A downward spiral

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October 27, 2001

A Downward Spiral


JERUSALEM -- I have been visiting Jerusalem for 30 years, and I have seen some bad times. This is the worst: "more hateful than ever before," an Israeli old-timer said.

Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are living in isolation and misery, trapped in their villages by Israeli road closings. Dozens have been killed by Israeli forces in the last month, some of them identified by Israel as terrorists but others like an 11-year-old girl plainly not.

Israelis live in fear of suicide bombings and other violence. Jerusalem restaurants are empty because people do not want to leave their homes. Some big hotels have closed because there are virtually no tourists.

Worst of all, the hope for an end to the conflict between these two nations has just about disappeared. Belief in the possibility of peace has given way to bitterness. Israelis say the Palestinian leader, Yasir Arafat, cannot be a partner for peace. Palestinians say the same about the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon.

How did we get to this terrible state? There may be many reasons. But I think the fundamental one is that both sides undermined the premises of the Oslo agreement of 1993.

Israel's mistake was to go on aggressively building and enlarging settlements in the West Bank. Oslo did not mandate an end to settlement. But in the eight years since then the number of settlers has doubled: a record utterly inconsistent with the Oslo premise that Palestinians would in time rule their land. "You want to persuade Palestinians that you mean business about peace," said Tsali Reshef, a founder of Peace Now. "And then you keep taking their land."

Chairman Arafat, for his part, did not carry out an explicit Oslo obligation of crucial importance to Israel: ending terrorism. Though his autocratic rule clamped down on free speech generally, punishing criticism of him, he let extremist groups carry on anti-Israel fomentation and seldom cracked down on their terrorist actions.

Shlomo Ben-Ami, who as foreign minister in Ehud Barak's government negotiated with Mr. Arafat at Camp David, has strikingly given up on him as a peace partner. "For his own survival," Mr. Ben-Ami told me, he allows extremist incitement. "Then when the moment of truth comes and you need to take an unpopular decision, he says he can't. He doesn't have the courage or the capacity to tell his people the truth."

In the last year the cycle of provocation and hate has accelerated. The Palestinians undertook a second intifada, this one of guns and bombs. If it was intended to force more favorable peace terms from Israel, it was grotesquely misconceived. Predictably, this intifada has hardened Israeli attitudes. The peace movement has dwindled; politics has moved way to the right. In a poll of Israelis just published by the newspaper Maariv, 50 percent said they favored "transferring" all Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza sending them to Arab countries.

The grim process took another turn 10 days ago with the murder of an Israeli cabinet minister by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which said it was avenging Israel's killing of its leader. Prime Minister Sharon responded by sending Israeli forces into the heart of Palestinian territory and killing more Palestinians. The result can only be further embitterment.

Mr. Sharon says he will return to talks with the Palestinians only if they turn the murderers over to Israel which there is no chance of their doing. Many people believe he really does not want a political settlement of the conflict. His whole record is one of bullying and violence as the way to solve problems.

Mr. Sharon's policy now is driven by fear of Benjamin Netanyahu, the former prime minister, who wants the job again and is preferred by the right. Not even America's urgent need for calm here to help in its antiterrorist war has moved Mr. Sharon.

Immediately after Oslo most Palestinians in the occupied territories were ready for a two-state solution: a Palestinian state living in peace alongside Israel. But that mood has waned, as has Israeli belief in peace. Increasingly, people on each side say of the other: It's impossible to have peace with them. Is there any way now to envision an end to this conflict? Or is there going to be no end? Tsali Reshef said: "Someone who is not an optimist shouldn't live here."

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company

-- Swissrose (cellier3@mindspring.com), October 27, 2001

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