The dangerous path of peace

February 9, 2005

The sight of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas smiling broadly as they leaned across a long white table to shake hands on Tuesday neatly encapsulated the tenuous moment of hope that has arrived. There's a new truce, renewed hope for a lasting peace.

There is much to admire in the courage of Sharon and Abbas. That courage brings hope.

The risks to them--personal and political--cannot be overstated. Extremists will surely try to sabotage the attempt to end the bloodshed with compromise. In this part of the world, talk of peace is always fragile, a single suicide bomb away from ruin. The terrorists of Hamas already have warned that they will not be bound by the cease-fire, an ominous sign.

In this part of the world, the harsh lesson of history is that leaders who speak too loudly for peace often pay with their lives.

Think of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin shaking hands with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in 1993, as cheers rolled across the White House lawn and some rubbed away tears.

"We who have fought against you, the Palestinians, we say to you today in a loud and clear voice: `Enough of blood and tears! Enough!'" Rabin said.

Little more than two years later, Rabin was shot dead after he addressed a rally supporting his government's peace policies. He was gunned down not by a Palestinian but by the enemy within: a right-wing Jewish zealot.

Recall the astonishing boldness of Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian leader who stunned his fellow Arabs and the world when he vowed in 1977 that he was ready for what he called "a sacred mission" for peace. And then, amazingly, he did it, scything through decades of implacable hatred by visiting Jerusalem and speaking eloquently to the Israeli parliament.

In 1981, Sadat was assassinated by a group of Islamic militants as he sat in a reviewing stand during a military parade.

The path to peace is long and treacherous. Sharon has already stirred death threats over his gutsy plan to withdraw from Gaza this summer. Abbas has vowed to disarm the terrorists and militants through negotiation. He may find that the power of persuasion fails when used against those who do not seek peace, but another Holocaust.

On the White House lawn more than a decade ago, Rabin hesitated for a moment before shaking hands with Arafat. He knew too well the forces that would be unleashed by that simple gesture.

So, too, did Sadat know he would be reviled in much of the Arab world for his unthinkable act.

Sadat and Rabin died for a supremely worthy cause. It speaks to the power of that cause that others remain dogged in the quest, that leaders such as Sharon and Abbas will take great risk to achieve it.

Copyright © 2005, Chicago Tribune