A Two-Edged Miracle

BEN BARBER

August 03, 1991|By BEN BARBER

WASHINGTON — Washington... There was a shimmering, miraculous quality to that day in Jerusalem, 24 years ago, when the walls dividing the city came crashing down. But the seeds for two decades of violence were planted then. It was victory for some, but defeat for others.

We are now in the middle of a post-Cold War, post-Gulf War diplomatic initiative for Middle East peace pursued by Secretary of State James A. Baker. Will the Arabs and Israelis sit down together? Will they exchange land for peace? Will they begin to trust one another and stop the hatred and wars?

The wary Middle Easterner sipping Arabic coffee in the souk of Damascus, or iced coffee on Dizingoff in Tel Aviv, scans the headlines without more than a sigh. Peace? Not likely.

There's a deep cynicism inside Arab and Israeli saying it won't work, it can't work. But there's hope as well. Historically, miracles that transformed Western civilization were born in the visionary deserts and wadis of Judea. Perhaps it's time for another. Jimmy Carter summoned up one to convince Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin to make peace. Nothing else worked before or since. And it was a miracle that benefited both sides. More often in the Middle East, one man's miracle is the next man's disaster.

That June day in 1967, all I saw at first was the miracle. Sunlight reflected off Jerusalem's white stones and filtered through the dust of falling mortar and brick. Steel bars twisted and broke. Barbed wire that divided the street was torn into ugly, rusty knots.

Along with a few astonished residents, I watched as the 25-foot wall that separated Arab East Jerusalem from Israeli West Jerusalem was smashed down by a bulldozer.

It was a moment beyond smiling: 705 Israelis and more than 20,000 Arabs lay dead. Scattered shooting from East Jerusalem could be heard above the growling of the Caterpillar engine.

I walked through the newly opened street toward the medieval stone ramparts appearing like a storybook miracle through the clouds of dust.

I followed hundreds of people on a hastily-cleared path to the Western Wall of the temple, Judaism's holiest site and one that had been barred to Jews since 1948. Rabbis blew ram's-horn shofars, but it was not a time for the jubilation of parades and paintings.

The serious aura of a biblical event seized the thousands milling in the dust before the wall of the 2,000-year-old temple of Herod, built atop the 3,000-year-old temple of Solomon. The soldiers in particular had a far-away, haunted look. And I recall another, troubling feeling that tainted that day with foreboding.

At the cafes in East Jerusalem sat hundreds of Arabs, now a conquered people. They were polite to the Israelis, but the seed of the Palestinian crisis had already begun to germinate into 24 years of turmoil.

Jimmy Carter, Anwar Sadat, Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Shamir, Menachem Begin, Yassir Arafat, Henry Kissinger, Hafez Assad, Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Khadafy, Abu Nidal, Beirut, Terry Anderson, Ariel Sharon and Saddam Hussein. They flashed across the news pages and TV screens, echoing that dusty, sun-flecked, holy moment in 1967. Only the echoes are black and white, shattered cities and mangled cars and people. Bombs and curfews and the intifada. The Marine barracks. The bombed Pan Am flight over Scotland. A movement based on the desire to remove subjugation, itself submerged in intrigue, blackmail, kidnapping and death.

Some generous Christians, Jews or Muslims, steeped in Western values of tolerance, try to preach reconciliation and compromise. But once they visit the Middle East, they soon learn the bitter truth: that hatred and distrust there is so deep, a great separation is needed to keep the peace. It is not so different

from the concrete, wire and water chasm separating the lions and bears at the zoo.

It's time to return Arab lands to Arab control. This alone promises to end the cycles of violence. Israelis fear that the violence will continue. The Arabs will demand Haifa and Jaffa and that Israelis pushed back to Europe: to Warsaw, Berlin and Odessa. To Yemen, Rabat and Ethiopia.

But fear of such demands -- already part of much Arab rhetoric -- is not reason enough to continue a failed occupation policy. Israelis are unable to even visit Arab East Jerusalem for fear of being stabbed. Israelis must constantly guard against attack from Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Iraq as well as from millions of stateless Palestinians. It's time to confront that situation in a way that offers a solution.

Separation is needed, for at least a generation. The dream of well-meaning individuals that the Arab and the Jew will lie down in the meadow in peace is illusory. What's needed is a strong fence to keep the two from tearing each other to bits.

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