Beyond Sharon's Victory

Israel's new prime minister, Ariel Sharon, is like the many Jewish settlements he has helped place near Palestinian areas. He's now a "fact on the ground," a term he once used for the settlements.

Elected by an overwhelming vote despite his past as a pugnacious but pragmatic hard-liner, Mr. Sharon's victory may represent a new, anti-Oslo attitude among Israelis that peace can't be negotiated, only dictated. If his government survives long, which is doubtful, Israel could further withdraw into a fortresslike island amid a sea of Arab animus.

Palestinians, too, have retreated, turning to attack mode by updating the 1980s-style intifada into street violence that now uses guns as well as stones. With only a smidgen of democracy under Yasser Arafat, violence is about all they have to express their resentments - against both Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Both sets of peoples came oh-so close to a peace deal under Prime Minister Ehud Barak last year. He courageously broke Israeli taboos by offering concessions on Jerusalem and the right of return for Palestinian refugees. But he, like Mr. Arafat and President Clinton, failed to till the ground of public opinion to accept the historic compromises needed to end this long conflict.

President Bush should be wary of using the kind of high-level Mideast diplomacy that his father started when the end of the cold war brought fresh hope of a new dynamic in the region, leading to the Oslo peace pact.

Hasty US pressure and a reliance on personalities, without addressing the basic needs of people, have left the peace process hanging in the air.

To be sure, a decade of diplomatic deal-cutting on territorial issues has brought some progress - a Palestinian state in all but name and an Israeli-Jordan peace deal - but nothing common Palestinians can cling to. They have not tasted the fruits of peace.

Only too late in his own diplomacy did President Clinton visit Palestinians in their homeland and begin the necessary work of showing the United States can be an even-handed player in the Mideast, one that brings hope to Arab and Israeli alike.

Peace can come, but it may not be done in backroom deals by cloistered leaders, but rather through the incremental work of both the US and Europe in uplifting the two societies.

The hardened demands of both sides, such as their different claims on Jerusalem, cannot be resolved until leaders build more trust, hope, and some sense of common destiny.

Those would be the real "facts on the ground."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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