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Bernard Weiner: Is Mideast Peace Still Possible?

An American Jew's Open Letter to Hanan Ashwari:
Is Mideast Peace Still Possible?

By Bernard Weiner

Dear Hanan Ashwari:

I am writing to you, because of all the Palestinian leaders familiar to me and a good many other Americans, you appear to be a determined, intelligent, realistic spokeswoman for your cause, the kind of leader with whom one could have a fruitful discussion about how to extricate the Palestinian people, and the Israeli people, from the vortex of violence that so dominates their lives.

For a while, you were an official representative for the Palestinian Authority and Chairman Arafat. Then, I seem to recall, you began mentioning the corruption within the PA and found yourself somewhat on the fringes.

I admired you for your hard-as-nails dedication to the best interests of your people, and your willingness to speak truth to power. And, most importantly, y our willingness to at least listen to the other side. You clearly have a heart, one that complements your razor-sharp mind.

I write you as an American who long has supported the call for Palestinian rights. I don't pretend to have the answers, but I do know that those in residency in the White House are not even asking the right questions, and, as a result, are contributing to the continued bloodshed and chaos in the Middle East.

Of course, you, living there, experience the pain daily. But please know that those of us thousands of miles away, especially many of us American Jews, experience our own kind of pain when we see Palestinians brutalized and slaughtered, and when we see average Israeli citizens lying in pieces on Tel Aviv and Jerusalem streets.

Like you, we want to help bring about a settlement, but the situation seems so intractable, so colored by decades of hatred and vicious cycles of revenge, that we don't know quite what to do. We write our manifestos and publish our ads in the major newspapers, full of signatures of peace-seeking academics and so on, but nothing seems to change. (On the other hand, we realize that if the beginnings of peace can come to Northern Ireland -- after centuries of hostility and killing between warring religious populations -- then maybe there can be hope for the Middle East as well.)

This is an "open letter," which usually means nothing will come of it other than releasing some passionate opinions, but I'm hoping that somehow, some way, the contents of this missive might actually find their way to you, and a dialogue of hope might get started at the grassroots between American Jews and Palestinians. If the "leaders" can't, or won't, find the road to peace on the major freeways, then maybe you and your colleagues and influential American Jews can locate it on the byways. I'll be happy to help in this bridge-building.

I'll tell you how I see the situation, along with whatever possible solutions I can envisage, and then (assuming you get this letter and choose to respond, c/o this website) you can supply your interpretations and possible solutions. I'm guessing that though there may be major things about which we differ, there may well be important areas of agreement that can serve as the foundation and building blocks for a viable peace settlement that the "leaders" will feel obliged to explore.

So, here goes:

At this point, I don't care who is more right and who is more wrong, or which party has more historical justification on its side. Spending time on these issues may make everyone feel good -- denouncing the viciousness of The Other, settling into victimhood -- and, of course, these are important issues to ruminate on. But right now, devoting so much time and energy to which side is more right and which is more wrong just bogs down the Middle East parties into an endless loop of violence, revenge, violence.

So, what might be useful is for both parties to stipulate in advance that the question of historical justification is off-the-table; of course, that issue will be hovering in the air, but harping on such talk will not be helpful in moving both sides toward a just peace.

If this can be done, perhaps the parties then can move on to a realization that no matter how much violence is employed, the other side is not going to go away. Israel will remain a powerhouse Middle East country; it will not disappear, no matter how many suicide bombers continue to practice their politics-by-nails, no matter how many Arab allies the Palestinians can round up. The Palestinian people, and their desire for a viable state, will not go away; the Palestinians will not disappear, no matter how much brutality and oppression is visited upon them, no matter how much they are vilified and humiliated by Israeli governments.

If each side can accept that the other side is not going to magically disappear, then, it seems to me, both parties will come face to face with the most important recognition about The Other: "As long as you're going to be here, you need a viable, secure state; you need to be able to guarantee to your peoples that a treaty will benefit them in terms of peace, security, jobs, stability, economic growth, community development, etc. etc. All this will benefit my people and nation-state."

