Rather: What A Mess

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Rather: What A Mess

The Mideast Mess Defies Understanding... ...Even For A Veteran Correspondent A Reporter's Notebook By CBS News Correspondent Dan Rather,

JERUSALEM, Oct. 15, 2000 (CBS) It's been said that if you observe the human condition long enough, you'll eventually come to understand it.

Whoever said that must have never come to this part of the world. Having observed Israel and its Palestinian adversaries for many years and having been here many times, this reporter is beginning to believe that what one understands about this place is in direct, inverse proportion to how closely you've watched it....and how often you've been here. The more you come here, the less you understand, has been my experience. Take this current brink-of-war situation.

Every new twist and turn in the story seems to come out of nowhere, each new difficulty harder to solve than the last.

Until about three weeks ago, there was a peace process of a kind here, and one that seemed so close to succeeding. Now, the leaders who created it are being carried in effigy, their coffins borne through the streets by angry mobs, and menaced by young men with loaded weapons..

How could it so quickly have come to this?

And this: Israeli soldiers and Palestinian gunmen voraciously trying to kill each other on the edges of towns that were supposed to become centers of learning, growing economies and understanding.

A hundred or so dead, hundreds more of the injured poured into ambulances, and both sides demanding that the other stop the violence. Then, with each new level of violence, still more ruthless violence is returned.

There have been acts of recklessness and bravery, and moments of deep fear: An Israeli soldier with a jammed rifle...a Palestinian on the receiving end of one that wasn't.

There have been moments of inconceivable horror, moments that leave the most hardened reporter gaping  at a loss for words.

After this, claiming the moral high ground is problematical for both sides. One of the twists of the story this time that set leaders searching for what may prove to be an impossible new truce, was, like so many before it was born out of a moment of calculated gambling  A very middle east thing.

At its core was the hard-line Israeli opposition politician, Ariel Sharon, adamantly against the peace deal. Saying a point needed to be made, he strode into a place held sacred by Jews and Muslims. He did it at a particularly critical time for the peace process, quietly taunting Israeli partners in peace. They snapped. Now, for this and other reasons, they are no longer partners, they're once again mortal enemies; if possible, more enemy than before.

This reporter has seldom if ever seen the human condition mutate so fast, so completely, and yet remain so much the same.

As they buried the dead of both sides this week, there has been the usual blend of hysteria and medieval dignity, but there has also been a new, richer mixture of hatred and deep, uncontrollable anger.

They are back to hard-rock now, both sides. Room for forgiveness has shrunk. Both sides, here in Israel have been comprehensively breaking their world into tiny pieces.

And now the men who are the custodians of this beautiful and terrible place must meet in an atmosphere of desperation  not to negotiate peace, but just to try for the modest goal of getting a truce, a cease-fire.

Each one is having his arm twisted. Chairman Arafat by his Arab neighbors, Prime Minister Barak by the voters and an opposition baying for his political blood.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), October 16, 2000

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