Pursuing Mideast peace – despite current leaders

Whatever the outcome of Secretary of State Colin Powell's visit to the Middle East this week, one thing is clear: We face a long and difficult road before there is lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

First, there must be a cease-fire. Then an Israeli withdrawal. Then a halt to the suicide-bombings. Then a period of confidence-building on both sides. Then negotiations that ultimately must require Israeli abandonment of occupied territory; Arab recognition of Israel's right to exist, and exist in peace, and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. No small goal to achieve.

"Enough is enough," declared a frustrated President Bush last week. But he was pleading only for a cessation of the immediate violence. That is the beginning of the end, and the end-game is nowhere in sight.

The death toll has been high; the wounds are still raw. Both sides are presently led by men for whom the sword comes more naturally than the plowshare.

What the Palestinians need is a kind of Arab Nelson Mandela, who, even after years of subjugation and humiliation for his people, could rise to statesmanship and accommodation with his former enemies. Instead, they have Yasser Arafat, who has squandered his opportunities for peace, and politically, if not actually, embraced the suicide bombers sent against Israeli women, babies, and other noncombatants. The tragedy is that, should Mr. Arafat be eclipsed, in the present environment he could well be succeeded by someone more extreme, rather than by someone less hate-filled.

On the Israeli side, Ariel Sharon is a man whose first instinct is to use force rather than diplomacy. It was he in earlier times who earned the "butcher of Beirut" reputation as he stormed the Lebanese capital in the bid to drive out Palestinian fighters. I was in the Reagan administration at the time and remember well the furious, enough-is-enough telephone call from President Reagan that caused Mr. Sharon to desist. Sharon, too, is a principal architect of the provocative escalation of Israeli settlements on the West Bank and in Gaza. But such is the understandable mood of fear and anger in Israel over Palestinian suicide-bombing, that if Sharon were to fall, he, too, at present would likely be succeeded by an even harder-line leadership.

It is into this atmosphere of seemingly insoluble confrontation that the peacemakers must inject their skills of diplomacy, reason, and tolerance.

What does seem clear is that, between the beginning and the end of their efforts, there will be a need for a physical, outside force to keep Palestinians and Israelis from each other's throats.

There has been talk of American monitors to police any cease-fire obtained. Amid the present level of violence, that seems fanciful. They would be in considerable jeopardy, and given the extent of anti-Americanism throughout the Arab lands, they would hardly be accepted as neutral.

There is the possibility of American combat troops. They would be better able to defend themselves, but their generals dislike such policing assignments. They would face the same problem of nonacceptance by Arab countries, being seen as an instrument of American support for Israel.

There is the possibility of a United Nations force. The advantage of this is that the force could be tailored from nationalities conceivably acceptable to both sides. But the UN has learned bitter lessons from its earlier adventures in peacekeeping. The predominant one is that peace "keepers" are not effective peace "makers." Warring factions generally have to agree to make peace before lightly armed UN forces can come in to monitor it. The memories are still too painful of Bosnia, where UN peacekeepers were taken hostage and chained to bridges and other targets in the midst of continuing combat.

Where fighting still rages, NATO forces are needed, with their heavy armor, artillery, and air power. It was NATO that in the end had to supplant UN forces in the Balkans to enforce peace after years of ongoing war.

NATO would of course involve American elements, but they might be more palatable to the Arabs in a coalition of European military forces.

The stakes for the US in a Middle East peace – or at least a period without war – are high. The US has a long- standing commitment to the survival of Israel, but faces a firestorm of criticism from Arab and some European states arguing that this support fails to recognize the suffering and frustrations of the Palestinians.

Of pressing concern for the US is the risk that this will jeopardize Mr. Bush's campaign against terrorism and the coalition he has put together to fight it.

• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News.

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