Arafat's tragic end and new beginnings

Many things have ended in Israel and Palestine: The Oslo peace process. The hundreds of carefully crafted relationships between Israelis and Arabs. What also seems to be ending is the long and dubious regime of Yasser Arafat. It may well be that he has control over the direction of the military struggle against Israel. But the moment he stands in the way of the infrastructures of combat that he launched, he is finished.

Furthermore, Israel is trying hard to cause his rule to disintegrate. Between the Israeli and Palestinian opposition, Mr. Arafat has no place to move. He does hope to widen the conflict and thus force the international community to his side, and this is his last card. But so far, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is outflanking him by being particularly cautious in his response to Jewish casualties.

I have met with Arafat several times, as recently as April. I and countless others have always tried to move him toward his side that is less violent and more visionary.

Several rabbis, sheikhs, and nongovernmental institutions have worked quietly for a couple of years on a parallel cultural and religious track of peacemaking, and - in the present circumstances - ceasefire. We have had tacit support for our work from government officials on all sides, including the Americans.

Our vision was to jumpstart a new relationship between the two peoples by virtue of highly public ethical and religious gestures, including a cultural peace treaty that was already written. These gestures would be bilateral, and spearheaded by government leaders on both sides, as well as by key religious leaders. We came very close to accomplishing this, with a ceremony planned in Washington only a month ago. But the continuing attacks, seemingly approved by Arafat, made it impossible for participants to trust any gestures that Arafat may have approved.

Essentially, no one trusts the Palestinian leader anymore. He has trapped himself in his own structures of corruption and violence to such a degree that he cannot struggle for his people's rights or independence without those structures of corruption and violence.

Where is there hope? In the people of Palestine and Israel. Yes, they are filled with rage. But the fact is that there were millions of people on both sides ready for compromise, and for coexistence of two states. Thousands on both sides have fought valiantly for democracy and human rights. But the foolish essence of the Oslo peace process was to keep peacemaking to a few select individuals, to turn a deaf ear to daily suffering, and to squander the opportunity to build a bicultural community of individuals committed to nonviolent struggle for change. There were interests on all sides in preventing the integration of the two communities. The third parties in this conflict - those who blindly took sides - also share in the blame.

We have the solutions to this conflict. We know what fair distribution of scarce resources means; we understand what sharing holy spaces requires. All of this has been worked out. What is missing are communities who can trust each other, who can engage in ethical gestures of repair and apology. We cannot engage a peace process again with corrupt and violent partners. The third parties, the rest of us, must work, one relationship at a time, to build a community in the middle of Israelis and Palestinians who will struggle for a new reality.

My interviews in Israel time and time again reveal two basic ethical prerequisites for a future relationship. On the Jewish side, it always comes down to respect for the value of a Jewish life. On the Palestinian side, it always comes down to respect, dignity, and equality for Arabs. All the other complex disputes would be fixable if these two prerequisites were in place, bolstered every day by changes in word and deed. This will bring the only possible beginning of a new moral and political community.

What I describe may be post-Arafat, post-Palestinian Authority, and post-Sharon. But there is no alternative, except mutually assured destruction. The time to start building is now. Some of us may continue back-channel efforts to move the leaderships away from violent cycles of struggle. But, in the long run, the capacity to live in peace will reside with the majority of people on both sides. It is our job to be honest with and compassionate toward both peoples and to help them build a new political movement, and a new moral reality, one relationship at a time.

Marc Gopin is visiting associate professor of international diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, and visiting scholar at Harvard University's Program on Negotiation.

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