- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 8, 2000

The persistent conventional wisdom asserts that had a successful "final status" agreement been reached at last month's Camp David summit orchestrated by the United States, the 100-year-old Middle East conflict would have ended instantly. Tragically, this notion is a dangerous illusion, which if believed by policy makers, would have dire regional and global ramifications.

Admittedly, negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians are continuing. The outlook, however, does not bode well to all those concerned with stability and a peaceful resolution of the perennial Palestine question. An upsurge of threats in the form of a renewal of a Palestinian "intifada" (uprising), terrorism, periodic flare-ups, armed skirmishes, and perhaps even full-scale war that might engulf the Arab and Moslem world cannot be ruled out.

After all, at the core of conflict in the region is one unmistakable cause: ideological extremism, religious animosities and nationalistic fanaticism that have radicalized the conflict for a century. These factors have contributed to unending violence justified in the name of rights, justice and even peace.

Thus, it is the formalization and sanctification of self-righteousness, the intense psychological and political conditions created by such perceptions and dispositions, and their resulting negative policies and actions that constitute the most serious built-in obstacle to rational and reasonable compromise, reconciliation and peace.

A stark reminder of this trend in the wake of Camp David is the continuing inflexibility of the political purpose and will of Yasser Arafat, president of the Palestinian Authority. He insists that Israel must accept his terms of the "peace of the brave," including Arab sovereignty in Jerusalem and the return of Palestinian refugees to their "occupied land." Mr. Arafat still vows to declare "statehood" on Sept. 13 with or without an agreement, and says that Israel "can go to the Sea of Gaza and drink." Even if he postpones his promise to "embody the state" to a later date, his uncompromising rhetoric does not create a conducive environment for negotiations free from intimidation and threats of violence.

To be sure, if Mr. Arafat reconsiders his current unyielding position and reaches an agreement with Israel, he does not and cannot speak on behalf of all Palestinians. For instance, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, spiritual leader and founder of Hamas (Islamic Resistance), will continue to reject any future territorial compromise by Mr. Arafat, insisting that "resistance" and "jihad" (holy war) must be used to liberate Palestine, regarded as Islamic sacred land.

This deep-rooted conviction and commitment to theologically based violence is once again illustrated in connection with Jerusalem, one of the thorniest issues in the peace process. One Hamas spokesman explained that "western Jerusalem should return to Palestine, similar to Jaffa, Haifa and other Palestinian cities." Another leader of the Palestinian Islamic jihad considered the United States' plans to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to western Jerusalem as a "declaration of war," which will result in "retaliation from our mujahideen [freedom fighters] against all forms of American aggression."

Similarly, Hezbollah (Party of God), which recently forced Israel to evacuate its troops from southern Lebanon, has also threatened the United States with violence. Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the movement's secretary-general, asserted that "honest people can turn your embassy to rubble and send back your diplomats in coffins."

Clearly, Palestinian and Islamic extremism is reinforced by Arab and non-Arab countries that oppose the peace process. State-sponsors of terrorism, such as Iran, Iraq and Libya, building up their arsenal of weapons of mass destruction with the help of Russia, China and North Korea, is an issue of particular concern.

For example, in a recent comment on the failure of the Camp David talks, Kamal Kharrazi, the Iranian foreign minister, underscored the "rights" of the Palestinians to liberate all "occupied land" and called on all Muslims to support these efforts. Osama bin Laden, the world's most wanted terrorist, and his al-Qaida (the Base) network, believed to operate in more than 50 countries, is waiting in the wings. It is only a matter of time before they join this war of "liberation."

In sum, there is no reason to believe that this process of radicalization will be reversed any time soon. Despite the apparent durability of the Egyptian-Israeli and Jordanian-Israeli peace treaties and the current negotiations, ominous trends point towards conflict, not a permanent peace. The probable intensification of violence in the Middle East will almost inevitably bring about a new era of bloodshed.

A precondition to successful negotiations between the antagonists must be that the United States continues its pivotal role in the peace process, coupled with Egyptian and Jordanian diplomatic efforts. More importantly, a responsible Palestinian leadership needs to concede to Zionism, the national liberation movement of the Jews, the same prerogatives and rights that it asserts for its own people. Ultimately, it would be prudent for the "missing peace partner" to heed the teachings of the Koran: "If they desire peace, give them peace and trust in God."

Yonah Alexander is director of the International Center for Terrorism Studies, Potomac Institute for Policy Studies.

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