So much convoluted politics in the Middle East, so much history, so much violence and hatred. It’s all so confusing. So once again I turn to the noted reference series for answers that can help me make the turmoil and tragedy easier to figure out.
Q. Why can’t there be at least a cease-fire between the Palestinians and the Israelis?
A. Your question rests on an assumption that either or both sides want peace. Maybe the majority of both peoples would be amenable to peace, if it came with enough justice and security, but the leaders have other agendas — and right now, because of all the wanton slaughter, have been able to bring a good section of their frightened, angry peoples along with them. In so doing, the Middle East is living in a soul blackout, and there’s no estimate on when moral power will be restored.
Let’s get it straight. The bloody butcher Sharon doesn’t want a viable, truly independent Palestinian state next to Israel. Never has, never will. He’s willing to accept a pseudo-“Palestinian state” on his border, but it would hardly be considered a viable country, rather something more like a collection of bantustans amidst all the Israeli settlements on the West Bank and Gaza. Each of those little Palestinian enclaves effectively would then have to deal with Israel on their own, ensuring Israeli domination and control of the area — in short, continued hegemony over land promised to the Palestinians for their state. That’s why Sharon has spent the past several weeks utterly and totally destroying the Palestinian political and actual infrastructure. Whatever Arafat will eventually be President of, this Israeli views goes, it won’t be worth having. And, Israel believes, it will have bought itself a good block of time until it once again has to worry about a unified, majorly re-armed Palestinian enemy.
The former PLO terrorist Arafat at one time may have been willing to consider a two-state deal, but when it became apparent over the decade since the Oslo agreement that Israel had no intention of following through and granting Palestine anything close to justice and territorial/political integrity, he began to re-think: Maybe it’s time to pressure Israel through a re-activation of the intifada, except this time with a more violent component. Plus, Arafat, who likes to think of himself as the one true leader of the Palestinian people, was being pressured by the extreme Palestinian nationalists like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, who believed they could, and would, militarily drive Israel into the sea. These groups (with Osama bin Laden out there as a spiritual force, belittling Arafat as a corrupt individual who couldn’t lead his people into anything but poverty and ruin), and the other Arab states not lifting much of an open finger in helping the Palestinians, fueled Arafat’s desire to reclaim his leadership status in the Arab Middle East. All this may help explain his support for the suicide-bombing campaign, the one weak link in the Israeli security armor. Absent the Israeli reaction to those bombings, Arafat probably would have become even more irrelevant as a Palestinian leader — but Sharon turned him into a hero among Palestinians and ordinary Arabs throughout the region.
Q. Is Arafat gambling that the other Arab states will be forced to come in on the Palestinian side, for a final, all-out Arab-Israeli war?
A. He may be putting all his chips on this last hand, but, if so, he’d have been better off cashing in while he could. No Arab state, at least as presently governed, will do anything to provoke the Israelis to attack their countries. These Arab states may agree with the Palestinian cause, and may even do things under the table to aid the Palestinians, but they know what would happen to them if they openly attacked Israel, the strongest and most-determined military regime in the neighborhood: They’d be wiped out, either by the Israelis immediately or, after military defeat, by their own people as a result of having their governments overthrown. Which gets us back to the phrase “as presently governed”: Several of these “moderate” Arab rulers — in, say, Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia, Morocco, etc. — might be overthrown anyway by Islamicist mobs, if Israel continues its brutal campaign on the West Bank, with nobody willing or able to stop them.
Q. The United States, the United Nations, the Pope, worldwide opinion, etc. is opposed to Israel’s current military campaign. Why isn’t this enough to get Sharon to back off?
A. It must be clear by now that the U.S. — having inflated anti-terrorist rhetoric for its own war — is in no position (even if it wanted to) to dictate to Sharon that he should stop in his campaign to break the back of Mideast terror networks. Sharon right now is the tail that’s wagging the dog. Since Bush has no intention of getting further sucked into the Mideast quagmire, and neither the U.S. or U.N., despite all their calls for a cease-fire, seems interested in building a serious international coalition to force a ceasefire and political negotiations, the Israeli military campaign will continue until Sharon feels he’s caused as much damage as he can to the Palestinians’ capacity to govern a destroyed infrastructure.
Q. But surely both sides can see that the other side isn’t going to disappear and that military solutions will never get them what they want — peace, security, control of their own territory — so why can’t they call a halt in the violence and get back to the political negotiating table?
A. Of course they know that, but they don’t want to accept that. Each believes, if they keep the military pressure up just a little while longer, the other side will capitulate and simply vanish. Of course it’s insane, but that’s what is going on. Plus, see Answer #1 above. Plus: Ever see two boys fighting in the school yard? “You started it first!” “No, you did!” “No, you started it!” And so on. Until someone comes along and separates them, and forces them to some serious reflection — in this case, to recognize that going over the history again and again of who started what when is not productive — they will continue in this everlasting cycle of historical blaming forever.
Both sides also know roughly what the final solution will look like: something like the Saudi proposal, with Israel being recognized as a legitimate state with normalized relations with its Arab neighbors; Israel pulling out of the Occupied Territories, including abandoning its settlements; a viable Palestine state being created out of the contiguous territory in the West Bank and Gaza (and perhaps even part of Jordan); a shared Jerusalem, presided over by an international body; perhaps international peacekeepers in between the two equal states; Israel permitting a certain limited number of Palestinians to return to their ancestral homes and farms inside Israel and paying reparations to others not permitted to return, etc. But knowing what the ultimate solution will look like and being able to get there are two very different things.
Q. What will it take to get on the road to that final peace settlement? Will Sharon and Arafat have to go?
A. Unless the United States and United Nations and other interested international parties intervene to help develop the mechanisms for peace — and there’s no real movement beyond rhetoric in this area — and unless the two sides themselves come to realize the futility of their present behavior patterns, one can expect nothing but continued slaughter for years and years. At that point, new leaders will emerge, probably younger, who will have the courage to say, finally, enough is enough, and let’s sit down and seriously talk. But that means untold amounts of carnage, hatred, revenge cycles, suicide bombers, colonial repression, and so on. That’s why the current moment needs to be seized in the name of peace. If the old warriors cannot make the peace — and it certainly doesn’t look like they can at the moment — others will have to do it for them. Devoid of a current movement toward peace, all we can expect is a continuing slide into moral darkness and slaughter on a scale heretofore unthinkable.
Bernard Weiner, a poet and playwright, has previously contributed The ‘War on Terrorism’ for Dummies, and The Middle East for Dummies. Holder of a Ph.D. in government & international relations, he has taught at San Diego State University and Western Washington University. He was with the San Francisco Chronicle for nearly 20 years.