New language in the Middle East

May 28, 2003

In the dialect of violence and bloodshed between Israel and the Palestinians, two terms have never gained common currency: terrorism and occupation.

Palestinians find convoluted justifications for the terrorism conducted in their name. Israelis refuse to acknowledge that the occupation of Palestinian territories is a tall barrier to peace. With each side refusing to acknowledge the other's main concern, negotiations have never gotten far.

On Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon seemed to break the impasse by bluntly acknowledging that Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories cannot go on.

"To keep 3.5 million Palestinians under occupation--you can dislike the word, but what is happening is occupation--is in my view bad for Israel, for the Palestinians and for Israel's economy," Sharon said.

My. For Sharon--the bulldog of the Likud Party--to make such a statement is a profound and encouraging step in the latest round of peace negotiations. Sharon later clarified his remarks, saying he was referring only to those Palestinians under Israeli military control.

But he nevertheless shocked and angered some of his fellow Likud members. And that is just the kind of shock that will be needed if the newest Middle East peace negotiation is to break the cycle of violence and political intransigence that has thwarted previous efforts toward peace.

It is the kind of shock that newly appointed Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas could deliver if he were, say, to declare that Palestinian terrorists have engaged in a reprehensible violence that has crushed the economic and political future of their own people.

Now that would be some blunt honesty.

Sharon's remarks came the day after the Israeli Cabinet endorsed, by a 12-7 vote, with four abstentions--and with some significant reservations--President Bush's road map for peace in the Middle East. Taken together, this provides some measure of hope as Bush prepares to travel to the region to meet with Sharon and Abbas.

There will be many bumps, twists and turns as the two sides get closer to the creation of a Palestinian state in 2005 as envisioned by the road map, proposed by the Bush administration, the UN, the European Union and Russia.

Indeed, the Israeli Cabinet inserted several caveats in its endorsement of the road map. The Israeli government still regards the West Bank as "disputed" rather than "occupied" territory, a point clarified by the Israeli attorney general on Monday. And Palestinian President Yasser Arafat still lurks on the scene, ready to undermine Abbas' attempts to rein in Palestinian terrorists.

It is always easy to read too much into rhetoric. But after so much rhetoric designed to reinforce the bloody status quo, it was good to hear the unexpected from Ariel Sharon. No one should believe the old lion has grown softer, but perhaps he has grown wiser.

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