The Israeli-Palestinian conflict matters to the United States beyond its moral, human and foreign policy dimensions. It matters to Americans because it concerns the very national security of the country. This realization is obviously fueling the watershed change in the administration’s Middle East policy, outlined by Secretary of State Colin Powell on Monday, when he called on both sides to face up to the truth about what they must do to end tensions and live as neighbors.
It is also the message that Israeli peace activists, foremost Uri Avnery, are bringing to the American public. Recently in the United States meeting with Jews, Christians and Muslims, Mr. Avnery is a journalist, former member of parliament, escapee from Nazi Germany, Jewish underground fighter against the British Mandate in Palestine, soldier in the 1948 war against the Arabs and co-founder of Gush Shalom (Peace Bloc).
Resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict goes beyond concerns that it will weaken Arab support for and cooperation with the U.S.-led coalition against al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden has been exploiting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and suffering on the Palestinian side to gain support and followers throughout the Arab and Muslim world. The real threat of terrorist attacks will not disappear if he is eliminated.
What does that have to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Bin Laden and other extremists understand the growing anger in the Arab world over the escalation of the conflict. He hijacked Palestinian aspirations for a state alongside Israel to channel fury on the Arab/Muslim “street” toward his own malevolent ends, namely to gain followers, recruit terrorists, turn the Muslim world against the United States and the West, and twist Islam into a primitive, reactionary force. “It seems to me the height of a political mistake if America wages a war against terrorism, trying to kill bin Laden and dislodge the Taliban, while at the same time allowing the situation to escalate in the Middle East, which will make hundreds of millions of Arabs and Muslims rise up even more,” Mr. Avnery said.
Moreover, this puts America’s Arab allies on unstable ground. Pro-American governments in the Middle East, many of which safeguard oil to the West, are practically shaking because their populations are becoming raucous. While they don’t care about the Palestinians, if they are not responsive, Mr. Avnery warned they will fall like a “house of cards.”
As worrisome is that even more lethal attacks may follow with or without bin Laden. “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict must be solved in order to take the masses away from al Qaeda and other, equally dangerous extremist Islamic groups. This is the only long-term solution against terrorism,” he asserted. “I was a terrorist, I know how they operate,” he said, referring to his days battling the British. Terrorists need public support in order to function for contributing money, spreading propaganda and providing cover, figuratively as well as literally.
Although prospects for peace seem distant, perhaps a window of opportunity has opened. There has been no other time in recent history in which the real interests of Israel, the Palestinians and the United States coincide. Moreover, as the violence between Israel and the Palestinians continues to escalate, it is clear that things are out of control and the two sides are incapable of making peace on their own. Finally, there may come a time when the Palestinians, as well as America’s Arab allies, will refuse rather than beg for U.S. involvement.
Mr. Avnery predicted that Israeli leader Ariel Sharon will soon reveal a peace plan. True enough, Mr. Sharon has announced a new initiative. The activist thinks this will consist of five enclaves of land surrounded by Israeli settlements and borders nothing close to a viable Palestinian state, which Yasser Arafat will reject, so Mr. Sharon can claim Mr. Arafat doesn’t want peace. “We should make peace while we are strong and while Arafat is there and has the power to make peace. Otherwise, Palestinian fundamentalists will take over.”
The elements for a lasting peace agreement are not secret, and involve compromises for both. A solution will inevitably be based on mutual recognition; a Palestinian state alongside Israel consisting of all the West Bank and Gaza (unless both agree to a cross-border swap whereby some Israeli settlements near the border go to Israel and the Palestinians get compensatory land); Jerusalem as the capital of both states; and a “right of return in principle,” in which a small agreed-upon percentage of refugees return to Israel over the course of 10 years, while the majority receive compensation to settle in Palestine or abroad.
“We have a vision of a region where two states, Israel and Palestine, live side by side within secure and recognized borders,” Mr. Powell announced to the world. These momentous words followed by serious, sustained American involvement can lend credibility to peace efforts inspire public confidence on both sides and create positive pressure for a resolution benefiting both peoples.
Shaazka Beyerle is a writer who recently lived in Jerusalem for three years.