Israel and the Palestinians are perilously close to war. The sad irony is that both sides are locked in a mortal embrace in which there seems to be no strategy other than to inflict harm upon the other, while both deeply long for peace. It should now be clear that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat are not alone able to prevent the current conflict from erupting into a bloodbath.
It is imperative that the United States and Europe take the lead to bring the Israelis and Palestinians out of this morass. It will require the United States to develop a bold new approach. The Jewish and Palestinian communities here can play a pivotal role by taking an honest, unflinching look at the situation, having the courage to acknowledge the distress of the other and comprehending that both peoples have close ties to the same land.
There are a few dangerous premises that guide the suicidal path on which Israel and the Palestinians have embarked. Each side believes in a zero-sum game that the well-being of one implies harm to the other, generosity to the other means a loss to oneself. Neither side can vanquish the other and any attempts to do so will lead to mutual suffering.
The second false premise is that each side believes that the other only understands force. However, the reality is that violence begets violence. The Palestinians do not realize that every suicide bombing, every mortar shell, reinforces deeply rooted Jewish fears of destruction, which kills Israeli trust and goodwill. This violence is inexcusable. Israelis think that with enough military force, which is essentially institutionalized violence, they can wipe out Palestinian resistance to the occupation of the West Bank and parts of Gaza. But missiles and bullets simply increase the misery and desperation of the Palestinians, elements ripe for exploitation by extremists.
The third misguided premise is that each side views the latest conflict as proof that the other side was never serious about peace. Many Israelis think that Mr. Arafat never wanted peace because he turned down the latest deal. The general opinion among Palestinians is that Israel was never serious about peace because it did not make an offer of contiguous terrain, and the brutal response to the uprising confirms that they want to get rid of the Palestinians.
What is to be done? First, we must drop the “pro-Israel” and “pro-Palestinian” filters through which the conflict are viewed. Blind adherence to narrow definitions about what it means to “support” one side or the other is counterproductive. Just as destructive are accusations that if one expresses empathy for the Palestinian side, it automatically makes one against the Israelis, and vice versa. To call for an end to Israeli military assaults, settlement building and the occupation does not make one anti-Israel. To require an end to terrorism and to support a flourishing, safe Israeli state is not anti-Palestinian. For U.S. policy to be influenced and evaluated by such narrow definitions does not serve the interests of Israel, the Palestinians or the United States.
Second, we must re-formulate the equation. Israelis and Palestinians want, deserve and are entitled to the same things security, dignity, freedom and self-determination. The creation of a vibrant, technologically advanced country with a Jewish majority, in which Hebrew has been resurrected, is miraculous. The tragedy of this worthy triumph is that it resulted in the displacement of the Palestinian people. No amount of rationalizing, dehumanizing the Palestinians, demonizing Mr. Arafat and criticizing the PA can change these realities.
Third, the shroud around the unsuccessful negotiations at Camp David and Taba must be lifted. The infamous maps look good on paper until one adds the settlement blocks and bypass roads that were supposed to remain. According to the maps Ehud Barak showed Mr. Arafat in December, 69 settlements incorporating 85 percent of the settlers were left on what amounts to 10 percent of the West Bank. Moreover, bypass roads solely for Israelis and military checkpoints controlling Palestinian movement were required. Palestinians wishing to travel as little as five miles would face up to a 50-mile detour. Finally, Israel demanded control over all external border crossings, and wanted to keep 10 percent under “temporary” military and civilian control.
Some will argue that this is a moot point because the Palestinians would not budge on the “right of return” of refugees to Israel and on Jerusalem, both of which are laden with emotion and symbolism. Yes, these are difficult issues. However, the Palestinians realize, for example, that an unlimited right of return is out of the question for Israel. But from their perspective, this does not mean that the trauma of their own dispersion should be dismissed, or that Israel should determine who among the Palestinians has the right to live in a new state.
Finally, it’s time for the United States and Europe to break the cycle in which each side wants the other to take the first step. They must present the argument that by acting in tandem, each side will be obligated to follow through on promised next steps. Both will have an incentive to outdo the other, at least in order to cynically say to the world, “I told you so, they were never serious.” Perhaps they will try so hard to look good that they may both succeed, and by taking the plunge together they could actually step back from the brink.
Shaazka Beyerle is a writer who recently lived in Jerusalem for three years.