The Mideast's Best Hope Is Patience


By Stan Crock I sincerely hope I'm wrong. But it looks to me as if age and rage are the real keys to resolving rising tensions in the Mideast. Both are finite, though not necessarily short-lived. There will come a time when Palestinian chief Yassir Arafat or Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon -- or both -- will no longer be in power. And human nature dictates that, at some point, the rage among Palestinians and Israelis will be spent. This confluence will set the stage for a peace deal.

Not tomorrow. Not next week. Not during Secretary of State Colin Powell's current mission to the Middle East. But the conflict in Northern Ireland wasn't resolved quickly, either. The key point is that, eventually, aging militants exhausted their anger, the public wanted a settlement, and peace was achieved with help from U.S. diplomats. The same could still happen in the Middle East.

HARD MEN, TOUGH CHOICES. Alas, there are plenty of reasons to be pessimistic in the short term. Take the latest Haifa suicide bombing, on Apr. 10, and the deaths of scores of Palestinians killed by Israeli soldiers in Jenin and elsewhere. For starters, both Arafat and Sharon face domestic political pressure from their hawkish factions.

Arafat doesn't want Hamas, Islamic Jihad, or his own Fatah factions to view him as soft. And Sharon is constantly looking over his shoulder at Benjamin Netanyahu, one of the few prominent Israeli pols who makes Sharon look like a moderate. Netanyahu would like nothing better than to unseat Sharon as the Likud leader.

What's more, any move toward peace has structural defects. On one side, religious and secular Islamic groups believe that suicide bombing is commendable, while the Israelis view people blowing themselves up on buses and in fast-food restaurants as acts of war that are clear and present threats to Israel's national security. Making matters worse, as happens in any terror campaign, terror itself has now supplanted Palestinian independence as the goal of a cadre of professional terrorists. How does anybody deter them?

PRESSURE ON SHARON. The Bush Administration knows where the onus for peace ultimately lies. Powell keeps hammering Sharon to withdraw his troops from the West Bank for two reasons. One is to soothe Arab countries that could be of benefit in any campaign against Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein. The second: If Sharon does withdraw, Powell can shift the focus back to stopping Palestinian terrorists from shedding any more blood.

Let's assume for the moment that Powell pulls off a virtual miracle and gets the two sides to the peace table. There would be a structural flaw in these negotiations that only Arafat's passing from the stage -- age, if you will -- can fix.

As one senior Bush Administration official puts it, the debate over whether Arafat can't or won't stop terrorism is academic at this point. The way the Bushies see it, only one side of an Israeli-Palestinian negotiation -- the Israeli government -- could be counted on to keep its end of the bargain. So why would any Israeli leader sign a parchment with someone as discredited as Arafat?

WORDS THAT FESTER. Powell is trying to address this problem by getting the Arabs to pressure Arafat to abandon violence and vitriolic anti-Israeli school books and rhetoric. The Secretary of State wants these Arab leaders to act as guarantors. One Administration official says Powell has received private assurances of cooperation from Morocco and Egypt.

However, this is one time when words, not deeds, really matter. When Arab nations stop using textbooks that encourage violence against Jews, end the vile calumnies in state-controlled newspapers, and denounce terrorism, it will be a sign of an important sea change.

Here's a more a troubling point to ponder: Is the path to peace more daunting or less after a new deal is reached? Once considered the foundation for any Middle East peace, the Oslo accords have proven to be a dismal failure. The hope was that prosperity through economic development in Palestinian territories would cement the peace, encouraging commerce between people.

Both sides share the blame for that not happening. The Palestinian Authority was corrupt and incompetent. It squandered billions and disillusioned not only Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza but also investors ranging from expatriate Palestinians to neighboring governments. After losing millions of dollars to corruption, they won't be quick to invest in a new Palestinian state.

CHICANERY AND CORRUPTION. The Israelis contributed to the failure, too. They often shut down checkpoints, which hampered both the movement of labor and the flow of goods. The Israelis also protected their industries from Palestinian competition. The whole structure of the country's politics would have to be overhauled to enable a Palestinian state to thrive. Perhaps the Israeli economy is now sufficiently in the dumps to create momentum for change. If not, this huge stumbling block remains.

Again, the U.S. is looking to moderate Arab nations such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan to pressure Arafat to clean up corruption and bring transparency and competence to any new Palestinian government. Given those countries' own track records, however, that's almost laughable. They have no standing to tell Arafat how to be transparent.

Despite the bleak outlook, who can fault the Administration for diving in? In 2000, in the autumn of his Presidency, Bill Clinton intervened when he thought things would get much worse if he did nothing. For the same reason, the Bush Administration is embarking on what is likely to be a long path.

NO SHORTCUTS. Sure, it sounds corny, but to make it to the end of a long road to peace, you have to take the first step. One Middle East expert says Powell should not be judged by any conventional scorecard. Each day he doesn't have a deal could be construed as a failure. But he may have 700 days of failure, and then find success on the 701st day. And that's all that will matter.

My hunch is that neither Sharon nor Arafat will be at the White House or some gilded hall in Geneva when a peace pact is signed. Tragically, much more blood will be spilled before the ink is dry. The rage unleashed by the latest outbreaks of violence in the Fertile Crescent has yet to be spent. One day they, too, will decide that, as Bush put it, "Enough is enough." Crock covers national security and foreign affairs for BusinessWeek from Washington. Follow his views in Affairs of State twice a month, only on BusinessWeek Online


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