Tue, Aug 01, 2006 - Page 9 News List

The Middle East's military delusions

When peace seems within reach through negotiations between moderates on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides, extremists use violence to derail any compromise

By Jeffrey Sachs

The paradox of the current violence in Israel, Gaza and Lebanon is that the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not hard to see. A large majority of Israelis and Palestinians favor a two-state solution essentially along the pre-1967 boundaries. The major Arab states, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and others, share that view. The problem lies not in seeing the solution, but in getting to it, because powerful and often violent minorities on both sides oppose the majority-backed solution.

Perhaps three-quarters of Israelis and Palestinians are eager for peace and compromise, while a quarter on each side -- often fueled by extreme religious zeal -- wants a complete victory over the other. Radical Palestinians want to destroy Israel, while radical Israelis demand control over the entire West Bank, through either continued occupation or even (according to a tiny minority) a forcible removal of the Palestinian population.

When peace appears to be close at hand, radicals on one side of the conflict or the other provoke an explosion to derail it. Sometimes this involves overt conflict between moderates and radicals within one side, such as when an Israeli religious zealot assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin when peace negotiations were making progress. Sometimes this involves a terrorist attack by radical Palestinians against Israeli civilians, in the hope of provoking an exaggerated violent response from Israel that breaks the process of trust building among moderates on both sides.

The moderates are in a daily battle with their own extremists, who claim that compromise is impossible. Israeli extremists insist that all Palestinians are intent on destroying the state of Israel itself. They take the Palestinian suicide bombings and kidnappings as proof that peace with the other side is impossible.

"There are no partners for peace," goes the refrain.

Palestinian extremists insist that Israel is simply plotting to maintain its occupation over all of Palestine and that withdrawal from Gaza or announced plans to withdraw partly from the West Bank are merely tactical, without giving up real control over land, transport, water, defense, and other attributes of sovereignty.

The extremists have been able to block peace because any attack from one side has systematically provoked a violent counterattack from the other. Moderates are repeatedly made to look weak, naive and idealistic. The extremists also peddle the appealing fantasy that total victory is somehow possible, often by personalizing the battle. Israeli forces regularly try to "decapitate" the violent opposition by killing Palestinian leaders, as if the problem were a few individuals rather than ongoing political stalemate. Violent Palestinians, for their part, propagandize that Israel will lose its nerve in the face of another terrorist attack.

deadly environment

In an environment as deadly as this, the details and symbolism of a possible settlement are bound to loom very large. Israelis and Palestinians came close to agreement on "land for peace" in the context of the Oslo peace process. Both sides endorsed something like the pre-1967 borders, yet the deal was not quite struck, with each side claiming intransigence by the other on one or another point. Such a deal can be struck now, but only by avoiding the useless debate over who blocked peace in the past.

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