Witnessing an unhappy ending in the Mideast

July 02, 2002|By Thomas L. Friedman

WASHINGTON - Recent events in the Middle East leave me wondering whether we're witnessing not just the end of the Oslo peace process, but the end of the whole idea of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

When the Palestinians' second intifada began more than a year ago, in the wake of a serious proposal for a Palestinian state by President Clinton, I argued that Palestinians were making a huge mistake. When the party to a conflict initiates an uprising, then suicide bombing, at a time when the outlines of a final peace are on the table - as the Palestinians did - it shatters everything, present and future. In this case it shattered the Israeli peace camp, it blew apart all the fragile confidence-building measures that took years to build, and it generally left the Israeli public feeling it had opened the gates to a Trojan horse.

This is particularly true in the case of the Palestinians because they never articulated why their uprising was necessary, given the diplomatic alternatives still available, or what its precise objectives were. They seem to have been heavily influenced by Hezbollah's success at driving Israel out of Lebanon and seem to have bought into the fantasy that they could give birth to their own state in similar blood and fire. And Yasser Arafat went along for the ride.

"This Intifada II was Yasser Arafat's 1967 war," says Middle East expert Stephen P. Cohen. "Like Egypt's President Nasser, Arafat got ... swept up in the fantasies of the moment and failed to distinguish between what was real and what was not. And like Nasser, it will be the beginning of his end."

But here's the rub: Even if Mr. Arafat went away, and even if a majority of Israelis were ready to give his successor all of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, the security requirements and limitations on Palestinian sovereignty that Israelis would insist upon - in the wake of the total breakdown in trust over the last year - would probably be so high that no Palestinian leader would be able to accept them.

If that is the case, it means that a negotiated two-state solution is impossible and Israel is doomed to permanent occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. And if that is the case, it means Israel will have to rule the West Bank and Gaza permanently, the way South African whites ruled blacks under apartheid. Because by 2010, if current demographic patterns hold, there will be more Palestinians in Israel, the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem than Jews. And if that is the case, it means an endless grinding conflict that poses a mortal danger to Israel.

Because there are three trends converging in the Middle East today.

The first is this vicious Israeli-Palestinian war. The second is a population explosion in the Arab world, where virtually every Arab country has a population bubble of under-15-year-olds, who are marching toward a future where they will find a shortage of good jobs and a surplus of frustration. The third is an explosion of Arab satellite TV stations, the Internet and other private media.

What's happening is that this Arab media explosion is taking images of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and beaming them to this population explosion, nurturing a rage against Israel, America and Jews in a whole new Arab generation. Of that new generation there are going to be 10 who will go to Dad one day and say, "Dad, there is a Pakistani gentleman at the door selling a suitcase nuclear bomb. He wants a check for $100,000, and I would like to personally deliver the suitcase to Tel Aviv." And Dad is going to write the check.

The only hope for Israel is to get out of the territories - any orderly way it can - and minimize its friction with the Arab world as the Arabs go through a wrenching internal adjustment to modernization.

I applaud President Bush's call for Mr. Arafat to be replaced, in what amounts to Mr. Bush's last-ditch attempt to "re-accredit" the Palestinians as a partner for a two-state solution with Israel. But it is a travesty that Mr. Bush did not act to "re-accredit" Israel, too, as a peace partner for a two-state solution with the Palestinians by insisting that Israel begin pulling back from some of its far-flung settlements in Gaza and the West Bank. It would help the Palestinians undertake their reforms, and it would put Israel in a better position to withdraw unilaterally, if it has to.

Mr. Bush blinked because he didn't want to alienate Jewish voters. Sad. Because George W. Bush may be on Israel's side, but history, technology and demographics are all against it.

Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays in The Sun.

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