Imagine peace in the Mideast

Posted: Jun 26, 2006 12:01 AM

If things have to get worse in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before they get better, then things must be about to get much better because they're definitely getting much worse.

If that doesn't make any sense, neither does the Mideast.

Why do things have to get worse before they get better? Because by now only a civil war may produce a single, accountable Palestinian government - and a single army subject to its control.

Half a century ago, the newborn state of Israel saw a brief civil war between its largest militias, David Ben-Gurion's Haganah and Menachem Begin's Irgun. As a result, a single Israeli army came into being, subject to a single Israeli government that could speak to the world with one voice. And negotiate with authority. And be held responsible for its actions.

Right now, neither of the major factions in this always a-borning, never born Palestinian state seems able to take responsibility - either for terrorist attacks or peace negotiations. Smaller, more radical militias - like Islamic Jihad - tend to be blamed for the worst atrocities, and all the talk of peace is immediately canceled by talk of "resistance," i.e., continued assaults on Israelis. Thinking of nothing but vengeance for half a century or more can poison the mind of a whole people.

Nor is there any guarantee that a civil war among the various Palestinian factions/authorities/gangs would be brief or decisive. The chaos, and power struggle, could continue indefinitely. As one observer asked, will this be the first coup d'etat to occur before the etat?

The violence in Gaza threatens to spread into Israel with every rocket attack across the border. Now that Israel's fence has reduced the number of suicide bombings within the Jewish state, rockets have become the terrorists' preferred weapon. They continue to fall on the Israeli border town of Sderot, and the Israelis respond with artillery barrages and air strikes that inevitably kill and maim innocent civilians - as Americans well know.

The Israeli withdrawal from Gaza was supposed to ease matters, and it has done that, for there are no longer any Israeli settlements there to attack. But the settlers who fought the withdrawal warned that the Palestinians would simply elevate their sights and, instead of attacking the settlements in the Gaza Strip, begin striking at Israel itself. Which is what's happening: The townspeople of Sderot have taken the settlers' place as targets.

The other day, one of the rockets fired into Israel proper landed almost in the backyard of Israel's dovish defense minister. (Only in Israel would a defense minister be a dove, but after that rocket narrowly missed his house, he may no longer be quite as dovish.)

However wise it was to remove the Israeli settlers, moving Israeli troops out of Gaza may have been a mistake, for the Gaza Strip now could become one big launching pad for attacks on Israeli towns just across the border.

The Israeli government continues to talk abut a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank, too, but after what has happened in Gaza, it would be foolish, not to say suicidal, to relinquish military control there. To do so would expose most of Israel, a tiny country with no strategic depth, to constant attacks.

The whole notion of the Israelis' retreating behind their fence and imposing peace unilaterally becomes more dubious daily. Fences do not stop rockets. And the Israelis will still have to control the coastal ports and airports in Palestinian territory if they are to keep far more sophisticated weapons than these amateurish Qassam rockets from reaching the terrorists.

Israel's dream of disengagement is looking more and more like a mirage, for there can be no disengagement from a people who share the same land, air and water. There can be only confrontation or co-existence - or something uncertain in between, which is what both sides now endure.

At the moment, various Palestinian factions, notably Hamas and Fatah, are waging an undeclared civil war in Gaza and on the West Bank while vowing there will be no civil war. How little things change in that part of the world: The voice may be the voice of Jacob, but the hands are still the hands of Esau.

The Israelis aren't about to negotiate with a regime sworn to their destruction, but there is nothing to prevent them from discussing terms with Mahmoud Abbas' shadow government, which at least professes an interest in negotiating a peace agreement. The terms Yasser Arafat rejected at Camp David would be a good starting point. There is still light at the end of the tunnel. There's just no tunnel. Why not open one?

Yes, any agreement reached with only one faction of the Palestinians' splintered government would be only abstract at this point, but such a vision would give ordinary Palestinians, who surely yearn for peace as much as ordinary Israelis, an idea of what peace would be like if Hamas were to change its stripes - or be pushed aside.

If the way to peace is blocked for the moment by Hamas' ascendancy, why not open Track II and have an agreement ready to be put in place should things change?

Envisioning peace in the Mideast might be the first step toward making it a reality. For where there is no vision, both peoples perish.