Israel needs to know that it will not be attacked for merely existing as a mainly Jewish state surrounded by a sea of Arab states. Israel needs to know that if it pulls out of its settlements on land already promised to the Palestinians, attacks by Palestinian extremists will cease. (Vital question: Is this even possible? Would Hamas and the other groups devoted to violence be willing to accept the continued existence of the State of Israel next to the new, free, viable, secure Palestinian state? This answer has to be clearly laid out.)

The Palestinians need to know that at last they will have a state on the West Bank/Gaza that is geographically and economically viable, without all the Israeli settlements and police/army presence that accompanies such settlements in the midst of their land. The Occupation will end. Treaties will be drawn up that speak to important issues of water-sharing and job-creation, passage back and forth into Israel for employment and to visit relatives, etc.

Then to the thorny issues of "the right of return" and Jerusalem. Israel's position, along with the Saudi/Arab League plan, speaks to a certain number of Palestinian refugees who would be permitted to return to their ancestral lands; those of the majority not permitted to return (because to do so would forever alter the mainly-Jewish nature of Israel) would be monetarily compensated in a fair manner. As for Jerusalem, it seems evident that since three major religions claim it as their spiritual birthplace, it become some sort of shared, international city, perhaps supervised by a tripartite body or, more realistically, overseen by some kind of international agency.


Now, assuming that you and a majority of Palestinian leaders and citizenry could agree to the above as a starting point for discussions -- and it seems in recent years that both sides, at various times, have come close to these positions -- how would we get from here to there?

As I've suggested, there is a minority-but-large peace movement both in Israel -- the land-for-peace advocates -- and in Palestinian-controlled areas. But they are stymied by the extremists in both countries, who effectively exercise a veto with their violence. Sharon clearly does not want any peace that envisions an equal, viable Palestinian state next to Israel, but an election conceivably could usher in a new, more amenable government in Israel -- though given the continuing attacks by extremist Palestinians, the hard-right Likud party of Sharon might well get re-elected -- but how to alter the attack-Israel sentiment among so many extremist elements in Palestine?

I'm in a quandary. How to get the majority of the Israeli public once again thinking about propects for peace, when they are continually attacked? How to get extremist elements in Palestine to even consider propects for peace when they are under such tight Occupation and brutality and humiliation? Perhaps you have some cogent thoughts and suggestions on these issues.

Of course, if the U.S. government became seriously involved as a mediator, things might improve. Conceivably, there could be a reliably-monitored cease-fire -- with an international armed force patrolling a buffer zone. But unless the attitudes alter inside each country, what would change on the ground? That's the conundrum. (Plus, Bush is not the least bit interested in becoming majorly involved in helping make the peace in the Middle East; instead, he seems content to let Sharon do whatever he wants.)

If I had a magic wand, it would be easy enough. I'd wave it, there would be a total cease-fire, Israel immediately would end its Occupation, the Jewish settlers would leave Palestinian land, the Occupation would not exist as a reason for attacks on Israel, the extremists in both states would end their desire to see the other side destroyed, treaties would be drawn up that would settle the right-of-return and Jerusalem issues, joint Palestine-Israel institutions would be set up to deal with water-sharing, agricultural production, job-stimulation, cultural exchanges, etc. etc.

That's the dream, Dr. Ashwari. Is it too late to hope something like that will come to realization in our lifetime? In my darker moments, I think it simply cannot happen, given the current level and ferocity of the hatred and suspicion and anger on both sides, and that it will take another generation of slaughtered children before new leaders arise and say: "Enough is enough, for the sake of our (and your) children and grandchildren, we are now ready to make the peace."

Why can't it be now? Why do we have to wait another decade or two before the flowing of blood becomes too much for even the most die-hard extremists on both sides? Why can't they awaken now to their own, larger self-interests and make the peace that can be made today?

I trust that something I've said here will strike you to reply, to get a dialogue going between moderate Palestinian leaders and influential American Jews that maybe, perhaps, could begin to move things off the violence track and into a more hopeful scenario for both Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs. Semitic brothers and sisters joined in pain. My heart aches for that day to come.


# # #

* - Bernard Weiner, Ph.D., has taught international politics at several American universities. A poet and playwright, he was with the San Francisco Chronicle for nearly two decades, as its theater critic, and has written for The Nation, Village Voice, The Progressive, and widely on the internet.

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