Conflict in the Middle East

Peace Is Still Possible

The recurring connection that dictators and terrorists make between their supposed causes and the Arab-Israeli conflict, has been one of the elements that has most contributed to putting the brakes on the process. What seems to have happened is that a profound crisis of trust has set in. The terrorist attacks [of Sept. 11] have once again placed the Arab-Israeli conflict in the eye of the hurricane, and especially its Palestinian-Israeli component. The radicals on both sides have always had as their principle the derailment, once and for all, of a process, which, if it were to succeed, would mean the disappearance of one of their best excuses [for continuing to fight]. But it would also mean the advent of peace in a region where the spiral of hate, mistrust, and instability has fed into fanaticism and terrorism. A Mideast at peace, where Arabs and Israelis live together side by side in complete harmony, is the worst kind of news for people like Bin Laden.

In Gaza the situation is somber, claustrophobic, and tense. The closing of the border crossings into Israel is seriously affecting the Palestinian economy; the security concerns of the state of Israel, on the other hand, demand a higher degree of control on the part of the Palestinian Security Forces. But they cannot be as effective in their operations as they would like, because of their lack of mobility following the restrictions imposed on them by the Israeli army. Here, too, as in almost all of the issues involved in this conflict, there is a vicious cycle, and some way must be found to break it as soon as possible. A seminar organized by the office of the Commission of the European Union for the Palestinian territories, [recently] held in Gaza, entailed a surprise, given the content and tone of the interventions of some ministers and representatives of the Palestinian Authority. Some European representatives from the far left made a show of stale radical rhetoric, which went far beyond anything our Palestinian hosts were saying. Many still have not grasped how much the world has changed since 1989. They continue to apply outdated clichés to a conflict they obviously do not understand.

The tension in some places in the Gaza Strip is noticeable. The risk that a confrontation on a much larger scale will flare up from some minor incident is enormous. For this reason, the prudence and sensibleness of people on both sides will have to be at a maximum level in the days to come. On the nights of Oct. 29 and 30, the Israeli forces withdrew from Beit Jala and Bethlehem, as a result of very intense pressure from Europe and, above all, from the United States. The Israelis have let it be known that this withdrawal will serve as a test for the Palestinian authorities and their ability to control the situation. Another issue that requires an unequivocal clarification is that the Islamic Jihad and Hamas can hardly be considered “freedom fighters.” If a terrorist got on a bus in London and killed 24 people, this would be considered, in any country in the world, as an act of barbarous terrorism. It is inconceivable that those acts perpetrated in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv would not be likewise branded as terrorist barbarism.After the regrettable failure of the Camp David talks in July 2000, it is unlikely that any concessions and offers could be expected that would be close to the contents of the famous U.N. Security Council Resolution 242 itself. [The resolution, adopted in 1967, established provisions and principles which, it was hoped, would lead to a solution of the conflict. It was to become the cornerstone of Middle East diplomatic rhetoric, calling for the complete withdrawal of Israel from territories occupied during the Six-Day War—WPR.]

The peace process started with a clear and unequivocal call to create a Palestinian state and solid relations between Israel and the Arab states. The debates over the percentage of territory that should be under Palestinian authority cannot divert our attention from the more basic and essential issues that have been at the heart of the conflict since it began: the status of Jerusalem as a shared capital, an acceptable division of responsibilities over the holy places, and the principle that the claims for the right of return for Palestinians should not involve jeopardizing the very essence of the state of Israel. Unless these concessions are made, it will be practically impossible to put an end to so many years of hatred and violence.

Politicians and leaders must realize that their decisions will affect not only their immediate political aspirations, as legitimate as they may be, but that their decisions will have a political and historic significance that goes far beyond electoral expediency.

In terms of the new generation in Palestinian politics, there are some new hopes, given that four figures are emerging as political leaders. In addition to enjoying prestige and support from a significant portion of their people, they have credibility and are trusted by Israelis. People like Nabil Shaath [author of the Palestinian draft proposition of the Declaration of Principles drawn up in Madrid in 1993 and Palestinian Authority minister of planning and international cooperation], Saeb Erekat [the Palestinian Authority minister of local government], Sari Nusseiba [director of Orient House in Jerusalem], and Abu Mazen [the most likely successors of Arafat]. Resolving a conflict as long and bloody as this one can only redound to the benefit of all—thus strengthening the international alliance that is waging a war against Islamic terrorism.