Are the Israeli and Palestinian publics ready to support a respect-filled settlement with each other? The answer to this broad question will determine whether the "final-status" peace talks between the two national leaderships that started Nov. 8 will lead to a sustainable peace.
The United States has its own huge interest in seeing a successful outcome for these talks. President Clinton and National Security Adviser Samuel Berger have both signaled the importance they give to meeting the Sept. 13 deadline for the final peace treaty. The US also has a key role to play in determining the nature, and stability, of this peace agreement. Given the asymmetries of power between the two Middle Eastern parties, the US will need to play a sensitive balancing role on key issues. It also must work to persuade the two peoples and their leaders to turn away from force, toward a peace based on true mutual respect.
Israeli Premier Ehud Barak has said he prefers that the US not have any active presence inside the negotiating room. But given the preponderance of coercive power available to Israel, if the Israelis and the Palestinians just face each other one-on-one, then the best outcome the Palestinians could expect would be an imposed, Quisling-style, or Bantustan-type agreement. History has shown how short-lived and destabilizing such agreements are. Over time, the resentment of the Palestinians and their many supporters worldwide would be bound to make any imposed agreement unworkable.
Yes, Mr. Barak may be aiming instead for a respect-filled, mutual settlement with the Palestinians. But given Israel's current power edge, many of his countrymen - including old Army friend Ariel Sharon - would continue to press hard for a deal that pushes home Israel's current power-based advantage. At that point, Barak should welcome having access to the argument that, in reaching a compromise peace with the Palestinians, he was doing so "under some pressure from Washington." If he does want to forge such an agreement, he is short-sighted not to keep that card in his pocket.
Much work remains if this peace is to be built. But the two leaderships, and broad sections of their publics, have already taken significant steps toward the needed reconciliation. For many decades, remember, the dominant thought in each community maintained that the "other" community had no valid claim at all on the Holy Land.
Then, in 1991 in Madrid, an Israeli premier sat for talks with a delegation that openly included Palestinians. In 1993, the government of Israel exchanged formal letters of recognition with the group representing the vast majority of Palestinians, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). Now, those two leaderships are committed to completing the text of their final peace treaty by September. That treaty, both sides agree, needs to encompass final agreements on all the tough issues: Jerusalem, placement of final borders, status of the Palestinian political entity, claims of the 4 million Palestinian refugees, and the fate of 340,000 Israelis living in occupied areas of Jerusalem and the West Bank.
This won't be easy for the public on either side. The key task for an engaged sponsor is to encourage leaders and publics on both sides to move beyond the mutual recognition they exchanged in 1993 to true mutual respect between their peoples. That is, the folks on each side of that national divide need to recognize that 6 million Israelis and 6 million Palestinians all have a decent claim on the resources of the Holy Land - and that these claims can only be met, and stable coexistence assured, if there is flexibility and forward thinking on both sides.
Yes, each side still harbors strong grievances over past wounds, and strong residual claims against the other. Palestinian terrorism has killed many hundreds of Israelis since 1948, and wounded thousands more. The Israelis have killed tens of thousands of Palestinians since 1948, and have wounded and forced into exile many thousands more. Forging the final peace is a time neither to forget these wounds, nor to seek a detailed one-by-one accounting for each - but rather, to acknowledge that they occurred, to make some real recompense for them, and most importantly, to build the mutual relationship and hope-filled structure of peace that alone can ensure such wounding never happens again.
Will the Clinton administration be working actively toward this end? For the sake of the peace of the Holy Land, let us hope so. The Israeli and Palestinian leaderships have taken risks by committing to meet the September peace deadline. Now, Mr. Clinton needs to show an equal degree of political daring in his pursuit of this peace.
*Helena Cobban, who writes from Charlottesville, Va., is author of the forthcoming 'The Moral Architecture of World Peace' (University Press of Virginia).
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society