Losing heart in Israel

The bloodshed in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has only worsened in the past several weeks. That, by itself, is reason for international concern. The humanitarian side is compelling enough: For the Palestinians, life in the West Bank and Gaza has become even more miserable than before, with daily casualties: humiliation, poverty, joblessness, constant insecurity, and limited mobility. For the Israelis, life has been marked by scores of casualties with horrifying suicide attacks, pervasive insecurity, and the loss of hope.

Although Palestinians and Israelis have faced bloodshed and despair before, there is less hope now than at any time in the past decade. The belief that the parties can find common ground is fast disappearing and being replaced by a psychology of inevitable conflict. Nothing short of bold leadership can transform this psychology and reverse the destructive tide.

It is important to come to grips with the magnitude of despair, which seems puzzling, given how close the parties came to an agreement last July, when President Clinton convened the sides at a promising summit.

But it is precisely this seeming closeness to a deal that was at the heart of the loss of hope. The Israelis' interpretation that their government offered the Palestinians more than many Israelis would accept, but was still rejected by the Palestinians, turned even doves into pessimists. The Palestinian belief that their leaders offered Israel a historic compromise on settlements, land, and security that Israel rejected, because it wanted to impose a solution, led to despair.

As Palestinians turned to the intifada as a lever, Israeli suspicions only increased.

In the process, the mutual insecurity is feeding destructive behavior: The Israeli fear that Arabs now think Israel is weak makes Israel intent on using overwhelming force to prove the opposite. Palestinians, in the process, become more convinced that Israel is intent on using power to impose its will. Daily funerals only deepen the fears and propel the cycle of violence.

If this cycle continues, it will end the prospect of a peace deal in this generation. The basis of hope for both Israelis and Palestinians in the past decade has been the framing of the conflict as one between two nationalist movements - Palestinian and Jewish - whose resolution rests on two states at peace with each other. Not only are both losing faith in the viability of such a solution, but, increasingly, this nationalist framing is being replaced by religious and ethnic framing that could make the conflict much harder to resolve. The stakes are higher than ever. Is there a way out?

First, if a deal is possible at all, it will come from the parties themselves, not from third-party mediators. But given the low level of trust, they need mediators to even begin considering a possible deal. In addition, international intervention creates a psychological space for bilateral talks.

Second, the end of violence by both sides is necessary, but not sufficient for commencing negotiation. The cycle could be reignited if there were no changes on the ground, and if hope were not revived. The public has little faith in agreements without action.

Third, new negotiations must be framed in relation to a final settlement even when they address short-term arrangements, so as to restore hope. The framework for such a settlement must remain nationalist, and consistent with the international resolutions that have been the basis of previous negotiations.

The Egyptians and the Jordanians have put forth a promising proposal along similar lines to end the violence and return to the negotiating table. This plan, which has gained international support, is now being studied by Israel.

Moreover, there are many Palestinian voices who increasingly believe that the injustice of occupation is best highlighted through a nonviolent intifada. Many Israelis also know that overwhelming force will not bring peace. But these voices on both sides are outweighed by those who want to lash out.

In the short term, any glimmer of hope to create a space for serious negotiations rests with something like the Egyptian-Jordanian proposal, which calls for implementing the Sharm Al-Sheikh and other interim agreements before returning to the negotiating table.

But even if the parties move to implement such a limited proposal, the task will remain daunting: In the end, this space will quickly disappear without real changes on the ground that positively affect people's lives. In that case, Palestinians and Israelis may find themselves in a bloody war that may take another generation to resolve.

Shibley Telhami is the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, College Park, and Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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