Arab-Israeli Solution Exists, but Peace Remains Elusive

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From Tel Aviv to the Gaza Strip, the mood these days is full of gloom as two peoples contemplate the future with anger, fear, uncertainty. Israelis and Palestinians alike say that the fight-negotiate-fight scenario has gone on for 54 years and that nothing seems to have changed.

But the fact is, everything has changed.

When the Arab League met in Khartoum, Sudan, in 1967, its members passed a resolution on Israel based on three “noes”: no negotiations, no relations, no peace. Last month, the league met in Beirut. It accepted a Saudi Arabian peace plan and turned the three noes into three yeses. Even though the league put the onus on Israel, such an offering, based on an exchange of land for peace, would have been heretical in the Arab world a generation ago.

“What’s different this time around is that for the first time in 50 years, there is a solution--almost everyone accepts two states--and that is a vast difference,” said Judith Kipper, a Middle East specialist with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.


Whether Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon or Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat has the capacity and creativity to capitalize on that change is another matter.

Most Israelis think that Arafat is the same man who in 1982 said, “War is the only way.” And most Palestinians think that Sharon is the same man who in 1985 said the only thing Palestinians would get in exchange for peace was peace--but not one Israeli concession and not one inch of Israeli land.

On both sides, attitudes have hardened. “Until last month, I was all for Arabs and Israelis getting closer, but after what happened in the West Bank, I could never support Arafat sitting down with the Israelis to negotiate,” said Abed Salam, a Palestinian who runs a media company in the Gaza Strip. “And this is from someone who’s not politically involved, who has never lost a relative in the wars with Israel, who has a nice house and is earning a lot of money.”

“Everywhere Arafat goes, there’s trouble,” countered Cobi Schelf, an Israeli who owns a coffee shop in Jerusalem. “Jordan, Beirut, the West Bank. Everywhere. He thrives on violence. You can’t negotiate with him because you can’t trust him.”

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, in his address to the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, during his historic trip to Jerusalem in 1977, said the biggest obstacle to peace was “the psychological barrier” of fear and distrust. His presence in the Jewish state was a giant step in breaking down that barrier, particularly among Israelis. Now it has been rebuilt, perhaps higher than ever.

To emphasize Israel’s vulnerability in a land where Jewish settlements are within a stone’s throw of Palestinian villages, the Israeli military took five foreign journalists on a helicopter ride, flying over the unmarked green line that separates Israel proper from the West Bank, captured in the 1967 Middle East War.


On the roads below, traffic was backed up at checkpoints, and it was difficult to know where the freedom of movement of one people ended and the other’s began.

“The Oslo accords were based on the premise Israel was going to have peace and the Palestinians weren’t going to resort to violence,” Capt. Jacob Dullah said, referring to the 1993 agreement that returned some land to the Palestinians.

“Given the closeness of everything and the geographical realities, it’s almost impossible for Israel to have a hostile state in the West Bank,” he said. “It’s because of the proximity that the Palestinians have been able to inflict terrible damage on Israel. So if there’s not peace, the Oslo accords aren’t viable for Israel.”

In Jerusalem, shopkeeper Carmela Cohen said: “Everyone’s afraid. We’re totally vulnerable.” She said that if she sees someone who looks like a Palestinian parking on the street outside, she immediately calls the police. And in Nablus in the West Bank, the Palestinian director of Watani Hospital, Anan Masri, said of the Israelis, “I think they want to kill us all, but we will not die easily.”

There are, however, a few people who see, beyond the gloom, what Moshe Amirav calls “an unprecedented opportunity for resolving the Middle East conflict.” It involves risk in exchange for potential reward. And for Israel, Amirav says, it involves painful concessions that would mean abandoning some of the 140 settlements that house about 200,000 Jews and are at the heart of Israel’s insecurity and the Palestinians’ discontent.

Amirav was an advisor to then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak at the failed Camp David negotiations two years ago. He said the differences that prevented an agreement were small. In dispute, Amirav said, were 5.4% of the West Bank, less than a square mile in Jerusalem and the precise number of Palestinian exiles who would be granted the right of return to their original homes, with Israel suggesting 30,000 and Arafat wanting 300,000.


“Is this an unbridgeable gap?” he asked as he sat on the patio of his hilltop home outside Jerusalem, in the village where Christians believe that John the Baptist was born. “It’s not, of course. And one day, just as you Americans decided in Vietnam, ‘Enough is enough,’ everyone in this conflict will say, ‘Enough is enough.’ With the Arab League resolution, we have a rare opportunity in which the return is high and the price, for Israel, is worthwhile.”

Amirav, together with Barak’s former chief security advisor, Danny Yatom, and Middle East expert Joseph Ginat, are floating “a practical interim agreement” that includes giving up all Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and the isolated ones in the West Bank.

They advocate the establishment of a Palestinian state on 65% of the land in the former occupied territories, setting up a Palestinian municipality in East Jerusalem and erecting a border fence to separate Israel and a Palestinian state.

Last week, Sharon said during a Cabinet meeting that he will not consider dismantling a single Jewish settlement, not even the most remote and isolated ones in the Gaza Strip.

“I’m the last Israeli optimist,” Amirav said. “Mine is a voice in the desert today. In the current atmosphere, no one hears me. But even with the shooting, we’re getting closer to the moment of truth when peace is obtainable.”