Resigned to Separation

By Jim Hoagland

Sunday, June 9, 2002; Page B07

The war process between Israelis and Palestinians has achieved what the peace process failed to deliver. Unspeakable violence for 21 months has established the basis for separation and a coexistence that will be bitter and unfair, but less bloody than any other available alternative.

A seemingly final psychological separation between the Muslims and Jews of the Holy Land has occurred. It has been blasted into being by continuing waves of suicide bombings and retaliatory tank assaults. A physical separation that is permanent in many of its features will now follow.

Israelis, whether they belong to Likud or Peace Now, need an imposing set of physical and policing barriers -- a fence, in shorthand -- to separate them from terror groups in the West Bank and Gaza. This will be true whether or not an end-of-conflict agreement is reached. So will the need for dismantling isolated Israeli settlements.

This is the core of what has changed: The conflict now resists both the diplomatists' promises of the fruits of peace and the generals' threats of more war. Life will be lived in between for a long time. A fence will be built in peace or in war. Remote settlements will wither away, either way. Palestinians will live on parole under the watchful electronic eyes of Israeli forces, whether they have a state or not.

The national traumas of nearly two years of strife cannot be dealt with otherwise. Buffer zones, foot patrols and unmanned aerial vehicles will shape the new relationship between Palestinians and Israelis far more than will the U.S.-sponsored peace conference proposed for this summer.

I hoped it would be otherwise -- who wants to revive the imagery or substance of Berlin during the Cold War? And there were chances. As Amos Elon noted recently in the New York Review of Books, in 1967 the Israeli Foreign Ministry studied the consequences of freeing rather than occupying the West Bank. Imagine history's course if the Israelis had said then to the Palestinians: "We have come to liberate you from Jordanian misrule," and meant it.

History does not disclose its alternatives. But amid the overly optimistic assessments about the hopes for peace that will be flowing from the State Department and elsewhere in the coming weeks, keep these new Middle East realities in mind:

(1) There is no basis for going back to the fundamental undertaking of the Oslo accords and the various Clinton plans, which assumed that Palestinians would enforce security in autonomous areas that would gradually join and harden into an independent state. The Israelis have erased from the map the autonomous zones of Oslo and negated any possible Palestinian role for protecting Israelis.

(2) The European Union, the World Bank and other donors, which spent $3.5 billion to turn the Palestinian Authority into a government, now admit failure. Yet Yasser Arafat and his lieutenants have demonstrated beyond all doubt that they are using the "reform" process to re-legitimize their rule, not to alter it. What will Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah do when it becomes clear that their pressure on Arafat to give up real power has been deflected? That is the essential question of the summer, not when or where a formal conference will get underway.

(3) Israel cannot achieve security through the conquest of land and willpower alone. Settlements in the midst of Arab populations are magnets for disaster. They detract from Israel's self-defense abilities. That is reflected in a recent poll by Haaretz newspaper, which found that 54 percent of Israel's Jewish population now "perceives the settlements as weakening Israel's national interest."

And 60 percent believe that new physical means of separation are necessary to decrease terror attacks. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon approved last week a 65-mile line of defense along the West Bank frontier similar to the high-tech perimeter in place around Gaza.

It will take at least a year and $100 million to erect the fence, which will at some points be a wall up to 26 feet high, at others a set of electronic detection devices and scattered military checkpoints. It will roughly retrace one segment of the 215-mile-long Green Line that separated Israel and the pre-1967 West Bank, and quarantine the towns of Jenin, Nablus, Tulkarm and Qalqilyah.

Coexistence arrangements that do not insult the future are a responsible goal for now. Overreaching, either for the diplomatists' final peace settlement or the generals' unattainable total destruction of the other side, would be folly. It is a moment for clear thinking that is modest and focused on saving lives.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company