AVERAGE EDUCATED, reasonably well-informed Americans who try to make sense of the relentlessly bloody and increasingly dangerous situation in the Middle East have their work cut out for them.
It is hard not to be numbed — intellectually and emotionally — by the persistent and perverse dance of headlines that one day brings news of a Palestinian attack and the next reports the inevitable Israeli counterattack.
These days the cycle of violence has escalated and become so intense that a virtual state of war exists between Israel and Palestine. By global standards, the battlefield is claustrophobically small — 10,000 square miles, an area roughly the size of the state of Maryland. The close quarters and the now seamless incidents of bloodshed make the United States’ war on terrorism appear almost languid by comparison.
The fact of the matter is that this low-level but very real state of war is nothing new. Israel has been threatened or under siege since it was founded in 1948. The various peace accords, whether they were signed at Camp David or Oslo or elsewhere, have on the surface offered hope to Western optimists and people of good will in the Middle East. Recent events, however, suggest that these were hollow covenants. They were not steps toward peace, but rather mere opportunities for those who hope to see Israel destroyed to draw a deep breath, pause, and regroup their forces before resuming the now more than 50-year-old campaign to drive the Jews into the sea.
That this campaign has been so blatantly unsuccessful doesn’t make the threat, or the impulses behind it, any less real. Even in the wake of the September 11 destruction of the World Trade Center, it is hard for us to comprehend the true depth and breadth of the Arab world's hatred of Israel. Last spring, a leading columnist in the moderate Egyptian paper Al-Akhbar wrote of the Jews: "Thanks to Hitler, of blessed memory, who on behalf of the Palestinians took revenge in advance against the most vile criminals on the face of the earth. Although we do have a complaint against him, for his revenge was not enough." (This, from a moderate publication.)
These are not the rants of an isolated Islamic lunatic, some Middle Eastern Timothy McVeigh. This is standard currency. It is the essential sum and substance of Arab and Palestinian political discourse. It issues daily in print and over the airwaves. It is taught in schools and transmitted in mosques. It is a dialect of death. It is the perverse but potent spirit that motivates suicide bombers. It is the force that moves a generation of young Palestinians — first boys, now girls — to sacrifice their lives for the duplicitous aims of their political mentors, if such a benign term can be applied to the leaders of Hamas, Hezbollah, the Islamic Jihad, and the Palestinian Authority (PA).
PA chair Yasir Arafat enjoys a patina of respectability. He has been welcomed at the White House, consulted by European governments, and treated as a viable political leader by the world press. But he is and always has been a terrorist and a murderer. The only thing that separates him from Osama bin Laden is the scope of his ambition; Arafat’s holy war has been waged on many fronts against Israel, while bin Laden aspires to international jihad. Any shred of doubt that Arafat still advocates, promotes, and practices violence evaporated on January 3 when Israel captured the Karine A, a ship en route from Iran to Gaza packed with 50 tons of guns, mortars, and rockets.
If any proof were needed that Arafat is what he always has been — a stone-cold killer — this was it: Arafat is the prophet of Palestinian nullification. In 1978-’79, he turned his back on the Israeli-Egyptian agreement that might have led to a Palestinian state 20 years ago. In 2000, he rejected the Oslo accords. But most damning of all, he rejected a proposal by US president William Clinton and Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak that in its final form would have granted Palestinians 90 percent of their territorial and political demands. Insisting on 100 percent, Arafat instead launched the current intifada. At that moment any claim of moral equivalence between Israel’s right to exist and the right of the Palestinians to a homeland was forever compromised. Arafat is an agent of death for Israelis and an agent of despair for his own people.
As we go to press, President Bush has welcomed a peace proposal from Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia that would call for full diplomatic recognition of Israel if that nation would pull back to its 1967 borders. The full details of the plan, which White House officials say is more of a "vision" than a road map, have yet to be determined. And even parties such as we who have come to despair over the situation must greet this proposal — as tentative and sketchy as it is — with hope. Like many others, we have immediate reservations about a rollback to the 1967 borders. But even if the talk proves fruitless, there can be no progress, let alone resolution, without dialogue. If by some act of geopolitical transcendence a step toward peace results, that step must be a paper one. Codified in words, yes. Perhaps even politically enforceable. But for real change and lasting peace to come to the Middle East, it’s not enough for Arab governments to recognize Israeli sovereignty. Arab people must accept the fact of Israel’s existence and the right of Jews to live there. If that doesn’t happen, then the world will bear witness to one more hollow covenant.
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