Arabs' bid for peace is decades late

March 31, 2002|By G. Jefferson Price III | G. Jefferson Price III,PERSPECTIVE EDITOR

THE ARAB SUMMIT'S endorsement last week of a proposal for peace and normalization with Israel in return for the rest of the territory captured by Israel in 1967 comes too late - by at least 35 years, maybe 55.

The scenes in Israel and Palestine last week offered devastating proof of the cost of time lost during the past four or six decades: A Palestinian suicide bomber killed 22 civilians as they prepared for a Passover dinner at a hotel in Netanya, followed by the Israeli army's overwhelming assault on the headquarters of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Ramallah after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon declared Arafat an "enemy" of the Jewish state.

In this latest, 18-month-long Palestinian uprising, almost 400 Israelis and 1,300 Palestinians have been killed, including almost 50 suicide bombers. The death toll is bound to increase on both sides as Sharon presses his offensive and Palestinians respond with more terrorism - which, despicable as it is, remains the only powerful weapon in their arsenal.

Huddled in a windowless room in the basement of his shattered and besieged headquarters in Ramallah, reportedly with an automatic weapon at his side, Arafat told Arab television: "May God make us martyrs."

Great! Who knows if the Israelis will have obliged him by the time you read this column, but if so, it will have been a catastrophic blunder.

While this tragic end-game plays itself out in the so-called Holy Land, ponder what might have been if the Arabs a long time ago had done what they did in Beirut last week - offer Israel real peace and recognition in exchange for internationally recognized borders.

Let's say the Arabs had good reason to be infuriated by a decision pressed aggressively by the United States to partition Palestine in the first place in 1947, leading to the immediate establishment of the state of Israel. Palestinian Arabs and Jews had been at each others' throats for the previous three decades, but the Arabs were not responsible for the Holocaust that put the moral force behind the United Nations vote that would establish a homeland for the Jews.

So the armies of Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq attacked Israel and lost. Tens of thousands of Palestinian Arab families fled the fighting - not so much because of Arab radio stations promising they would be able to return after the Jews were driven into the sea, as Israeli lore would have it, but because no one in their right mind wants to get caught in a war, and because Israeli forces were evicting Arabs from some communities. Thus began the "Palestinian problem" of refugees scattered to Gaza, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. For the next 25 years, those Arab states, and not the Palestinians themselves, spoke for the Palestinians.

Forget what might have happened if the Arabs had not gone to war against Israel in 1948 and all of the Arabs inside the Jewish side of the partition boundary known as the Green Line had actually stayed or been allowed to stay. Israel would not be what it is today. Egypt would have all of Sinai, Jordan would be Israel's neighbor at the gates of Jerusalem, Syria would have the Golan Heights, Lebanon might have flourished for the past 50 years instead of trying to recover from the devastation of civil war and invasion. The Palestinians, of course, would not have a state of their own.

From 1948 on, Israel was what diplomats refer to as a fait accompli. It was not going to be eliminated, no matter how hard the Arabs tried.

In 1967, Israel proved that decisively, routing Egypt from Sinai, driving the Jordanians from the West Bank and Syria from the Golan Heights, seizing territory three times the amount allocated 20 years earlier, including the cherished walled city of Jerusalem. If the Arabs had been as aggressive about making peace with Israel then as they were last week, they might have gotten back most of that territory, no matter how reluctant Israel was to part with it.

If Israel had given back most of the West Bank after 1967, Jewish settlements would not now surround Nablus, Ramallah, Hebron, Bethlehem and other Arab cities.

In 1973, the Israelis beat back a surprise attack by Syria and Egypt in a war that was scary for Israel in the opening days but still was a victory in the end, no matter what the Egyptians say.

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, whose state had fought more wars in the name of liberating Palestine than any other states, saw the wisdom of making peace with Israel. He got all of Sinai back in return, but the rest of the Arab world turned its back on Egypt and the Sadat idea. If Hafez al-Assad of Syria had joined in Sadat's vision, he might have his precious Golan back, albeit in the same demilitarized condition as Sinai today. If Assad had joined, I guarantee that King Hussein of Jordan would have come along for the ride a lot sooner than he did.

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