Mideast peace mapped, but obstacles block way

Though solution has been apparent for decades, violent pattern continues

July 28, 2002|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The destination is in plain view but remains out of reach.

Many, possibly a majority, of Israelis and Palestinians, plus key officials around the world, agree on how the half-century Israeli-Palestinian conflict will end:

Create two states divided roughly along Israel's pre-1967 borders; allow two capitals in Jerusalem, making special arrangements for holy sites sacred to each side; and resolve the problem of Palestinian refugees in a way that preserves Israel's Jewish majority.

Yet for a generation, Arab and Israeli leaders, U.S. presidents and a host of international players have tripped up on the wrenching concessions both sides would have to make along the way. Those stumbles and delays yielded ground to extremists and hard-liners who preferred to fight rather than compromise.

Now, two years after President Bill Clinton tried and failed, President Bush has charted a new route toward a Mideast settlement, seeking a final agreement in three years while demanding new Palestinian leadership and serious reforms. Support for the hoped-for outcome is growing, but the past 22 months of bloodshed have made the obstacles seem larger than ever, and skeptics question whether Bush is prepared to stay the course.

"There's not the slightest hope of any diminution of the conflict in the near future," concludes Rashid Khalidi, a professor of Middle East history at the University of Chicago and a former adviser to Palestinian negotiators.

`Dehumanizing conflict'

Perhaps the biggest obstacle is that neither Israelis nor Palestinians can impose their will on the other side. It's an article of faith among most U.S. officials and international experts that neither can win.

"The reality is that two proud peoples share a land and a destiny," says former U.S. Sen. George J. Mitchell, who drafted a blueprint last year for reviving the stalled peace process. "Their competing claims and religious differences have led to a grinding, demoralizing and dehumanizing conflict.

"They can continue in conflict, or they can negotiate to find a way to live side by side in peace. Those are the alternatives."

For all of Israel's overwhelming military strength and ability to control Palestinians' lives, and despite a huge disparity in wealth, the two sides are surprisingly well matched when international support and political and psychological factors, some of them intangible, are taken into account.

If military might were decisive, Israel could long since have crushed Palestinian militancy and, with it, Palestinian agitation for independence and statehood. There are many precedents. European colonies, the captive nations of the Soviet bloc and present-day Kurds in northern Iraq all at one time or another made a bitter peace with their rulers that lasted for generations, in some cases centuries.

A regional superpower, Israel has been assured by successive U.S. presidents of a military and technological edge over all its neighbors and is rarely challenged by Washington on how it uses American-supplied weaponry.

But military force is only one dimension of this conflict. Despite periodic lapses into recklessness, such as last week's bombing in Gaza, Israel's leaders are constrained in their use of force. They want to avoid antagonizing their patron, the United States, but also need to avoid arousing an Israeli public that remains capable of deep remorse and sympathy for innocent victims.

Palestinians can more than match Israel in the court of international public opinion. Outside the United States, they are widely seen as the underdogs in the conflict. Repeatedly, Israel has escaped strong United Nations condemnation only because U.S. diplomats threatened or exercised a veto.

A chronic sense of isolation gnaws at Israel, a nation created after the Holocaust and centuries of European oppression of Jews. The country's aloneness, in turn, reinforces its reliance on force to protect its citizens.

Palestinians have also fought alone, failing to parlay outside moral support for their cause into military help. Israel has so intimidated its Middle East neighbors that none has come to the aid of the Palestinians except in covert ways, despite the clamor of the Arab public.

Still, Israelis remain the target of suicide bombers and roadside gunmen whose cult of death has terrorized a nation. Attacks on innocent civilians don't pose a moral dilemma for a majority of Palestinians, who view terrorism as a potent and useful weapon.

Trust shattered

The violence perpetuates itself, presenting mediators with the biggest hurdle to overcoming the conflict - getting a durable cease-fire. With notable frequency, Palestinians or Israelis commit acts that shatter mutual trust, reinforce for the other side all the reasons why it can't stop fighting, and embolden hard-liners.

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