Confused Mideast ripe for diplomacy

April 30, 2002|By Thomas L. Friedman

BETHLEHEM, West Bank - Israel's former immigrant absorption minister, Yuli Tamir, told me this story:

After a recent suicide bombing in Jerusalem in which three Israelis were killed, a friend called to ask her whether her teen-age daughter was safe because the suicide bomb had gone off next to a youth group office her daughter frequented. "I told my friend: `Thank God, she's safe. She's in Auschwitz,'" Yuli said.

Yuli's daughter was in Poland at the time visiting the Nazi death camp with her youth group, but the irony of her words of relief was not lost on her. It's that kind of moment for Israelis.

The last two months of almost nonstop suicide bombings have turned this country upside-down, puncturing Israel's sense of security more than anything any Arab army has done in 50 years, and leaving Israelis more willing than ever to give up territory but less willing than ever to trust Yasser Arafat & Co.

If you look at the polls in Israel today, you find there is now a two-thirds majority for every option: two-thirds want to eliminate Mr. Arafat, and two-thirds want to withdraw from the West Bank in return for real security; two-thirds support the current crackdown, and two-thirds fear that it won't provide a long-term solution.

There is such a hunger here for a leader with the pragmatic wisdom to find a way out of this, and such a worry that Ariel Sharon is not the man.

At the same time, though, Mr. Sharon's smashing of the camps and offices used by the suicide bombers and militants has left Palestinians reeling.

Ever since the unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon, Palestinians have watched too much Hezbollah TV from Lebanon, which had peddled the notion that Israel had become just a big, soft Silicon Valley, and that therefore, with enough suicide bombs, the Jews could be forced from Palestine.

The recent Israeli military operations were an exercise in showing the Palestinians not only the real power of the Israeli army, but also the fact that Israeli commandos and reservists were ready to fight house to house in Palestinian refugee camps to protect their state.

This has also left Palestinians confused. "People cannot agree even on where we are, let alone where we should go," said Sari Nusseibeh, the head of the Palestinian Authority office in Jerusalem.

I believe it is precisely such a moment that is ripe with diplomatic opportunity - very much like the opportunity that Henry Kissinger exploited when Egypt and Israel had each other by the throat, and were both bleeding badly, at the end of the 1973 war.

"Both sides feel they've made a point - Palestinians made the point that they can make life in Israel unlivable, and Israelis believe they have made the same point back," said political theorist Yaron Ezrahi. "Neither side feels it lost this last round, but both are deeply worried over what happens if the war resumes. It would be criminal negligence for world diplomacy to miss taking advantage of such a moment."

Attention President Bush: Do not listen to what people out here are saying; they're all confused. The important thing is to understand how they are feeling - which is more open to a realistic diplomatic solution than ever before. Their leaders don't know how to move, so America has to chart the way with a big idea.

Mr. Bush laid out a vision in his speech two weeks ago. Saudi Arabia's crown prince has done the same. But they are way too vague. As Israel's foreign minister, Shimon Peres, observed, the Bush vision and the Saudi vision are "like lights at the end of a tunnel - but with no tunnel." What's needed now is a U.S. plan that offers a clear-cut, phased program for a two-state solution.

Without it, I can tell you what will happen next. The current leaders here have only Plan A - and you saw it played out over the past three months. They have no Plan B. Plan B is more Plan A, and that will be really dangerous. If there is no creative diplomacy to take advantage of this moment, creative depravity will fill the void.

Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times.

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