Searching for peace

Posted: Dec 10, 2003 12:00 AM

In a few weeks it will be time to celebrate "Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men," so I wanted to get this column topic -- assessing the Middle East peace process -- in print before that theme period starts. Almost every week on television, the other pundits and I are asked to assess the fine points of the latest Mideast peace plan. Inevitably someone on the panel intones that "everybody knows the outlines of a successful peace plan." The remaining pundit panelists nod their heads in quiet, knowing assent. And it's true. If peace in the Middle East could be decided by American and European experts, we could wrap it all up by Christmas. Unfortunately, it's the Arabs and Jews who have to make peace. And they have never seen a peace plan they both like simultaneously.

Every peace plan is a minor variant on the same theme. The United States "leans" on Israel to give up land, while Israel hopes that the Arabs living on the West Bank and Gaza will say thank you very much, we are now satisfied and will stop killing Jews. Then the two peoples would cheerfully give up their historical, biblical and Koranic claims on Jerusalem, and forget about the Arabs' desire to return to the pre-1967 Israeli lands they were driven from (or left voluntarily, depending on whose history you read) a half century ago. Then, with a few minor adjustments of various lines of demarcation (and after resolving some pesky water rights issues), we will have two happy peoples living in "viable" states next to each other hugger-mugger, and dropping in for tea on each other like good suburban neighbors.

It is pitiful to see grown, well-educated and presumably worldly experts discussing this fairy tale as if it were remotely plausible in the next several years. The Middle East Jews and Arabs are ancient peoples with ancient grievances and damnably excellent (if selective) memories. While the Israeli Jews have repeatedly proven their willingness to reach a genuine peace agreement, they can be as stubborn as a Dutchman, or a company of American Marines or any other proud group of humans in refusing to sign their own death warrant by agreeing to a phony deal.

And with the recent recrudescence of 1930s-style anti-Semitism across the planet (particularly in bloody old Europe), Israelis are even more motivated to cling to their tiny scrap of a survival redoubt on the edge of the Mediterranean Sea. While the French ambassador to Britain refers to the filthy (expletive slightly cleaned up) little country of Israel, while American university campuses are banning Israeli cultural events, while the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" is once again an international best-seller, while respectable people in the Middle East, and even in Europe, shrug their shoulders at the thought of "again," the Israelis -- from peace-loving left to adamantine right -- persist in their quaint idea of "Never again."

With the memory of the 1930s-40s still blood red in their minds, we can be sure that the Israelis will not rely on security guarantees from the United Nations, Europe or even the United States (the cut-and-run mentality of President Bush's presidential opponents regarding Iraq remind the Israelis that betrayal may never be more than four years away in the United States). Nor can one blame the Israelis for not trusting in the good faith of the Arabs in Palestine and elsewhere -- particularly now. With the jihadist temperament still in its upsurge, the prevalent -- if not dominant -- mood amongst the Saracens right at the moment is clearly "On to the Mediterranean."

Under these regrettable conditions, a helpful world might better serve the peoples of the Middle East by encouraging mutual isolation between the Israelis and the Arabs. Instead of browbeating the Jews as they build their fence (or wall, if you prefer), we should encourage it. Five thousands years of brutal and hate-filled history have ingrained in the Jews a profound sense of the practical. They have learned that well-intentioned bright new ideas or utopian visions tend to lead to more dead Jews. On the other hand, a sensible, well-built wall might result in less dead Jews. That is the beginning of a wise foreign policy for Israel.

Genuine peace will only be possible, if at all, when the jihadist fire has been extinguished in millions of Muslim hearts. To that end, we must persist in our democracy project in Iraq and beyond. It would help that project if we were smarter than we currently seem to be. But it will probably be sufficient if we are persistent. Perhaps in five or 10 years we will be able to find two genuine peace-seeking negotiating partners. Until then, a sturdy, electronic and gun-bristling wall-fence is probably Israeli's best temporary salvation. If such a wall kept East Berlin Germans in, it might keep West Bank Arabs out.