Monday, June 16, 2003

No Exit

After all of the smart analysis and after all of the finger-pointing, what most remains after the latest violence and collapse of the embryonic Middle East peace efforts is searing, deep-rooted pain, the feeling that the Israel-Palestinian situation is nearly hopeless and no road map or change in Palestinian leadership or intervention by the United States or Israeli retaliation will alter the fundamental reality that Israel is trapped in an endless mini-war against terrorism. This is a frightening thought.

It is not unimportant to know the root causes, to recognize that in much of the Arab mindset Israel has no right to exist and therefore any peace agreement is an expediency that must be canceled when the opportunity to do so arises. Palestinian insistence that what it refers to as the return of refugees is an issue that needs to be negotiated is telling proof of the inability to accept Israel as a permanent state in the Middle East.

Still, the details and how they are interpreted do not submerge the pain or alter the feeling of despair. The emotions that are now so evident create a reality that cannot be ignored. We are confronted with the fear that Israel is condemned to live permanently with terror, that each day may bring bad news.

This pessimism becomes overwhelming when we consider that each new and presumably sincere effort at peace-making can serve as a catalyst for new violence, that when the peace-makers seem to be at the brink of even modest success, the peace-haters are likely to do what they can to disrupt the process. Could it be that maintaining the unsatisfactory status quo is preferable to attempts to alter it because such attempts may come at a high price and bear little fruit? Likely, Hamas needs no special provocation or excuse to send suicide bombers, yet it appears that its hands are bloodiest when there is peace on the horizon.

Except for their inconsequential political activity and rhetoric, those on the Israeli and Jewish side who have opposed Prime Minister Sharon’s willingness to use the road map as the backdrop for peace negotiations did little to derail it. However, they aren’t suppressing their satisfaction over this outcome, although they ought to consider certain of its consequences, ranging from the lesser – but still quite significant – impact on Israel’s economy and what this means to many Israelis to the expanding roster of victims of terrorism as Israel confronts Hamas and others. I have not mentioned the emotional costs and they are also high.

While there are grounds to criticize Mr. Sharon’s policies and choice of words, he spoke the truth when he acknowledged that a Palestinian state needs to be established and also that it is unacceptable for Israel to permanently exert control over Palestinian areas that are slated to become part of such a state. He referred to this as “occupation” and the term was immediately pounced upon by friends and foes of the road map. Lost in the shuffle was the underlying principle that the status quo is not good for Israel.

Where there is no exit, it is pointless to suggest exit strategies. No formula for settling the Middle East conflict has endured for long and the odds are strongly against any new approach having much prospect for success. But since the stakes are high and the alternative is terrifying, new ideas are certain to be advanced and there will be more meetings, documents, planning, diplomacy – in short all of the familiar paraphernalia of peace-making. As I write, there are renewed efforts to broker a cease fire and to get the peace process back on the road. As in the past, these efforts are likely to have initial success, but it is hard to be optimistic about their long-term prospects.

One approach now favored is the old idea considered by successive U.S. administrations of stationing American and perhaps other forces in critical places where they can serve as a buffer between the two sides. In view of U.S. commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s not likely that this approach will find favor in the White House, although it is possible that it will be pursued as a desperation measure. Even more problematic is whether outside military forces can serve as a barrier against terrorism. Of all of the media distortions in the coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, none is greater than the failure to portray how many Arabs live permanently in Israel and how many additional Palestinians regularly cross into the country to find work. I wonder whether U.S. troops will be able to interdict terrorism, whether they can prevent suicide bombers dressed in Israeli army fatigues or as charedim. I also wonder whether inadvertently their major role might be to prevent Israel from acting in self-defense.

While it will not happen or gather much support, my preference is for the speeding up of the time-table for a Palestinian state. Perhaps wrongly, I cannot see any greater downside to Israel’s security and I can think of reasons why such a critical step is preferable to the situation that now prevails. States have responsibilities and while they may be violated, they are more readily held accountable for their misdeeds.