Monday, April 23, 2007

JERUSALEM. — Peace in the Middle East is as an intriguing a concept as exists. Bassem Eid, founder and director of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, believes two elements are necessary for a sustained peace between Israelis and Palestinians: “Israel should withdraw to 1967 borders and the Palestinians should give up the right to return to land.” He supposes that if those two conditions were met, Israelis would be more willing to work toward peace. But that belief makes Mr. Eid an unusual case.

A recent Saudi plan calls for Israel to pull back to the pre-1967 borders and to accept the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Egypt and Jordan, the only two countries to sign peace treaties with Israel, got an assignment last Wednesday when the Arab League convened. They must convince Israel to accept their way of making peace in return for full Arab recognition of Israel. The same day, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni met with a group of Turkish journalists visiting Israel on a trip sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, and said that the Arab League’s call for right to return is not acceptable. “Hamas and these groups are taking us back not even to 1967 but to 1947 — to the days before the establishment of Israel,” she said. “This has created an even larger gap between the two sides, and complicated the feasibility of an agreement.”

The security fence that is under construction also complicates things. Arabs believe that Israelis are drawing the border of the Israeli state with this fence. The fence — only 4 percent out of 800km to be walled off — did significantly decrease the number of suicide attacks. An Israeli soldier showing us around said, “In the years between 2001 and 2003, there were 108 suicide bombings killing 365 Israelis. Last year, there were only two, killing 11 Israelis.” Some Israelis, however, believe that the fence made an already complicated matter worse.

What’s more, the war in Lebanon created a huge problem for the Israeli government. The Winograd committee’s interim report, expected on Thursday, regarding the functioning of Ehud Olmert’s government during the Lebanon war, will be vital to knowing whether there will be early elections in Israel. Public opinion polls show that just 2 percent of Israelis say they trust the prime minister. In speeches, Mr. Olmert often acknowledges his low approval ratings, but maintains that he is doing the right thing. Meanwhile, a recent poll conducted by Al Najah University in Nablus asked Palestinians whom they will vote for in the next elections. Seventy percent said they would never vote for Hamas or Fatah again. In other words, the political environment on both sides is a disaster.

Yet something else separates the Israelis and the Palestinians. Israel is undeniably a democracy with a vibrant economy and contemporary society. The Hamas government, however, was elected democratically but it is no friend of democracy. “The human-rights issue never appeared on Arafat’s agenda, neither in [Mahmoud Abbas’] agenda,” Mr. Eid said. As he delicately described the unbearable living conditions on the Palestinian side, Mr. Eid said, “It’s not because of occupation but because of Arab culture… They could have, at least, built the infrastructure of Gaza strip.”

Mr. Eid believes Palestinians failed to negotiate with Israelis on any subject. Since Hamas kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, Mr. Eid said, Israelis have killed almost 500 Palestinians. Yet Egypt is negotiating for the release of more than 1,000 prisoners in exchange for Mr. Shalit. If Mr. Shalit’s captivity continues, Mr. Eid said, Israel will certainly kill another 500 in the next few months which in total would equal the number of prisoners Egypt is negotiating for. So what difference would it make?

More important is the change in the nature of the conflict. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is becoming an increasingly religious fight. Hamas’ charter quotes a forged hadith (a traditional account of things said or done by Prophet Muhammad), saying that “there will come a time when the stone will call to a Moslem there is a Jew behind me” — widely interpreted as sanctioning violence against Jews. The central role of religion in Israel’s government, however, does not discount its democracy.

The Arab-Muslim world believes that the United States and Israel are losing in the Middle East — the United States is losing in Iraq, and Israel has lost in Lebanon. They believe the balance of power in the region will change in time. Palestinians — and the Arab world at large — seem to believe that American and Israeli difficulties are working in their favor. Yet the Iranian nuclear dilemma makes strange bedfellows — Saudis and Israelis agree Iran’s rising influence in the region should be contained. But why Iran’s influence seems dominant in the region, Prof. Amikam Nachmani, senior researcher at the Begin Sedat Center told me, “Turkey is the strongest in the region… but it doesn’t behave as a regional power. The vacuum strengthens Iran.”

The extremists spread more violence every day. Yet Israel remains strong, while Palestinian suffering continues. And if Muslims believes that hating and attacking the Jewish state will bring it to an end, they need to think again.

Tulin Daloglu is a free-lance writer.

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