Euro offers a lesson to Mideast

Hope: Arafat and Sharon need to look toward Europe to see wisdom of coexistence.

January 06, 2002|By G. Jefferson Price III | G. Jefferson Price III,PERSPECTIVE EDITOR

THE PROSPECTS for peaceful coexistence between the Israelis and the Palestinians look awfully grim these days.

They have been at each other's throats for the better part of 100 years. This is not a really long time, even for people who will continue living side by side, at war or at peace, no matter what happens. Europeans, troubled by the bloodiest wars of our time, and by plenty more before our time, finally found peaceful coexistence. Last week, they crowned this triumph with the full implementation of a common currency, the euro.

Is it utterly unreasonable to imagine that some day the Arabs and the Israelis, like the Europeans, will come to their senses, live peacefully together, create a trading bloc driven by enterprises worthy of their ancient legacies?

In the Middle East, Ariel Sharon, prime minister of Israel, and Yasser Arafat, leader of the Palestinians, are like two men who keep bumping into each other in a dark room from which they cannot find the way out. Each time they bump, one or the other shoves a little harder, and harder. It looks as if the shoving contest has become more important than finding a way out of the dark room.

Hopelessness has been the abiding companion of recent attempts to bring together representatives of the Israelis and the Palestinians, but a look back in time helps to place the bloody standoff in some perspective.

More than a quarter of a century ago, when I was first dispatched to the Middle East by this newspaper, Egypt and Syria had just been driven back by the Israelis after their last attempt to overrun the Jewish state. Israel retained the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula, and the Israeli army was in Egypt proper, within easy walking distance of Cairo. The Egyptian 3rd Army was being held captive in Suez City by a force commanded by a general named Ariel Sharon. In the Golan Heights, Israel had driven back the Syrians practically to the gates of Damascus, occupying the strategic garrison city of Quneitra and pummeling away at any peep from the Syrians.

Egypt and its president, Anwar Sadat, were beaten. So were Syria and its president, Hafez el-Assad. Jordan's King Hussein wisely had refused to participate in the 1973 adventure, which made Sadat and Assad hate the king possibly more than they hated the Israelis. Palestinians probably lost the most from the war, which was nominally launched to liberate their homeland. One hardly heard about them. Egypt's chief ambition was to get back the Sinai. Syria cared most about the Golan Heights and the source of the Jordan River.

Here's what was unimaginable back then: It was unimaginable that any Arab state would ever make peace with Israel. In fact, the Arab spin was at work to turn the October 1973 debacle into an Egyptian accomplishment.

It was unimaginable that one might fly a civilian aircraft from Tel Aviv to Cairo, or that Israeli tourists might visit the pyramids or the grand archaeological sites of Jordan and that Egyptian and Jordanian tourists would visit Jerusalem. Certainly, it was unimaginable that Yasser Arafat ever would shake hands with an Israeli prime minister, be walking the streets of Gaza and Ramallah as a peace partner and leader of his people.

Yet, all of these things happened. Unimaginable became reality. The men in the dark room cannot undo that, no matter how hard they try. If they do get out of that room, a new euro coin should be flashed in their faces, for if nothing else, the euro represents the triumph of hope and optimism over the forces of divisiveness and blood-soaked hegemony. Take Sharon and Arafat to a mount and let them look on the devastation that Europe endured in its path to peaceful coexistence.

These were no six-day wars. They were wars that went on and on -- for 30 years, for 100 years -- all over the place. Every power in Europe fought against another, soaking the continent in blood. A millennium was scarred by the savagery one power or alliance inflicted on another.

This culminated in two great and terrible wars that dragged in the rest of the world. World War I cost the main sides a whole young generation. By the time it was over, an estimated 8.5 million men had been killed, millions more wounded, not to mention staggering civilian casualties. World War II left a death toll of some 20 million. Millions of Jews were killed in the accompanying Holocaust.

For much of the past millennium it was unimaginable that the combatants of Europe could ever overcome their hatred and their greed for place and willingness to slaughter to take away or take back territory and resources.

Europe's transfer to peaceful coexistence began in earnest after World War II. About the same time, the modern state of Israel was born. Arabs and Israelis have packed five major wars of their own into the last seven decades.

Now, finally, it's left to Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon. They could stay in that dark room and duplicate the blunders of Europe, perhaps even ignite a regional war. Or they could duplicate Europe's future, pushing their people to live peacefully and productively, side by side.

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