Bad directions

The much-anticipated ''road map'' is unlikely to lead the Israelis and Palestinians anywhere

By Tom Segev, 5/18/2003

IN A BOOKSTORE NEAR Harvard Square, I recently came across ''The Complete Idiot's Guide to Middle East Conflict.'' Flipping through its pages, I realized that I still have a lot to learn. Indeed, with dramatic events following each other in rapid succession, one is constantly required to re-evaluate one's views, cope with surprises and disappointments, and react to grotesque situations.

Three years ago, most Israelis expected the Oslo peace process to produce a genuine settlement with the Palestinians. But then, in the final days of 2000, it exploded in our faces. Most Israelis are no longer optimistic. Thirty months of Palestinian terrorism have revived the tribal closeness that marked the early days of the state and brought out primal anxieties that seemed to have been long overcome.

Even some supporters of a compromise agreement have lost much of their enthusiasm. Who can blame them? You sit in a cafe with equally liberal-minded friends, talking peace and human rights, withdrawal from the territories and Palestinian independence. If you're lucky, the place doesn't blow up while you're still there-only after you've left. And then you feel stupid, as if the terrorists had aimed at you and your hopes in particular.

Discussing the newly unfolded ''road map'' to peace on his recent Middle Eastern trip, Secretary of State Colin Powell tried to look optimistic, in the true American tradition. But Israelis and Palestinians have little reason to share his attitude. Indeed, they probably cannot make peace-not at this time, or any time soon.

It's worth recalling, however, that peace between Israel and the Palestinians has rarely seemed a likely proposition. Several days after Israel occupied the old city of Arab East Jerusalem during the Six Day War of 1967, the former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion urged Teddy Kollek, the mayor of Jerusalem, to expel Arabs who had been living there in houses formerly inhabited by Jews. Kollek replied that, according to the law, he could not do that. Ben-Gurion's reaction is recorded in his diary: ''No need for any law. Occupation is the best law!'' Those particular Arabs were, in fact, eventually forced out.

At that time, some Israelis, including Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, sustained the hope that the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip could be transferred to other areas, even as far away as Iraq. Ben-Gurion, who was at least partially responsible for the deportation of Palestinians in 1948, commented drily in his diary, ''It will not be easy to get rid of them.'' He was right. Their number has more than doubled since 1967 and their situation remains appalling.

The Palestinians continue to be subjected to the ''best law''-the law of occupation-as Israel constantly violates their most basic human rights and imposes various forms of collective punishment. Extremist Palestinians resort to the cruelest acts of terrorism. Extremist Israelis continue to believe that the Palestinians should be transferred somewhere else.

The military action in Iraq has not changed the situation much. Many people-including the authors of the road map-don't seem to understand that neither Israelis nor Palestinian Arabs act cool-headedly in accordance with their true national interests. In stipulating that the Middle East conflict will be over once and for all in 2005, the road map is a rather naive, even childish document.

After all, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not just about living conditions, land, borders, and security; it's also about fear and hatred, religion, myth and history. We are willing to fight each other most vehemently to defend not only our real interests, but also our monopoly on the status of victim. As long as we act in such a way, we cannot resolve the conflict-we can only hope to manage it.

Unfortunately, the Oslo process that began in 1993 was badly managed. Today, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat accuse each other of missing an historic opportunity: ''We were that close,'' they both say, each using the same body language, lifting thumb and index finger in the air to point out just how close they were before the negotiations broke down in January 2001. Barak offered the Palestinians more than any other Israeli government had, but it wasn't enough for Arafat to accept. They found no solution to the refugee or settlement problems, and they couldn't agree on a power-sharing scheme in Jerusalem. The city has been an unsolved problem for 3,000 years and may well remain one for the next 3,000 years.

Managing the conflict will require Israel to discontinue at least the most oppressive measures against the Palestinian population-like curfews and closures, house demolitions and humiliating harassment at road blocks. Rather than eliminate terrorism, such measures are more likely to create new generations of terrorists.

Israelis and Palestinians must fight terrorism together. Painful as it may be, the Israelis must recognize that terrorist attacks cannot be stopped entirely-and efforts to reduce the tension must nevertheless continue. Israel should unilaterally dismantle isolated settlements in the occupied territories, particularly in the Gaza Strip. A source of aggravation and animosity, these settlements have contributed nothing to Israel's security or national aims. Once they're gone, historians of Zionism probably won't even grant them a footnote.

For their part, the Palestinians should accept independence, even before the main issues-borders, refugees, settlements, Jerusalem-have been resolved. Once they've experienced statehood for a considerable length of time, perhaps a generation, they may become more realistic and give up their present intractable demands for a right of return for the 1948 refugees, and for the restoration of the 1967 borders with full Palestinian sovereignty over East Jerusalem. Israel will never accept these demands. After tasting independence, developing their own national institutions, recording their national achievements and mistakes, the Palestinians may become willing to accept realities that they so vehemently reject today.

No, neither Yasser Arafat nor Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is the statesmen-manager the conflict needs. Both in their 70s, they are men of war and national struggle: As long as they are in power, no truly rational conflict management can be expected. Arafat continues to lead his people even after the appointment of Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.

Still, a broad historical view shows that all hope is not lost. For although there was a time when the Arab states refused to accept the very existence of Israel in their midst, two of them-Egypt and Jordan-have since made peace with her. And while the Palestinians once maintained that Jews living in Palestine should go back to the countries of their origin, today many Palestinian leaders are willing to accept the existence of Israel within its 1967 borders.

Prime Minister Golda Meir used to say that there is no such thing as a Palestinian people and subsequent governments said they would never negotiate with the PLO. But they did. They said they would never accept a Palestinian state. And now they do. Barak even broke the sacred taboo that forbade any consideration of power-sharing in Jerusalem. Arabs and Israelis have moved closer to each other, and presumably toward a two-state settlement, however depressingly slow the pace. We still have a very long road ahead of us-one with many more detours than Bush's new road map, and no shortcuts.

Tom Segev, a historian and columnist for the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, is a visiting professor at Northeastern University. His most recent book is ''Elvis in Jerusalem: Post-Zionism and the Americanization of Israel.''

© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.

open-the-circle.org