EVERY time you believe the mindless bloodshed in the Middle East has reached an incredible height, you wake up to find that the horror has escalated some more. No wonder people of goodwill, including diplomats of many nations, are scurrying about trying to find some way out.
No initiative in years has evoked nearly as much hope as the Saudi peace plan. Despite what has happened in recent days, it is still the only major, encompassing proposal if not on the table at least in the air.
It is hence with a heavy heart, based on the 21 years I lived in the region, that I must point to several reasons why the simple notion of trading land for peace may be little more than a mirage.
The Saudi proposal promises normalization of relations between Israel and Arab governments, if Israel retreats to its 1967 borders. These Arab governments do not include the Palestinians, who have never hinted at willingness to accept such a deal. Leaders of the relatively moderate Palestinian group Hamas have repeatedly stated that they will take all the land they can get at the bargaining table and then go for the rest, using terror to make Israel yield more and more.
The overwhelming majority of Palestinians do not accept Israel's 1967 borders (favored by UN resolutions and the Saudi plan). They want to return to what they consider their homes in towns and villages where they lived before Israel's founding in 1948, now in Israel proper.
Less than a handful of Palestinian public intellectuals and politicians favor the Saudi plan. The Israelis are sharply divided. True, they have a sizable peace camp that is somewhat revitalized by it. One should note, though, that polls show that about half of Israelis believe that the West Bank and surely East Jerusalem are part of their holy land. They are much less in favor of turning these territories over to Arabs than Americans are of returning Alaska to Russia.
One should not take it for granted that any Israeli government would be able to accept the Saudi proposal, especially if the Old City (in East Jerusalem) is included.
The Israeli reluctance is deepened by the fact that the Saudi deal trades tangible, hard-to-reverse concessions for ephemeral relationships that can be ended with a diplomatic cable or less. Assume that Israel withdrew from the West Bank and resettled the 200,000 Israelis living there. What happens if anything then displeases several Arab governments? What will prevent these governments from terminating relations with Israel? What if an Arab government is overthrown by Islamic fundamentalists?
Such a government could once again finance and arm terrorists, if not in the West Bank then among the 4 million Palestinians who would continue to live in camps surrounding Israel, according to the Saudi deal. Could Israel then go back and reoccupy and resettle the West Bank?
Well-meaning people assume that once an agreement is signed, people will calm down and go about making a living, loving their families, and cherishing the peace. But given the level of animosity, what both sides need first is a long cooling-down period.
The plan put forward last year by former Sen. George Mitchell, which calls first for a cease-fire and confidence-building measures, is the place to start. But it will take at least six months not seven days of tranquility before meaningful negotiations could begin.
The Israelis and Palestinians need what Northern Ireland had. While negotiations ensued there was a long period in which killings dwindled to zero. Tempers calmed down and people came to terms with their grief and got busy rebuilding. At the end of such a rainbow, the Saudi plan may have a prayer.
To gain a period of tranquility, it is senseless to demand that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat control his people. If he really tried, he would be killed.
The parties to the conflict need to be separated. In some areas this can be done by erecting fences of the kind that mark Israel's border with Lebanon; by removing a few Israeli settlements that are isolated and vulnerable, such as those in the middle of Gaza; and by positioning international peacekeeping forces in some other areas.
None of this will work overnight. The best one can hope for now is a cease-fire (leading to a cooling off and relaxation of the limitations on travel and work in the West Bank) and beginning the formation of the conditions under which some version of the Saudi plan can be seriously discussed. Until then, it is a terribly attractive mirage.
Amitai Etzioni is a university professor at George Washington University, and the author of 'The Spirit of Community' (Crown, 1993).