[ The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 4/25/02 ]

Make peace, not justice, Mideast goal

We all want justice. We all deserve justice. "No justice, no peace," as the slogan goes.

But in the Middle East, justice and peace have become mutually exclusive goals. The harder the two sides insist on getting justice, the more difficult it becomes to get peace.

So hope for justice -- even talk of justice -- must be abandoned.

There can never be justice for the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust, a horror so profound that the world created Israel to give the surviving Jews a homeland. Likewise, there can never be justice for the millions of Palestinians turned into refugees after Israel's creation in 1948.

More recently, there can be no justice for the innocent Palestinians killed in the Jenin refugee camp on the West Bank. And there can be no justice for the innocent Israelis killed by a suicide bombing on Passover.

There can be no justice. Period. That may be hard to accept, but once you do, then maybe, just maybe, we can make our way to peace.

For now, though, the concept of "no justice, no peace" continues to dominate the Middle East debate, as it has for decades. The sentiment is no doubt stronger among the Palestinians -- who still mourn the loss of their homeland -- but it is clearly present among Israelis as well. The callousness of the recent Israeli counterattack was driven by revenge, not by cold strategic thinking. On a strategic level, that move will prove a disaster.

As always, the best hope lies in those beyond the immediate grip of Middle East passions. The United States and the European Union -- and to a lesser degree the United Nations -- have avoided the hopeless insistence on justice. They've remained focused on making peace, and they've been invaluable in reminding the combatants about the importance of that goal.

The raw materials of that peace remain what they've been since 1967: Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza; pan-Arab acceptance of Israel's existence; a face-saving compromise on the status of Jerusalem and its holy sites; and a Palestinian state. With some variance on the details, that has been the consistent message from the United States and Europe for years.

But sadly, that, too, may be changing. In recent months, the Middle East whirlpool has gotten so much bigger, so much stronger, that it threatens to suck in those who live half a world away. People, politicians and nations far removed from the conflict seem to be picking sides, increasingly acting as surrogates for the actual combatants.

They mouth the same rhetoric as Ariel Sharon, nurse the same grudges as Yasser Arafat. Even here in the United States, pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli factions have grown stronger and more vocal in their demands for justice.

Neutrality in this atmosphere has become difficult, and the appearance of neutrality has become downright impossible. U.S. newspapers and television stations are being assaulted continuously now by advocates for the two sides, each focusing on alleged media injustice.

As a result, nobody talks about peace anymore. It sometimes seems as if the whole world is becoming either Palestinian or Israeli, donning the Jewish yarmulke or the Arab kaffiyeh and wading into the fray.

That helps no one. If peace is to be attained, the United States in particular must strive to remain as balanced as possible in its approach to the Middle East. That means resisting the pressure from some in Congress and the media to embrace justice for Israel as our goal.

Peace is the goal. Peace is the goal. Peace is the goal.

And if that goal is ever achieved, then and only then can the two sides pursue justice.

Jay Bookman is the deputy editorial page editor. His column appears Thursdays.

© 2002 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution