As an American, as an American Jew, and as a longtime supporter of Palestinian rights, I am ashamed.
Where Presidents Carter & Clinton made serious attempts to help broker a peace in the Middle East, I’m ashamed to tell all the Israeli and Palestinian families who have lost loved ones in the past many months that the current resident in the White House chose to do next to nothing and thus is partially responsible for the rising crescendo of violence. Bush has no shame.
Where previous prime ministers of Israel have been at least interested in the idea of peace, the current PM, from the the very moment of his election — well before the unleashing of the suicide bombers — has exhibited nothing but a desire to behave like a cruel general of an occupying army, crushing all beneath his path, smashing any momentum toward peace, reveling in the humiliation and suffering he can arrange. Sharon has no shame.
Where the elected leader of the Palestinian Authority once earned the world’s acclaim by promising peace with his Israeli neighbors, in his frustration he has turned to partnership with terrorist groups to utilize indiscriminate suicide-bombers as his final weapon against his people’s oppressors. Arafat has no shame.
At Clinton’s urging, the previous Israeli PM, Barak, daringly offered a reasonable peace treaty to the Palestinians (it didn’t contain all the Palestinians wanted, but enough to get the peace process heading toward finality), but Arafat, thinking that by other means he could get something closer to what he wanted, turned it down. (We’re reminded yet again of Abba Eban’s famous observation about the Palestinians never missing an opportunity for missing an opportunity; now the Palestinians are joined in this wrong-headedness by their Israeli enemies.)
Barak then was voted out of office for offering too much, and the old, bloody, war-criminal Sharon was brought in. A man with no vision other than a limited military one: to try to stomp the Palestinians into submission. Bush in the White House, a man with no vision beyond expanding his “war on terrorism” to other countries, decided to keep hands off the Palestinian issue, other than to say the U.S. supported a “Palestinian state,” but with no earthly idea how to get from here to there. And then there’s Arafat, a man with no vision other than going head to head with his old nemesis, Sharon, to force the Israelis to end the occupation by blowing up innocent civilians in Israeli marketplaces, pizza restaurants and public buses.
In short, three “world leaders” who operate on violence as the one and only option for solving what are essentially political problems, necessitating compromise. No wonder the Middle East is a powderkeg. Both sides are stuck in the horror-groove, content to run the historical blame loop of “you-started-it-first.”
OK, we know what the disease is, how do we cure it, or at least figure out how to slow it down? How can we stop the current epidemic of killing from infecting more, from bringing in Arab countries and Western countries choosing sides and starting a regional conflagration — or even worse?
My own feeling is terribly pessimistic at this point. The parties are perilously close to the point of no return.
But there may be one more chance. If the US, as the only world superpower, were to work with the U.N. and/or organize a global coalition for Mideast peace, and help arrange a way for both sides to back down — perhaps with buffering peace monitors in-between the warring parties — maybe, just maybe, there might be reason for some sliver of hope.
But it’s clear that Bush & his hawkish advisors have no new ideas on this matter, no desire to come up with any (which would have to include altering US policy in the region to lower the level of tensions), and instead continue their meaningless sending of envoys to the area to arrange…what? another piece of paper signed, another set of promises made.
The result is that the violence ratchets up another notch, because both sides know that America is not seriously engaged and therefore there are no unbearable penalties for acting irresponsibly. Thus, Arafat can send more suicide bombers, Sharon can re-occupy the territories, and Nero is content to laze on his Texas ranch, in denial about the world about to explode in the Middle East. (Maybe when an oil stoppage is mounted by Arab countries and the lines grow long at the gas pumps in Anytown, <U.S.A>., Bush may suddenly see a necessity for becoming engaged in the Middle East.)
There’s no guarantee that deep and serious US engagement right now would send both sides moving, however slowly and vaguely, back toward an eventual peace treaty. But if the US continues to do the little or the nothing that passes for American Mideast policy these days, the Bush administration is going to have a lot of blood on its hands as the Israeli/Palestinian war grows into white-hot intensity, dragging other countries into it.
OK, you may say, suppose that a ceasefire is arrangeable and both sides are ready to meet. How can Jews and Arabs ever sit down at the same table and talk peace after the past decade of mass slaughter, the ceaseless humiliation of occupation, suicide bombings of innocent civilians, etc.? How could Arafat ever agree to sit across a table from Sharon, and vice versa, let alone sign a treaty document with him?
One way might be to lower everyone’s expectations. The object is not to get the enemies to trust each other, or like each other, or to revise their opinion that they’re dealing with anything other than bloodthirsty zealots. (If peace is ever achieved, those attitudinal changes might come later, as byproducts of a few years of peace, and in mutually-beneficial water and other practical treaties.)
The object here is to get each side to say to the other: “We’re here, we’re not going away, you’re here, you’re not going away; we wish you would disappear, or that we could make you disappear, but we realize realistically that it’s not going to happen. Military slaughter simply doesn’t get either of us to where we want to be, no matter how many tanks are employed, no matter how many suicide bombers blow themselves up. Each of us wants security, and to raise our children and grandchildren in peace. So, what can we do to bring that security and peace about?
“We can’t forget our respective historical claims and what we’ve done to each other, but how can we move into realistic talks about what we can do TODAY to make the situation better? What compromises might you have to make, what compromises might we have to make, to begin to bring us to that point?”
If both sides can come to a public realization — as they almost did a decade ago — that the other side is here to stay and their just demands and historical claims must be taken into account, and that military slaughter does not lead to what they want, then they can move on to the political, necessary-compromises stage, involving withdrawal from the settlements, formal recognition of Israel, reining in their Jew- or Arab-hating extremists, sharing Jerusalem, etc.
Is this THE solution? Probably not. But it’s a starting point, and the U.S. simply must take the lead in making sure something like these ideas begins to alter the agenda and discussion in the Middle East. To do nothing serious, to simply let tanks and suicide-diplomacy rule the day — which is what Bush’s non-engagement policy amounts to — is to condone utter madness.
Bernard Weiner, the San Francisco Chronicle’s theater critic for nearly two decades, has taught government and international relations at Western Washington University and San Diego State University.