Peace is a Two-way StreetBy international syndicated columnist & broadcaster Eric Margolis
July 25, 1999
MADRID - The quickening pace of Mideast peace diplomacy has produced growing euphoria that the half-century old Arab-Israeli conflict may be finally nearing an end.
Here in Spain, which long helped the Palestinian struggle, there is particular satisfaction that a just and enduring settlement may be within reach.
Israel's new prime minister, Ehud Barak is calling for a fast-track resolution of all issues between his nation and the Palestinians, peace with Syria, and a pullout from Lebanon. President Bill Clinton, who is anxious to take credit for a peace deal before he leaves office in 18 months, is pressing hard for a quick settlement. Syria is strongly expressing its desire for a peace pact with Israel, and just ordered die-hard, Damascus-based Palestinian rejectionist groups to lay down their arms.
By booting the obstructionist Benjamin Netanyahu and his far-right allies, Israeli voters revived the Mideast peace process and sent a powerful message of positive intent to their Arab neighbors, which has been reciprocated from Rabat to Damascus. PM Barak, a former general, seized the opportunity of his landslide victory to launch a high-intensity diplomatic blitzkrieg.
So far, very good. Salutes to Barak. But once all sides get down to serious business of bitter compromises, the euphoria will quickly vanish. The key issue for both sides is legitimacy.
The Arabs have never accepted Israel's legitimacy. While some undemocratic Arab leaders have made peace with Israel, most of their people, and much of the Muslim World, still views it as an illegal foreign entity created to assuage western guilt over the Holocaust at Palestinian expense, physically divide the Arab World, and promote US interests in the Mideast. Most important, the plight of 3.5 million Palestinian refugees - victims of a state created for other victims - continues to poison relations between Israel and its neighbors. By what right can Israel import Jews and non-Jews from Russia, Arabs ask, while denying the right of return of ethnically cleansed Palestinians?
Israel is rightly wary of peace with neighbors harboring such bitter feelings. An assassin's bullet could change any of the 'friendly' Arab regime overnight, bringing to power a new ruler hostile to Israel. How could Israel, already short of space and water, accept back even some of the stateless Palestinians? Israel's politically powerful settlers won't give an inch and are preparing to open new outposts on expropriated Palestinian land. What if Hamas bombers resume their bloody attacks?
A minority of Israeli hard-liners, backed by wealthy American supporters, who seem ready to fight to the last Israeli from the safety of the Hamptons and Hollywood, is still issuing alarms that a Palestinian mini-state will threaten Israel's existence. This is nonsense, as PM Barak underlined, when he dismissed the potential threat from a Palestinian state as "insignificant." The other military weak, backward Arab states offer little more conventional military danger to Israel.
Most Israelis accept the inevitability of a Palestinian state. But what kind of state? The current Palestinian 'entity' is no more than a series of bantustans overwatched by Jewish settlements and divided by Jewish-only security roads. Unless the final Palestinian state has geographic continuity and economic viability, it will remain dangerously unstable, a breeding ground of anger and terrorism. If the Arabs are to finally accept Israel's legitimacy, then Israelis will also have to accept the legitimacy of a viable Palestinian state that has at least a minimum of land, water, communications, and self-respect, as well as at least a symbolic toehold in Jerusalem, a city as sacred to Christians and Muslims as to Jews.
Whatever Palestinian state emerges, it will be a military protectorate and economic dependency of Israel. A stable, successful Palestine is thus much in Israel's self-interest. A peace between Israel and Syria will end their dangerous but futile 20-year rivalry to dominate Lebanon, Jordan, and the West Bank.
When you hold all the cards, as Israel does, its understandably hard to trade them for vague assurances of peace and good relations. But able general Barak knows the importance of timing. His diplomatic offensive may be the last chance to halt the growing Mideast race for weapons of mass destruction. Iran and Syria are racing to counter Israel's large nuclear and chemical arsenal by developing chemical and, eventually, nuclear warheads for their growing, medium-ranged missile forces. Unless this race is halted by a general peace, the Mideast will shortly enter a period of extreme danger.
For the first time since its birth, Israel could be facing a true life and death threat. Barak understands that neither Israel's new "Arrow" anti-missile defense system nor American pressure can fully eliminate the threat of Arab or Iranian missiles. The Arabs and Iran equally fear that Israel may lash out and strike them with tactical nuclear weapons - or worse. Security is a two-way street.
In the end, to make peace work, both sides will have to betray their most cherished promises. Israel will have to force some its militant settlers from Brooklyn to give up their little Fort Apaches on the West Bank. Arab regimes must convince millions of enraged Palestinians that the loss of their ancestral homes, however unjust, is irreversible.
Copyright: Eric Margolis, 1999