Paul Greenberg

A scorpion asked a camel for a ride across the Nile.

"Not on your life," the camel replied. "I know you. We'd get halfway across and then you'd sting me."

The scorpion was shocked, shocked at his friend's cynicism.

"Why would I do such a thing?" he asked. "If I stung you, we'd both go down."

"Makes sense," agreed the camel. "Very well, hop aboard."

The two got halfway across when, sure enough, the scorpion stung the camel.

"Why'd you do that?" asked the camel. "Now we'll both die."

To which the scorpion, with his last breath, replied: "That's the Middle East...."

We've been here before. Again and again. Mideast peace negotiations are opened with pomp and ceremony. Diplomats talk. And talk. The leaders of Israel and of one Palestinian faction or another are wheeled out to speak of peace. Deadlines are announced for the successful conclusion of the talks. Hands are shaken, sometimes even on the White House lawn. The fabled peace process labors mightily -- till it brings forth another war. And then the whole charade begins again.

Somebody ought to post a sign on the marquee wherever these various statesmen will be meeting for this latest round of futility:

PEACE NEGOTIATIONS

All New International Cast

Same Classic Script

Continuous Showings

If it all sounds familiar, that's because it is. Because this is where we came in. Whether this show is being staged in Madrid or Oslo or Camp David or on Maryland's Eastern shore. The locale changes, the outcome doesn't. For nothing seems to precede war in the Middle East like peace negotiations. The pattern is as familiar as it is disappointing. It may not be a matter of cause-and-effect, but it's a mighty strong coincidence. Which leads some of us to wonder: Suppose they announced peace negotiations and nobody came? Would the usual war not come, too? That would be nice.

All the parties to this continuing charade assert they're dedicated to pursuing a "just and lasting peace," to use the inevitable phrase for the mirage all claim to seek. They may actually believe it. Nothing enhances a good performance like sincerity.

But there's not much suspense left in this script. By now everybody must know what an eventual peace in the Mideast would look like. The terms have been worked out in conference after conference after conference. Why not just brush off the last, rejected draft of the Camp David agreement, if anybody can find it, and finally sign the thing? If not, much the same agreement can be spelled out again:

Two states, one Jewish and one Arab, living side by side. (Instead of the usual arrangement, which bears entirely too close a resemblance to dying side by side.) Land transfers that would leave the larger Jewish settlements in place on the West Bank while adding about the same number of dunams to the Palestinian state. Recognition of Israel as a Jewish state with its capital at Jerusalem, which would also house the capital of a new Arab state, the way Vatican City is part of Rome. Just as Muslim authorities now administer the Temple Mount while Jews pray at the Western Wall below it. Final settlement of all refugee claims, both those of Jews expelled from Arab countries and Arabs who fled Israel during various wars. For Israel, security. For the Palestinians, a peaceful, demilitarized state. A happy ending for all. For details, consult Minutes, Camp David, 2000. Where there's a will, there's a treaty, lacking only signatures.

There's light at the end of the tunnel! Only there's no tunnel. And there's no Arab leader willing to enter it, lest he never get out alive. How many peacemakers -- Jewish, Arab and other -- have been assassinated by now in the Middle East?

If there is one addition that would assure success for these negotiations, it would be the appearance of another Anwar Sadat. He changed everything, but they killed him. They killed Yitzhak Rabin, too. Who is this They who hate peace? The fanatical few who impose their "holy" cause on the many. Hope for peace is reborn every few years, or centuries, but the violent bear it away. And the names of their victims -- prime ministers, presidents, kings, peace itself -- stretch back across the decades and millennia, from Abdullah the First under the British to Gedaliah under the Babylonians.

In order to negotiate a two-state solution, somebody needs to represent both states. But who represents the proto-state of Palestine in this latest round of talk and only talk of peace?

Mahmoud Abbas represents only half a Palestinian state at best; Hamas controls the other half, and even now plots to throw its rival Fatah out of Ramallah as it did out of Gaza. And it just might do it if only Israeli troops weren't there to keep the peace. Which of the two -- Hamas or the Palestinian "Authority" -- is the rump parliament? Both, one suspects, for neither can claim an unchallenged legitimacy.

If the Arab side were really interested in a two-state solution, it could have had one long ago. The happy vision of two states, Jewish and Arab, living in peace, security and economic and political cooperation, goes way back -- at least to the Peel Commission's report of 1937.

One can almost trace the history of Arab-Israeli relations by the times such a solution has been proposed but never came to fruition. There was the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry in 1946; the partition of the British mandate approved by the United Nations in 1947; the Madrid Conference of 1991 and all its failed progeny, from the Oslo Declaration of Principles in 1993 to the Camp David Summit of 2000 and the Bush Road Map of 2003.

And that's to mention only some of the wreckage along this road to peace that, again and again, has led to war.

Once again we're in the middle of still another empty diplomatic exercise, which promises to produce a paper peace at best. To borrow a phrase from Israel's Abba Eban, who had a gift for pithy sayings, Palestinian leaders (from Haj Amin al-Husseini to Yasser Arafat) have never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Offered half a loaf time and again, they're now down to bargaining for not even a quarter of what they once might have had, and that quarter already split between competing factions.

Has any people ever been so ill served by their leaders as the Arabs of Palestine? No wonder, whenever it is suggested that Israeli Arabs become citizens of this new Palestine, they protest mightily. Who would want to be subject to so chaotic a regime?

The current vivisection of Arab Palestine resembles what Israel would look like if David Ben-Gurion hadn't put down Menachem Begin's Irgun in a brief but decisive civil war at the very birth of Israel and established one state. The Palestinians now have at least two. And a couple of other states in the neighborhood are eager to underwrite the next war, notably Syria and a soon-to-be-nuclear Iran. Meanwhile, the diplomats dither.

Jaw-jaw is always better than war-war, as Winston Churchill once observed. By all means, let these negotiations proceed, preferably indefinitely if they are a substitute for war rather than the usual preface to it. But let there be no illusions. This is but a shadow play, and a re-run at that.

Strange as it may seem, this may be as good as it gets in the Middle East: only occasional violence instead of Armageddon, only talk of peace rather than the real thing.

That's the Middle East.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.