Middle East's new battle lines

The agreement worked out at the Wye Plantation has been signed by the Israeli and Palestinian authorities and, entirely predictably, bombs have been exploding in Israeli marketplaces.

It's widely understood that the target of the bombs is not so much the human beings whose blood gets shed as it is the peace process itself. What's not widely understood is how irrelevant to the peace process should be the actions of its enemies.

In any long-standing conflict, deep divisions arise between an "us" and a "them," with divisions drawn according to membership in well-established groupings such as nation-states (as in the US-Soviet cold war) or economic roles (as in early industrial labor-management strife).

Once the work of making peace begins, each side commonly will split into those who want to keep on fighting and those who wish to replace the winner-take-all approach of the old conflict with a peace-through-compromise approach.

At that point, the most strange alliance can develop: Those on each side of the old line who are most bitterly antagonistic toward each other, whose dream may be to obliterate the other, can enter into a tacit partnership to destroy the bridges that peacemakers on both sides are building.

So it has been in the Middle East peace process.

In 1996, for example, during the run-up to the Israeli elections, it was the suicide bombers from Hamas on the Palestinian side who, as much as anything, handed the electoral victory to the more hawkish Likud Party in Israel. Because the peace process had manifestly not brought peace, the Israeli electorate handed power to leaders who had denounced Yitzhak Rabin's historic handshake with Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn.

It's an understandable reaction, but does it make sense? Isn't "punishing" the bombers by turning away from making peace playing right into their hands?

What should matter to each side in the peace process isn't the actions of those who are committed to the old conflict, but the actions of those on the other side who are supposedly also committed to making peace.

The war isn't over. But now the conflict must be not between the Israelis and the Palestinians, but between peacemakers and enemies of peace. And the peacemakers on each side are responsible for waging that war against the extremists on their own side of the old battle lines.

For Israel, this means, for example, constraining militant Jewish settlers in the territories under dispute from acting as a law unto themselves, brandishing their weapons against their Palestinian neighbors. In exchange for this, and giving up quite tangible land for a much less tangible commitment to peace, the Israelis are entitled to require Mr. Arafat and the Palestinian Authority to wage war against the Palestinian terrorists.

But it would be unreasonable - and foolish - to make the criterion for Palestinian compliance the elimination of all Palestinian acts of terror. Even when the Israelis were in charge of all the territories, they could not stop all terrorism. Beyond that, such a criterion would place the future of the peace process in the hands of those dedicated to destroying it.

The criterion therefore can't be "Has the Palestinian Authority delivered true peace?" But, rather, "Are they waging war against the Palestinian enemies of peace with all the commitment that war often requires?"

Because this criterion must be in the intangible terms of effort, not results, it is fitting that the US has, in the Wye accord, placed itself in the middle as an impartial judge of the wholeheartedness of the Palestinian authorities' efforts on security matters.

It is regrettable that sometimes the making of "peace" brings, in the short term, not greater security, but less. But so long as the strife is across new battlelines - so long as the old adversaries act as new allies - such a peace process holds the promise of true peace.

* Andrew Bard Schmookler is a writer living in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. His latest is 'The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution' (SUNY Press, 1995).

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