No seeds for peace in the Middle East

Posted: Nov 18, 2004 12:00 AM

When my father died a decade ago, an American friend planted 100 trees in Israel as a memorial: "For life, for hope, in honor, in memory." Even before Israel became a modern state in 1948, Jews from all over the world contributed money to plant trees in Israel as a gesture both practical and sacramental.

As a little girl, I urged my parents' friends to drop coins in a blue and white box that sat in our foyer for contributions to plant trees in Israel. "We can make the desert green," I told them with the earnestness of a child. At our synagogue, we were told that every planted tree was touched by human hands. That was important after 6 million Jews had died in the Holocaust. The trees symbolized fertility, growth and replacement. Tradition told us that trees were originally planted in ancient days as commemoration of the first temple in Jerusalem.

Seen from the air, Israel is a plaid of fields and forests of green, claiming a promise for the future. What a pity that Muslims have no such promise for the state of Palestine. With the death of Yasser Arafat, the world is reminded of how his ideology of hate was as dry and as barren as the infertile desert. He delivered only terror, suicide bombers, death and destruction, soaking the land with blood. No flowers bloomed.

Arafat professed that what he wanted to plant were seeds of peace, and gullible if well-meaning judges gave him the Nobel Peace Prize, a gesture of hope in the face of bitter experience. His deathbed became a scene of farce, with speculation not on what the Palestinians could do with the money he had collected over the years but how much his spoiled wife could spend in the shops of Paris. The estimates of the money Arafat had put away in Swiss and Caribbean bank accounts ran to the hundreds of millions of dollars.

The Palestinians stuck in the miserable refugee camps were always instruments only of Arafat's power. Better for him that the Palestinians should live in poverty than in a state where they could flourish and prosper. Palestinian poverty became a public-relations weapon.

The generous offer made at Camp David in 2000, the best his people could ever expect - 97 percent of what he had asked, by one estimate - was turned down in an exercise of breathtaking cynicism. Cruel though he was to the Israelis, his abuse of power was even more hurtful to his own people. He deprived them of a peace delivered through politics unaccompanied by death and destruction. He nevertheless manipulated world opinion with a boffo performance before a world eager to be manipulated.

"The very fact of his longevity gives the lie to Arafat's contrived image of noble weakness," observes Mario Loyola in the Weekly Standard. "He survived in a political landscape of thugs and murderers because they all knew that he was one of them. A weak man would not have survived."

When leftist students here and in Europe were left as rebels without a cause with the end of the Vietnam War, the Palestinians replaced the Viet Cong as romantic revolutionaries. Hatred is a powerful narcotic for intellectuals, particularly those who live comfortably in the embrace of the campuses. Anti-Semitism lost its cachet at the end of World War II, but anti-Zionism neatly replaced it beneath what Bernard Lewis, the Middle Eastern scholar, called "the veil of respectability."

Although anti-Zionism is not always the equivalent of anti-Semitism, sometimes it is. Arafat manipulated that, too. In 1975, a year after he addressed the United Nations with a pistol strapped ostentatiously to his hip, the delegates adopted a resolution declaring that "Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination." In 2001, 3,000 non-governmental organizations at the United Nations World Conference on Racism declared Israel to be a "racist apartheid state" and guilty of "war crimes, acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing," deleting all clauses that opposed anti-Semitism.

At Arafat's death, Jacques Chirac, the president of France, celebrated him as "a man of courage and conviction," showing no shame in a country where Frenchmen are still being exposed as having willingly participated in the Holocaust.

When Jews plant trees in Israel, they recall the lines from the New Testament Book of Revelation: "On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. And the leaves of the trees are for the healing of the nations."

The man of "courage and conviction" planted no trees, but poisoned a generation deprived of a hope for peace.