Peace: The confusion between mechanism and a cause

Posted: May 06, 2002 12:00 AM

Wars usually end with both sides sitting down at a table and signing a peace agreement. From this, some people seem to think that the way to get peace is to start sitting down at a table and beginning negotiations. In other words, start "the peace process" -- whether in the Middle East or elsewhere. If this were so, then why didn't we just sit down with representatives of Japan and Germany sooner during World War II and avoid all that bloodshed at Iwo Jima and Normandy?

Part of the problem is the confusion between a mechanism and a cause. Why did the Japanese representative finally sit down and sign a peace treaty on the battleship Missouri, ending World War II? It was not because of negotiations but because of what had already happened at Iwo Jima, at Normandy and -- above all -- at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

When people talk about a "peace process," they are usually talking about something that matches their preconception that negotiations end wars. But, if we are really interested in peace, then we have to look at the hard evidence of what has in fact led to peace. What ended the Cold War with the Soviet Union? Was it all the "summit meetings" that took place for decades on end, while the Soviets sponsored wars of aggression around the world? Or was it Ronald Reagan's much-lamented "arms race" of the 1980s that put the Soviet economy under more strain than it could handle?

Yes, Reagan ended up signing an agreement with Gorbachev, but was that the reason the Cold War ended? People who have been cured of some disease for which they have been hospitalized end up signing out of the hospital -- but signing out of the hospital is not what cured them.

If Middle East negotiations -- endlessly described as "the peace process" -- actually promoted peace, then the Middle East would be one of the most peaceful places on earth. Nowhere have there been more negotiations, more countries involved, more agreements made (and broken) or more photo ops.

When will peace come to the Middle East? When neither side has anything more to gain by war. That is when peace comes everywhere.

The Israelis have already reached that point, judging by their willingness to make large concessions to Yasser Arafat two years ago. But Arafat obviously has not, given his rejection of those concessions, which most observers considered extraordinary.

Those who see negotiations as a magic process leading to peace often fail to understand that negotiations between nations are not like negotiations between labor and management, where both sides realize that in the end they each need the other to survive. A nation does not need another nation in order to survive. The Palestinians would love nothing better than to survive by exterminating Israel.

If Arafat realizes that he cannot exterminate Israel, he may also realize that other Palestinians may exterminate him if he permanently calls off the war against Israel. The much discussed "Arab street" may not be willing to have peace with Israel -- at least not until they have tired of repeatedly suffering painful and devastating consequences from continuing the war. But so long as "world opinion" repeatedly intervenes to spare them the full consequences of their own aggression, that day can be postponed indefinitely.

Those who look for "root causes" might consider this: Several years before there was a state of Israel, Winston Churchill said that the Jews in Palestine had "made the desert bloom." Had they not done so, there might be peace in the Middle East today. Nothing has promoted more fierce and lasting hatred than assaulting people's egos by blatantly outperforming them.

Most of the great mindless slaughters of the 20th century -- whether of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, the kulaks in the Soviet Union, the Jews in Germany, the Ibos in Nigeria or the Tamils in Sri Lanka -- have been slaughters of those who dramatically eclipsed the accomplishments of others.

Ordinary life has been even more disrupted by the civil war in Sri Lanka than in Israel and has been marked by even more atrocities. Recently, there have begun to appear the first signs of a desire on both sides for peace in Sri Lanka. This was not brought about by a "peace process," by externally imposed cease fires or by photo ops at the White House. It was brought about by decades of suffering by both sides until they were exhausted.