IN MIDEAST, SMALL IS HOPEFUL

In the holy land that long ago begat the hope of eternity, hope must always spring eternal.

And so once again, Israeli and Palestinian leaders say they will sheath swords and take up yet another American peace plan.

Keeping hope alive seems to be about all a United States president can do for the Israelis and Palestinians. As a powerful broker, he must make sure that jaw-jaw triumphs over war-war until both sides - not just one - plead for peaceful coexistence and make trade-offs.

Unfortunately, peace is in the details, not in the abstract language of diplomacy, and right now the details on the ground matter more to the Palestinians than to Israel.

An absence of conflict would suit Israel just fine. It has all but won its existence as a Mideast state after 52 years. It wants finality.

But to the Palestinians, the struggle for a sovereign state and for a national capital centered on an Islamic holy site in Jerusalem is unfinished. Pushing hard for an Israeli-defined finality before those goals are guaranteed, as President Clinton tried to do last summer, only forces Palestinians to retain the option of low-intensity violence.

But such violence has left over 350 people killed in three months, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has nothing to show for it.

Mr. Arafat also faces the likelihood that Israeli voters, fed up with Palestinian violence, will elect hard-line Likud leader Ariel Sharon as prime minister in an election on Feb. 6. That could mean more Jewish settlements on the West Bank, more police checkpoints, and less access for Palestinians to work in Israel. That's a finality Arafat cannot accept.

So he has reportedly decided to dance again at the peace table. Arafat may also hold out some hope that a Republican president will be tougher than a Democratic one in forcing more compromises from Israel.

If that's true, George W. Bush must devise some clever way for Israel to accept the return of thousands of Palestinian refugees to either the West Bank and Gaza, or to Israel itself. (See story on page 1.)

But the new US president may want to take a wholly new approach that doesn't meddle in Israeli domestic affairs or rely so much on personalities at the top or seek to achieve a triumph of American diplomacy without any help from Europe or the United Nations.

A Clinton-style reach for finality on all issues may have to give way to seeking small steps that build on simple coexistence. Hope may lie in leaving some issues on the shelf, and not raising expectations that lead to dashed hopes and more violence.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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