Sunday, September 12, 2010

Frida Ghitis - "Middle East peace requires courage"

Frida Ghitis writing in the Miami Herald - "Middle East peace requires courage"

One of the most extraordinary moments in recent Middle East history came in 1993, when the world discovered that Israeli and Palestinian teams had held secret peace talks. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, formerly sworn enemies, came together on the White House lawn, formalizing their commitment to peace. The decision, and that memorably awkward hand-shake, prodded along by President Bill Clinton, required uncommon courage. They called it the Peace of the Brave. [Ed. - Yes, they did and it gave rise to a new vocabulary, such as, a Sacrifice for the Peace, to describe the murders of innocent civilians such as Alisa Flatow.]
The term deserves dusting off because it highlights one of the key requirements for peace, and one whose absence could prove the undoing of the new effort unfolding under U.S. sponsorship. Bravery, courage, are indispensable because no matter how comforting the idea of peace, reaching an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians is a frighteningly dangerous process.

To reach a deal, the leaders -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas -- must make compromises that will break the hearts of millions of their followers. They will have to accept terms that will anger some enough that they will kill. And they will have to sign on to borders that could make their land -- especially in Israel's case -- vulnerable to unthinkable risks.

The euphoric events of 1993 gave way to disappointment, but they also helped draw the blueprint guiding the new quest for peace.

No one claims the new effort suffers from unrealistic expectations. Skepticism about its chances for success prevails. I call it skepticism and not pessimism, because many who claim peace is impossible in fact hope for failure. By their standards, they are optimistic.

When the leaders of Iran, Hamas or Hezbollah say the process will fail they remind us of their plan. Their solution is the destruction of Israel and its replacement with a fundamentalist Muslim regime; an alternative, backed by weapons, militias and money, that looms over the peace talks like a thick dark shadow, but also provides some of the impetus to persevere.

Ironically, the negotiating sides already agree on the solution's rough outlines. With the possible exception of the future of Jerusalem, everyone knows what is required for peace.

Even more frustrating is that the subject of closest agreement has become the most contentious. Partly because of missteps by the Obama administration, the issue of settlements has moved front and center and could provide a timid Mahmoud Abbas a way out of the talks. Abbas says without a settlement freeze he will pull out. Netanyahu says that, like all other differences, this should be resolved "through direct continuous talks.''

Already in the Clinton days that problem was essentially solved. Settlements take up about 4 percent of the disputed land. Most settlers live on a few large blocs, which in an agreement would be swapped for equal amounts of land within Israel proper.

To be sure, tough disagreements remain. But a basic obstacle to peace today is that Abbas, the Palestinian representative, appears to lack the power, the legitimacy and, yes, the courage, to close a deal.

Abbas, who rules only over the West Bank, asked for permission not just from Palestinians but from the Arab League, to start negotiations. When talks started in Washington, Hamas, which controls Gaza's 1.5 million Palestinians, signaled its rejection by murdering more Israelis. The London-based Arab newspaper Al-Quds al-Arabi editorialized that Abbas "negotiates without being granted the authorization to do so by his people.''

Adding irony to this sad situation, majorities of Palestinians and Israelis desperately want a peace deal. Contrary to what an ill-informed article in Time recently argued, Israelis are eager for peace. For years a vast majority of Israelis has expressed strong support for a two-state solution. A recent War and Peace Index poll found 80 percent support negotiations, easily outnumbering opponents of compromise.

A majority of Palestinians also back negotiations. But in the Arab world, public opinion carries less weight. Writing in the influential Arab daily Ashar al-Awsat, Mamoun Fandy wrote, ``The Palestinian division is not simply an internal one, as some may think, but is first an Arab division, and secondly a regional one.'' Even if Abbas achieved an agreement, he argued, he would find much of the Arab world pressuring Palestinians to reject it.

That's why Abbas announced shortly after leaving Washington that, "I can't allow myself to make even one concession.'' If he meant that, the new peace process is already over. Clearly, these are not the words from a man with the courage to make the peace of the brave. But then, Arafat ultimately lost his nerve. Maybe Abbas can find his.

Read the column on-line.

I know that Netanyahu has made previous decisions that did not rest well with sectors of his political support, but he made them anyway. Abbas, considered a terrorist by Yitzhak Rabin, does not, in my opinion, have either the willingness or the guts to make similar decisions. Will we back to base one again? The next days and weeks will tell.

What do you think?

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