Glimmer of Hope in the Middle East

Last spring and summer I wrote a series of columns on the Middle East highly critical of Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon and PLO leader Yasir Arafat. But I was especially harsh on Sharon because Israel, as the dominant power, holds the strategic initiative for a Middle East settlement.

In one such column, titled "Israel's Catastrophe," I reiterated what many of Sharon's critics were then predicting, that his "jackboot" military response to the Palestinian intifada would only increase Palestinian violence. Not for the first time have the idealistic peaceniks proven to be the pragmatic realists. What the Israeli right-wing likes to call "the facts on the ground" have exposed Sharon's militaristic strategy as a lethal mixture of fantasy and folly.

Sharon came to power promising to deliver peace and security to Israel. But his only achievement has been that of a recruitment sergeant for the Palestinian resistance. "The harder he strikes, the more terror we get in return," bemoans Yoel Marcus in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz "After 17 months of intifada, we must admit that the Palestinians have not been broken," confesses columnist Nahum Barnea in the mass-circulation Hebrew-language newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth. "Despair has only steeled them. Economic and human distress has only pushed them to acts of madness." As of Wednesday the body county was 281 Israelis and 987 Palestinians. What began with rock-throwing has escalated into a guerrilla war.

Despite the carnage, a glimmer of hope is emerging. The Israeli consensus behind Sharon is shattering. Within the Arab world, new voices are urging a settlement.

In Israel, more than 200 army reservists, including officers, have declared their refusal to serve as part of an army of occupation in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel has a civilian army and reservists are often called up to do front-line duty. Their number is small but don't underestimate the moral authority and political power of acts of conscience. At least one former high-level government official, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's Attorney-General Michael Ben-Yair, has come out in support of the "refuseniks."

The influential Israeli Council for Peace and Security, a group of one thousand reserve officers and intelligence officials, are calling for the unilateral withdrawal of Israeli military forces and settlers from Gaza and parts of the West Bank, as well as immediate peace talks with the Palestinians. The withdrawal they're proposing is inadequate in terms of an eventual peace settlement, but it does represent a total break with Sharon's militaristic strategy.

On February 16th, 20,000 Israelis rallied for peace in Tel Aviv. The turnout was small compared to previous peace demonstrations but this was the first rally since Sharon took office. One of the speakers was Sari Nusseibeh, the highest ranking Palestinian official in Jerusalem. Nusseibeh, as he has done before, addressed the "right of return," a key issue in any Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiation. "The path to peace," Nusseibeh said, "is through the return of the refugees to the State of Palestine and the return of the settlers to the State of Israel." See That equation defines the parameters of a just solution.

In another sign of movement, Neyef Hawatmeh, head of the Syrian-based Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a hardline rejectionist faction within the PLO coalition, has called on the European Union to help find a solution to the conflict. The DFLP also urges Palestinians to stop their terror attacks against Israel and has opened a dialogue with Israeli peace activists. This is the first time that the DFLP has ever expressed interest in recognizing Israel.

Saudi Arabia has also expressed a new willingness to play a constructive role in the Middle East peace process. In a statement first made to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and then repeated in the Saudi and Arab press, Crown Prince Abdullah says that he will urge Arab countries to recognize the State of Israel in exchange for the creation of a Palestinian State based on terms very much like those discussed by Israeli and Palestinian negotiators (and recently disclosed by Ha'aretz) at the Egyptian resort of Taba just before Ariel Sharon took office.

That's the hope, but pitfalls abound. Factions within the Israeli right have also become critical of Sharon. They think he's too soft. Like the Palestinian rejectionists who want to destroy the State of Israel, they oppose the creation of a Palestinian State. Some advocate a policy of ethnic cleansing that would force Palestinians out of their homes in the West Bank and into Jordan. These extremists (former Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu is one of their leaders) has strong support within the United States and has ties to Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz who leads the "let's bomb Iraq" faction in the Bush Administration.

The American and Israeli right-wing will seemingly go to any length to undermine the peace effort. When Sari Nusseibeh emerged as a Palestinian leader willing to engage the Jewish community, he was immediately savaged. On one web site,, Nusseibeh was portrayed as a spy for Iraq during the Gulf War. As far as I could discover, no government official and no other news source made that accusation.

Ariel Sharon has remained unmoved by the Saudi initiative and by the awakening of the Israeli peace movement and the left. He's likely to try and appease the opposition from the right by escalating the use of military force, a strategy that will just raise the body count and add to the hatreds on both sides.

Sharon and his critics on the right meet their match in the Palestinian rejectionists who still believe the fantasy that they can destroy Israel. Arafat's inability to control Hamas and other rejectionist groups complicate the movement towards a peaceful and just settlement. But the two sides are clearly exhausting themselves in the downward cycle of violence and retaliation. Courageous voices of reason are starting to come to the fore. The United States must help this opening grow.

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