The Baltimore Sun

Peace requires firm stand against extremists

By G. Jefferson Price III
Perspective Editor

June 15, 2003

President Bush might be forgiven if he were to look at his advisers and demand to know whose bright idea it was to become re-engaged in trying to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His pre-Sept. 11 idea that the Israelis and the Palestinians should be left to their own devices must be looking pretty sensible these days.

No sooner had Bush gotten Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas to shake hands on the so-called "road map" to peace than the bloodletting between their people had resumed with a vengeance. The prospects for peace in the Promised Land do not look promising, and there may be nothing anyone can do to stop the sort of violence that left scores of Israelis and Palestinians of all genders and ages dead last week.

Nothing anyone in charge is able or willing to do, at least. The most uncompromising elements of both sides have disproportionate influence in the cycle of violence that has killed thousands of Palestinians and hundreds of Israelis in the past three years. That's not to mention the thousands who have been injured, many of them maimed.

Most Palestinians and most Israelis want to live in peace. Many of them don't give a hoot about the holy places that the ultra-religious on both sides believe to be worth dying for. I've spoken to many Palestinians who abhor the murderous activities of the Islamic fundamentalists and resent their own leadership for its inability and unwillingness to crack down on them. I've spoken to many Israelis who abhor the ultra-religious nationalism that makes settlements in the West Bank and Gaza sacrosanct and requires a government that will economically support and militarily defend them.

The average Israeli wants to be able to live safely, in dignity, to enjoy the beauty of the land, to cultivate it, to educate his children and to enjoy political freedom and a flourishing economy. The average Palestinian wants the same. The uncompromising ends of their respective spectrums are the ones clamoring for more. They are the Palestinians who want all of what was Palestine for themselves, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. They are the Israelis who want it all for themselves, Eretz Israel, the Land of Israel, from the river to the sea. Neither people could have what they want without eliminating the other.

Israeli governments, it must be acknowledged, have given up more for the sake of peace than the Arabs have since the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948 and since its conquest of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza and all of the Sinai peninsula and the Syrian Golan Heights in 1967. They gave Sinai back to the Egyptians. In Oslo, they signed a framework for peace with the Palestinians that allowed the Palestinian leadership under the once-reviled Yasser Arafat to establish its authority and have an armed police force of its own in the West Bank and Gaza. And for a while, it looked as if it might work.

But the forces of evil and destruction and rejection on both sides managed to undo the peace. In Israel, a crazed man of the religious right assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who had signed the accords with the Palestinians. This happened in an environment in which Rabin was being accused of being a Nazi and a sympathizer to Arab terrorism. On the Palestinian side, the Islamic fundamentalists had opened a campaign of suicide bombings that devastated Israel and destroyed the momentum for peace. Benjamin Netanyahu, a right-wing nationalist, was elected prime minister.

Between them, Netanyahu, and Arafat through his unwillingness to crack down on the militant wings, watched as the Oslo accord perished.

Netanyahu and Arafat hated each other as only two men with little imagination for anything else can do. Then came Sharon, from the same political party as Netanyahu, with credentials as a warrior, not a peacemaker.

The road map for peace in the Middle East sees two overwhelming obstacles to success. One is terrorism. The other is the issue of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, the very land which would comprise a Palestinian state to which Sharon has committed himself.

After their meeting with President Bush in Jordan, both Abbas and Sharon committed to do something about these obstacles. Sharon actually sent Israeli forces out to dismantle some fairly new outposts erected by settlers. Even though the settlers were enraged, and the likelihood that Sharon would remove all of Israel's 200,000 settlers from the West Bank and Gaza is remote, dismantling the outposts was considered an important symbolic step. Abbas' promise to negotiate a truce with the Islamic militants was less impressive.

Then the violence resumed. Palestinians killed Israeli soldiers. Israel tried to assassinate a Hamas leader. Hamas sent a young suicide bomber to Jerusalem, where he set off a bomb that killed 16 other people and wounded about 100 more. Israel retaliated with helicopter attacks in Gaza and the West Bank that killed a dozen or so Palestinians. As I write this column Friday, news is coming in of more killing.

Some people on both sides must be pleased that all this bloodshed has resumed, hurling the road map walkers into a stone wall. But it isn't the majority of the people in Israel or Palestine. Their hopes won't be fulfilled until leaders on all sides - including the President of the United States - have the courage to defy and even destroy the parts of their constituencies that believe only one side deserves what it wants.

Copyright © 2003, The Baltimore Sun