All Too Familiar

It is all too familiar. An incident – sometimes initiated by an Israeli action, sometimes not – incites the Palestinian masses. Rioting ensues, followed by the Israeli army’s attempts to control it, followed by horror and tragedy, shocking pictures in the media.

The pundits declare the peace process dead, and then the diplomats go back to work, first to quell the violence, then to address the underlying problems again.

In the latest incident, some will blame Ariel Sharon. After all, he ignited the flame. Without him there would have been no riots in the first place.

He may have had the right to visit the Temple Mount, but there is a difference between asserting one’s rights and shoving them in somebody’s face. All he has done is demonstrate how tenuous Israel’s position is. If you shout fire in a crowded cinema, you are responsible for the results.

Others will blame the Palestinians. They have never completely given up their flirtation with violence even as their security forces, by cooperating with the Shin Bet and to some extent the Israeli Defense Forces, help provide Israelis with the near freedom from terrorism the Jewish state has experienced over the past couple of years. Incendiary rhetoric and rioting are lethal ways of trying to influence ongoing negotiations.Others will blame Prime Minister Ehud Barak. His increasingly isolated position atop the crumbling Israeli political structure made it difficult to stop Sharon. He’s left with few allies and a growing avalanche of critics at a crucial moment in the history of Israeli-Arab negotiations.

The irony is that it appears likely that no one was trying to ruin the peace process. Sharon, by demonstrating his commitment to Israeli ownership of the Temple Mount, was seeking to upstage Bibi Netanyahu. The former prime minister and Sharon rival is poised to make a political comeback after avoiding indictment.

Arafat was trying to look strong after putting off a unilateral declaration of independence, and trying to strengthen his hand in negotiations. Barak of course was just trying to keep the negotiations going.But after the hand-wringing and the tears, we are still left with the basic facts on the ground that have underpinned the peace process as we know it today since Oslo. Neither side is strong enough to defeat the other side totally, and neither is going away. Each is stuck with the other.

The overwhelming majority of both populations want peace, as we know from the polls, but the extremists on both sides want to destroy any hope of a settlement and rid themselves of their current leaders in the process.

So the current negotiators have no choice but to continue. What’s the choice? If you liked the events of Rosh Hashanah weekend, you’ll just love the events which will follow a total breakdown of the peace process: suffering, misery, death and more death.

The Palestinians will get to play victims again, but they will have no state, no independence and no freedom from occupation. The Israelis will hold onto more territory, but they will have more deaths, less security, more disunity, international opprobrium, worse economic conditions with less foreign investment and less hope. The promising potential of a new life for both sides will be lost in a sea of blood and suffering.

Let’s get real, folks. The peace process is not about love and romance. The Israelis and Palestinians are not the United States and Canada; they don’t have a close, warm, friendly relationship. It’s just that they happen to live next door to each other. As Yitzhak Rabin used to remind anyone who would listen, you make peace with enemies, not friends. If there weren’t any problems, you wouldn’t need a peace process.Israel has bigger fish to fry: the growing problem of weapons of mass destruction in the area, a chance to carve a place in the global, high-tech economy, and the need to resolve alarming and growing internal fissures between rich and poor, religious and secular, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, Arab and Jew. It doesn’t want a permanent intifada, whose prospect is made even more alarming by the unprecedented support Israeli Arabs gave the most recent Palestinian rioters. The only way the Palestinians can have a chance at stability, dignity, and prosperity is through a deal with Israel. They don’t want a permanent occupation.It is naive to think that the peace process is easy, that even an agreement will solve all problems, that the Arabs and Israelis will trust each other completely after they sign a deal, that the process is trouble-free. But a viable agreement will make a satisfactory, even a good life possible for both sides. In this sense, Barak deserves much praise and respect for taking the courageous steps that have led both parties to deal, for the first time ever, with the most difficult issues that divide them.

There have even been signs that Arafat, in his own mysterious way, is wrestling with the possibility of some kind of deal. In the end, the recent violence, despite the deaths and the bitterness, could even make it easier for him to come to an agreement because the Palestinians will see themselves as heroically standing up to the Israelis as the Egyptians felt after the October 1973 war.

But without concrete results, Barak is running out of time as he faces the pressures of the fragile Israeli political system. The question now is not whether there will be a deal, but when it will come, who will make it and how many will die before a settlement is reached. The rioting is a tragic setback, and it may seriously delay progress at a critical moment in Israeli and American politics, but this incident – like all those which have preceded it and those which sadly may follow – will not erase the logic of a deal which must be reached because neither side has any other viable option.

Those who care about peace in the Middle East because they care about one or more peoples of the area must remember this continuing equation: Jews and Arabs alike will either cooperate together to build a better life or they will die together instead, as we have, alas, just seen. This is why they must and they will continue to try to reach some kind of settlement between them. There is no other route.