Searching for a silver lining

Friday, May 26, 2006

While Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert discussed his ''convergence'' plan with President Bush in Washington, and Palestinian gunmen from competing factions fired their weapons at each other in the Gaza strip, an intelligent Dutch observer of international events told me, as part of a torrent of criticism of American policy, ``The mess in the Middle East will take many years to undo.''

That conclusion hardly merits stopping the presses, but let's pause for a moment, anyway, and consider the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Just how far have the prospects for a peaceful settlement retreated over recent months and years? After all, that desert land with only an occasional cloud has a way of concealing its silver linings far in the horizon.

When Palestinians went to the polls in January, it seemed like a hopeful step. Then results brought deep disappointment to the peace camp on both sides. The democratic ideal appeared to have backfired, as Palestinians elected Hamas to lead their government. When it comes to making peace, Hamas says exactly where it stands. According to its charter: ''Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it.'' And just in case this leaves any room for confusion it adds, ``Initiatives, proposals and international conferences are all a waste of time.''

On the Israeli side, a new prime minister has just taken office promising to unilaterally draw the borders of Israel. His plan is to uproot most settlements from the West Bank, as his predecessor Ariel Sharon did in Gaza, but with one major difference. He plans to keep the country's three major settlements, and even add to them some of the population of the smaller ones.

The plan has drawn bitter criticism from all sides. How can Israel set its borders without negotiating with Palestinians, cries one group. Another argues that Israel will make itself less secure by leaving the West Bank open to the chaos that now engulfs Gaza.

The internecine fighting in Gaza, if you listen to the European perspective, is largely the fault of Israel and America. Palestinian tensions, this argument goes, are boiling over directly as a result of the pressure from the unfair cutoff of aid by the West, which has left more than 160,000 employees of the Palestinian Authority without a paycheck since March. Among those employees are thousands of armed men, angrily walking the streets of Gaza with Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders. The rifles inevitably come off the shoulders.

No silver linings so far.

But consider this: A survey by Near East Consulting showed that 69 percent of Palestinians support a peace agreement with Israel. That stands in sharp contrast to the Hamas vow to never surrender its stated goals. More than 65 percent of Palestinians said that Hamas should not maintain its position on the elimination of Israel.

On the Israeli side, 62 percent of the people in a survey by the British-Israeli BICOM organization said they believe that a majority on both sides holds moderate views but extremist minorities are blocking a solution.

Democracy has not had a chance to take root on the Palestinian side. For now, the rule of the gun carries more sway than the views of the common people. If that changes, however, and if the authorities truly listen to the will of the majority, the government's priorities will look very different. When asked what the priorities of Hamas should be, only 3.3 percent said, ''fighting the occupation.'' Another 3 percent said, ''implementing Islamic law.'' Those two are at the top of Hamas' agenda. The top concerns of the people are ending the chaos and creating jobs.

The fighting between Hamas and Fatah may prove to be nothing more than a dispute over the spoils of power. But it could be much more. Palestinians need to decide what their priorities are. Deciding to accept the existence of Israel is no easy matter, and it may well take Palestinian-on-Palestinian fighting to reach a national decision.

Israelis, too, had to fight each other to make some tough decisions in their history. If Palestinians genuinely decide to negotiate and abandon their dream of destroying Israel, Israeli majorities will force their leaders to make equally tough decisions.

Sure, it may take years to undo the mess in the Middle East. But history slowly laid the crucial groundwork of public opinion. We know what the people want, and the people really are ready to live side by side in peace.

Now, doesn't that merit stopping the presses?

Frida Ghitis writes about world affairs. She is the author of "The End of Revolution: a Changing World in the Age of Live Television".