Middle East: Will they ever learn?

The outcome was predictable: Even before Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon met with his cabinet upon returning from the United States, the missiles started raining on the Palestinian areas - only hours after three horrific Palestinian suicide bombings in Jerusalem and Haifa.

These bombings themselves were also part of an unfortunate pattern by the Palestinian militant group Hamas. They followed an assassination by Israel of one of Hamas's military leaders, after which they vowed revenge.

In the process, there is a continuing cycle of violence that brings more pain on both sides, hardens each public's positions toward the other, and makes it ever more difficult to achieve peace. Do they ever learn?

Unfortunately, the history of conflict shows that the parties rarely learn that the cycle of violence should be replaced by cooperation, even if both sides continue to pay a heavy price. In a study I recently published (with three colleagues) examining 20 years of conflict and cooperation in the Middle East, we found that the parties consistently engage in reciprocal responses to each other's actions, but that they rarely learn to cooperate on their own. Why?

There are several reasons: First, domestic pressures often compel leaders to react to violence in ways that are strategically self-defeating. Whether or not it is helpful in the peace process for one party to react forcefully to bloodshed, the pain endured in these attacks demands relief through some sort of action; often, inflicting pain on the other is the natural response.

Second, each side always believes not acting sends a message of weakness that will only invite more attacks. This is the argument of both Palestinians and Israelis who say, "What choice do we have?"

Third, each side cites the wrong examples from history, "proving" that violence works. One often hears Palestinian and Israeli voices arguing that the other side only understands toughness. Palestinian militants often argue that Israel only understands force, and that it pulled its forces out of Lebanon only because of the actions of Hizbullah guerrillas, not through negotiations. Some Israelis now see in the apparent American military success in Afghanistan a model for the shape of things to come in their war against Palestinian militants.

Yet neither situation fits the dilemma that Israelis and Palestinians face in relation to each other. The conflict between them is a nationalist and existential one. In fact, the history of the conflict shows that violence on its own failed to bring either security or peace. The Palestinian guerrilla operations in the late '60s led to the expulsion of the Palestinians from Jordan in a civil war. The PLO operations in Lebanon in the '70s ultimately led to the Israeli invasion in 1982, which killed many Palestinians and forced the PLO into exile. And the Israeli occupation of Lebanon for nearly two decades brought neither peace nor security for Israel.

During the past year, Palestinian violence against Israel has resulted in more pain for the Palestinians than for Israel. And the tough Israeli actions, including targeted killings in the West Bank and Gaza since Prime Minister Sharon came to power, have marked the most violent period for Israelis in many years. It is a pure delusion for either side to believe that tougher military means will compel the other to accept its dictates.

Nor is it possible for either side to fancy that it can replace the leadership of the other. The Palestinians have to deal with Sharon despite his harsh past, and the Israelis will have to accept Mr. Arafat despite their hatred for him. In the 1970s, Israel tried to weaken the PLO in the West Bank and Gaza by encouraging the Islamic opposition, which only gave rise to the militant Hamas and failed to weaken the PLO.

Today, Israel certainly has the military capacity to destroy the Palestinian Authority, but it has no power to determine what the West Bank and Gaza will look like the morning after.

How to break out of this self-defeating cycle of violence and self-delusion? First, recognize that it's not likely the parties will do it on their own. When each side is hopping from one funeral to another each day, it's difficult to have the reflective perspective peacemaking requires.

Sometimes courageous and unusual leadership can break the cycle, but it is the sort that is rare and dangerous to the leaders: Anwar Sadat and Yitzhak Rabin were killed by their own countrymen for their courage. More common are diplomatic interventions that allow the parties space to negotiate and break the cycle of violence. This is a moment when the international community, and especially the United States, cannot just sit by, hoping that Palestinians and Israelis on their own will find a way out. They won't.

Lacking diplomatic intervention, Palestinians and Israelis may be on the verge of taking their conflict to a new level.

Shibley Telhami is the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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