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Divided nations
Frontline’s ‘Shattered Dreams’ looks for peace in the Middle East

In 1993, as the voiceover to this two-hour PBS Frontline report reminds us, Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat signed the Oslo Peace Accord on the White House lawn and initiated a new era of hope for a resolution in the Middle East. Arafat returned from exile to establish the Palestinian Authority; Israel transferred Gaza and Jericho to the Palestinians. Nine years later, Palestinian suicide bombings have become an everyday event in Israel, which has retaliated by sending tanks into Palestinian territory and making Arafat a captive for 31 days. The Oslo Accord has become, as this program’s title tells us, a shattered dream.

What happened? Almost before the Oslo ink has dried, we get a clue from Frontline narrator Will Lyman, who points out that " the core issues were to be addressed later: permanent borders, settlements, Palestinian refugees, Jerusalem. " That doesn’t faze the Nobel Prize committee, which in 1994 awards the Nobel Peace Prize to Arafat, Rabin, and Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres. Yet for Rabin there is to be no later: on November 4, 1995, following a peace rally in Tel Aviv, he’s assassinated by an Jewish extremist. Shimon Peres becomes prime minister, but in the wake of terrorist attacks by Hammas, the Palestinian group dedicated to the destruction of Israel, he’s ousted in favor of Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the more conservative Likud Party. Eventually Netanyahu gives way to Labor leader Ehud Barak, a Rabin disciple; when he fails to bring peace, the Israeli electoral pendulum swings back to the right and former defense minister Ariel Sharon becomes prime minister. Meanwhile, we watch summit after summit: at Sharm el-Sheikh as the US and Egypt attempt to prop up Peres; in Washington as President Clinton calls in Arafat and Netanyahu and Jordan’s King Hussein; in Maryland with Arafat and Netanyahu; at Camp David with Arafat and Barak. None of these produces a lasting result: Hammas continues to send out suicide bombers, and the Israeli Knesset bristles at any report of concessions by the prime minister.

Frontline doesn’t go back before 1993 to examine the creation of the state of Israel and the deep roots of this conflict. Neither does it pose questions, tough or otherwise, to the participants, or attempt to explain and assess what each side wants. Footage of the salient events coupled with Will Lyman’s voiceover alternates with commentary from Arafat and the Israeli prime ministers; but it’s the negotiators, talking like people and not politicians, who make the most trenchant and edifying observations: Saeb Erekat for the Palestinians, Gilead Sher for the Israelis, American envoy to the Middle East Denis Ross. And it’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright who suggests that it may be easier for Arafat to see himself as the leader of a liberation movement than as the head of a Palestinian state.

" Shattered Dreams " could have shed more light on these events. Why does Peres’s accidental artillery strike on a UN compound on the northern border cause Israel’s Arab population to boycott the 1996 election and hand the government over to Netanyahu? Why is Arafat militia leader Marwann Barghuti fomenting trouble along Jerusalem’s Western Wall and arguing that the only way forward is to fight and sacrifice? Why do Israel’s prime ministers keep authorizing new settlements, and what does the Israeli electorate hope for from hard-liners like Netanyahu and Sharon?

There is, however, no mystery as to why the dreams shattered: neither side wants to compromise, and neither wants peace badly enough. Arafat will not, or can not, rein in Hammas’s suicide bombers; Israel is not prepared to make the kind of offer the Palestinians expect. No one wants to touch the issue of how to resettle the three million Palestinian refugees (about half the population of Israel). And even the negotiators can’t agree on whether the Temple of the Mount is a myth or a reality. Still, it’s their show, and it’s the engaging Erekat who has the hopeful last word. If he and Sher could speak for their respective peoples, we could have peace now.

Issue Date: June 20-27, 2002
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