The Human Dimension of Peace

An ability to empathize, to respect each other, could be the biggest Mideast breakthrough

`WE locked the front door of our home just before lunchtime. We carried only suitcases and clothes, and we had a case with our jewelry and the registry deeds to our lands.... We thought we were going for a month or so, until the fighting died down.'' The speaker was David Damiani, a businessman from pre-1948 Palestine. The story of his family's flight during the Arab-Jewish fighting of that year is just as important to future stability in the Middle East as the many moving narratives of Soviet Jews now making their way to Israel.

Damiani's story, recorded by British author Robert Fisk in his recent book ``Pity the Nation,'' might have been that of a Spaniard, Nicaraguan, or Lebanese, talking about fleeing from inter-communal fighting. But unlike most of those others, the Palestinians who fled what became Israel in 1948 have never been allowed to go home.

I know many Palestinian refugees who, like David Damiani, still cling to the title deeds of homes they left 43 years ago. I also know many Israelis, and I know that they are reluctant to talk about what happened to the Palestinians in 1948.

Most Israelis dislike, in particular, talking about the issue Palestinian refugees have clung to over the decades: the refugees' right, as upheld in many United Nations resolutions, either to return to their original properties or to receive compensation.

Few Israelis recognize the ``Right to Return'' that Palestinians cherish. And few Palestinians recognize the ``Law of Return'' revered by Israelis, which states that any Jew can move to, and gain citizenship in, Israel.

Over the decades, however, there has been a growing recognition from each side that the other has some claim to the contested land west of the Jordan River. In Israel, the present government opposes territorial compromise with the Palestinians. But in polls of Jewish Israelis, the proportion accepting that there must be some compromise has grown in recent years and now stands at roughly half.

On the Palestinian side, meanwhile, the Palestine Liberation Organization has been committed since 1988 to seeking a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza alongside, rather than in place of, Israel. PLO leaders, who have retained the loyalty of their people despite mistakes in the Gulf war, understand that such a state would be mostly de-militarized and would have many ties with both Israel and Jordan.

PLO leaders recognize, too, that few refugees from 1948 would be allowed to return to their original properties. But they argue that the future Palestinian entity should be free to absorb refugee Palestinians, just as Israel absorbs incoming Jews.

THERE are thus significant strands of hope for Secretary of State James Baker to work with as he tries to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This hope stems from the growing understanding among all Middle Easterners that war is a dead-end street. Increasingly, Middle Easterners have come to see that no one group can have all it asks for.

A Solomon-like division of the much-loved area west of the Jordan is one of the strongest ideas to emerge. (If Israel and the future Palestinian entity want to continue absorbing compatriots in distress, then the scarcity of water will look like a serious constraint. But political leaders in Turkey have offered to help. They envision a ``peace pipeline'' taking water from Turkey to Israel/Palestine. Of course, that needs Syria in the peace process. But even that is not unthinkable.)

In the end, resolving the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians will depend on whether each side has the ability to work with, respect, and empathize with the other. Right now, there is a chance that can be achieved.

In his book, Robert Fisk recounts how, after talking to David Damiani in Beirut, he traveled to Israel. Living in the Damiani house in old Jaffa, he found Israeli sculptor Shlomo Green, a Holocaust survivor who had lost 100 relatives in Auschwitz. Green asked Fisk to tell him about Damiani's life. After hearing Fisk's description, the sculptor ``looked up quite suddenly with tears in his eyes'' and told Fisk how moving he had found it.

Later, Fisk completed the circle by returning to Damiani in Beirut. ``I repeated the details of how so many of Green's family had been murdered at Auschwitz,'' Fisk writes. ``Damiani showed no bitterness. `I wish him happiness,' he said.''

Damiani, Green, and many other Middle Easterners have the impressive human qualities needed to resolve this terrible conflict. Our diplomacy needs to empower such people, wherever they are.

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