Timing makes peace possible

August 01, 1994|By Georgie Anne Geyer

LAST WEEK, Israel and Jordan came finally to making peace, while in the former Yugoslavia, Bosnia moved inexorably toward still more war. Why?

In Washington, King Hussein of Jordan and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel resolved valiantly "to end this suffering forever," while the Bosnian Serbs ominously announced yet another siege of Sarajevo.

When I asked the U.N. representative here, Yasushi Akashi, whether timing might not be the defining element at this strange juncture of two conflicts, the experienced Japanese diplomat shook his head sadly. "But you can't just wait," he said. "You have to reach out."

I respect the sincerity of this position -- which underlies much of the U.N. planning here -- but I do not agree with it. In fact, peace is possible in the Middle East precisely because of timing -- and it is not possible in Bosnia because of timing.

In examining the Mideast conflict, it soon becomes obvious that the extraordinary mood of amity today is largely the result of exhaustion and of looming failure for the obstreperous parties (the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Palestinian terrorist groups and the far right in Israel). Those elements finally allowed the rational figures (the moderates in the PLO, the Jordanian government and the Labor Party in Israel) to gain enough power to come together.

In the early days of a conflict, when passions are running high, every move toward moderation is met only with more violence -- the assassination of the moderates and the mobilization of the next generation.

Indeed, the only answer to those early years of conflict -- such as the Middle East lived through in the 1960s, '70s and early '80s -- is for some overwhelmingly superior outside force to come in and establish peace through an imposed victory.

Over the last five years, every time I went to the Middle East, which was about twice a year, I could discern a winding down of the conflict. First, there was the exhaustion factor, a factor never to be underestimated if one reads the history of conflict. But on top of that came changes in the world that transformed everything and everyone.

Suddenly the Cold War was over -- the PLO, Syria and even Iraq could no longer plan on the Russians supplying them with weapons of mass destruction and support on the world stage. At the same time, with Arab patience with and support of the PLO reaching unprecedented lows, the organization was close to being broke.

Israel, meanwhile, was not exempt from the kinds of changes, internal and external, that endless conflicts inevitably impose. Three years ago, in Israel, economist friends told me how, although few were yet recognizing it, Israel's economic future was doomed unless the conflict were ended. Outside investors were forsaking the talented country, and the modern world of high tech was passing Israel by.

The groundwork was laid for change. Yet the peace treaties of today might never have occurred without one single act: the decision by President George Bush and Secretary of State James Baker III two years ago to withhold the $10 billion in loan guarantees from Israel if the monies were used for provocative Jewish settlements. That decision ensured the return of the Labor Party to power in Israel in the ensuing elections -- and thus assured the peace process we now see.

But in Bosnia, foreign troops were inserted into a conflict that was at its flaming height. Those outnumbered troops serve as hostages to the most aggressive party, the Serbs, and thus prolong the conflict.

My favorite quote on timing comes from the 16th-century Swiss chemist and philosopher Paracelsus. Uniquely understanding the seasons of the elements, whether of chemistry or conflict, he wrote that "anyone who imagines that all fruits ripen at the same time as the strawberries . . . knows nothing about grapes."

Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist.

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