this region, there are just two democracies. One is strong, Israel. The other is fragile, Lebanon.” I didn’t mention that he’d left out a new democracy, Iraq.

He described Lebanon’s suffering under the occupation of Syria, which had tens of thousands of troops in the country, siphoned money from the economy, and strangled attempts to expand democracy. He suggested that we work together to stop Syria from dominating Lebanon. I immediately agreed. We decided to look for an opportunity to introduce a UN resolution.

In August 2004, Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, a Syrian puppet, gave us our opening. He announced he would extend his term in office, a violation of the Lebanese constitution. Chirac and I cosponsored UN Resolution 1559, which protested Lahoud’s decision and demanded that Syria withdraw its forces. It passed on September 2, 2004.

For six months, Syria responded with defiance. Then, on February 14, 2005, a huge car bomb in Beirut destroyed the motorcade of Rafiq Hariri, Lebanon’s pro-independence former prime minister. All the evidence pointed to a Syrian plot. We recalled our ambassador from Damascus and supported a UN investigation.

A week after Hariri’s murder, Chirac and I had dinner in Brussels. We issued a joint statement calling the car bombing a “terrorist act” and reiterated our support for a “sovereign, independent, and democratic Lebanon.” Chirac and I rallied Arab nations to pressure Syrian President Basher Assad to comply with the UN resolution. On the one-month anniversary of Hariri’s murder, nearly a million Lebanese people—a quarter of the nation’s population— turned out at Martyrs’ Square in Beirut to protest Syria’s occupation. People began to speak of a Cedar Revolution, named for the tree in the middle of Lebanon’s flag.

The Syrians got the message. Under the combined pressure of the international community and the Lebanese people, Syrian occupation troops began to withdraw in late March. By the end of April, they were gone. “People used to be afraid to say anything here,” one Lebanese citizen told a reporter. “People seemed to be opening up more today, and feeling more comfortable to speak their mind.”

That spring, the anti-Syrian March 14 Movement won a majority of seats in the parliament. Fouad Siniora, a close adviser to the slain Hariri, was named prime minister.

The Cedar Revolution marked one of the most important successes of the freedom agenda. It took place in a multi-religious country with a Muslim majority. It happened with strong diplomatic pressure from the free world and with no American military involvement. The people of Lebanon achieved their independence for the simplest of reasons: They wanted to be free.

The triumph of democracy in Lebanon came two months after the free elections in Iraq and the election of President Abbas in the Palestinian Territories. Never before had three Arab societies made so much progress toward democracy. Lebanon, Iraq, and Palestine had the potential to serve as the foundation of a free and peaceful region.

“It’s strange for me to say it, but this process of change has started because of the American invasion of Iraq,” Lebanese political leader Walid Jumblatt said. “I was cynical about Iraq. But when I saw the Iraqi people voting three weeks ago, eight million of them, it was the start of a new Arab world. The Syrian people, the Egyptian people, all say that something is changing. The Berlin Wall has fallen. We can see it.”

He wasn’t the only one who observed the trend or recognized its consequences. The rising tide of democracy in the Middle East in 2005 jolted the extremists. In 2006, they fought back.

On July 12, 2006, Laura and I stopped in Germany on our way to the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her husband, Professor Joachim Sauer, had invited us to the town of Stralsund, which was in Angela’s home district. Laura and I were fascinated by Angela’s description of growing up in communist East Germany. She told us her childhood was happy, but her mother constantly warned her not to mention their family discussions in public. The secret police, the Stasi, were everywhere. Laura and I thought of Angela at Camp David when we watched The Lives of Others, a movie depicting life under the Stasi. It was hard to believe that less than twenty years had passed since tens of millions of Europeans lived like that. It was a reminder of how dramatically freedom could change a society.

In addition to serving as a staunch advocate for freedom, Angela was trustworthy, engaging, and warm. She quickly became one of my closest friends on the world stage.

With Angela Merkel at a pig roast near her hometown in former East Germany. White House/Eric Draper

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