Time for U.S. to move boldly in the Mideast

February 21, 2002|By Richard C. Gross

THE 16-MONTH war of attrition between Israel and the Palestinians -- a tit-for-tatting that is tick-tocking its way toward certain catastrophe -- is as senseless, as wasteful and as futile as the dying on both sides.

Neither Israeli nor Palestinian will give in unless forced from the outside. History written in a lot of spilled blood has proved that.

For the majority of Palestinians, Israel is the Goliath hungering for their land, hunkering over it with tanks and planes armed with missiles followed by those with bulldozers who would plant settlements and pave roads. Resistance to Israeli power, whether from boys hurling stones or young men blowing themselves up with nail bombs strapped around their waists, is the key to the door to Palestinian statehood.

For the majority of Israelis, the Palestinians are not righteous young Davids, but cheating scoundrels who want to push the Jews into the sea and reclaim all that was British-ruled Palestine before Israeli statehood in 1948. Resistance to Palestinian claims with armed might is the key to living within secure borders.

But neither key is opening locks, because of the tactics of both sides.

Not only is there no Palestinian state, but the Israelis have been reoccupying territory from which they withdrew under the 1993 Oslo peace accords. Not only are Israelis unsafe within their fortress-like settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but they are not even secure within Israel's recognized boundaries.

A breakthrough is needed, maybe another of the bold, momentous kind that would at least approach in drama then-Egyptian President Anwar el Sadat's heroic trip to Israel in November 1977, a little more than four years after the October War.

That sensational journey of only a few miles but ages of enmity from Cairo to Jerusalem turned the belligerent Middle East upside-down, abruptly creating a new playing field.

Mr. Sadat's sudden appearance in Jerusalem spawned face-to-face negotiations for the first time between him and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin.

But it took President Jimmy Carter to bring them both to Camp David in September 1978 to work out peace accords over 13 days of agony that led to the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in March 1979.

Maybe it was the stature of those three men that made it possible to bring about peace.

Maybe it was the nature of the times, when the Cold War still was running hot and the Arab-Israeli conflict was a nuclear flash point between the superpowers.

Maybe it was because the territory that Israel had to surrender for peace -- the largely barren Sinai Peninsula -- meant very little to the Israelis beyond it being a buffer against Egypt.

Despite these reasons, there could have been no peace between Egypt and Israel unless it were orchestrated by the United States. Only Washington had the power, the influence and the money -- significantly, the money -- to take an unprecedented step and end a war between two powerful states.

Today, Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat have too much bitter history between them to make peace. Though they have met, they have never shaken hands. Mr. Sharon has tried to check Mr. Arafat in Ramallah.

But it isn't a checkmate. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict moved to a feared higher level last week with the introduction of Hezbollah-like tactics in the West Bank.

The unexpected destruction of an Israeli Merkava 3 tank with a roadside bomb that killed three soldiers imitated methods used for years against Israel by Hezbollah in Lebanon.

More of the same is waiting around the next curve.

The situation has deteriorated from "bad to worse," German Foreign Minister Joschka Fisher said after meeting with Mr. Arafat on Saturday.

Where's he been?

Mr. Sadat said it more than a generation ago: There cannot be true peace in the Middle East until what he called the "core" of the conflict -- the land feud between Israelis and Palestinians -- is resolved.

It's going to take more than the determined, honorable but quixotic efforts by Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and intermittent trips to the region by former Marine Corps Gen. Anthony Zinni to win agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Rather, it's going to take a bold step, a new major initiative led by the United States.

The two sides must be separated until an overall peace agreement that includes Jerusalem is achieved.

Maybe it will take U.N. troops, such as those who have been in nearby Cyprus since 1964, even though Israel doesn't want foreign forces on its soil.

It's time for the United States -- with its power, influence and money -- to cast aside worries of a domestic political backlash and act boldly before Washington might be forced to be involved in the Middle East on a far greater scale.

There is, after all, a worldwide war on terrorism under way.

Richard C. Gross is editor of the Opinion Commentary page of The Sun. He was based in Israel as a reporter and bureau manager for United Press International for seven years in the 1970s.

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