Battle-weary Middle East offers best hope for a lasting peace

IN Israel/Palestine, pessimism is close kin to commonsense: hope, to naivety. No commentator has ever sounded foolish by emphasising the obstacles to peace. Yet this may be the moment to risk a little naivety. The next few months will be crucial, and everything could still go horribly wrong. But there is scope for cautious optimism.

This is partly because of mutual exhaustion among the combatants. Until the dawn of modern medicine, doctors frequently prescribed blood letting, which killed a lot of patients.

In Israeli/Palestinian politics, however, the blood letting has not been wholly counterproductive. Though this may seen a brutally cynical observation, the terrible events of the past few years have helped to create a precondition for peace, by convincing both sides that neither of them can win. This will not be the first peace process to be founded on gravestones.

Last week Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon set out his stall at the fifth annual Herzliya political Conference which has become the annual "summit meeting" of the most influential Israeli and international leaders. Sharon said he believed there was a chance of striking a deal with the Palestinians based on his disengagement plan from the Gaza Strip.

In one respect, it should be an easy process. On both sides, there is widespread agreement as to the nature of the eventual peace deal. There are Israelis who still insist that the whole of the occupied West Bank, which they call Judaea and Samaria, is part of historic Israel and ought to be incorporated in the modern Israeli state. But this Israeli minority is no more than a political irritant.

There is a further reason why many Israelis are now prepared to be flexible. They were reassured by the re-election of George Bush; they feel they have a staunch friend in the White House. They were also delighted by the death of Yasser Arafat. Even Israeli moderates had come to hate and despise him, and to believe that there was no hope of peace as long as he could control events.

On the Palestinian side, there are those who still refuse to accept that facts have altered on the ground. They claim that Israel is illegitimate because its creation was an act of theft against the Palestinians. They ask the world why any Jew is allowed to settle in Israel, a right denied to Palestinians who had to flee from their land and houses in 1948. At street level, that view can appear to have numerous adherents. But it is different when people are sitting down quietly and thinking about a realistic future.

A lot of Palestinians are fed up with the humiliations and impoverishment of daily life. The shattered economy, the constant dealings with Israeli checkpoints, the lawlessness, the squalid little kleptocracy which Arafat ran in the name of a Palestinian authority: if Palestinians thought another six months of all that could win them back the whole of Israel, they might vote for further endurance. But most of them realise that if there is no peace, they, their children and their grandchildren face endless wearisome decades of a way of life that is no way to live. So they are ready to renounce the fantasy of recovering Great Uncle Abdul’s lemon groves near Haifa, and settle for a Palestinian state based on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

It might seem, therefore, that the two parties could now start haggling about the final boundaries. Since 1967, the Israelis have settled some areas of the West Bank, and we are not talking about temporary encampments. The town of Ariel and the suburbs about Jerusalem have an air of permanence. But it would not be hard to devise boundary revisions so that the Israelis retained most of the larger settlements while the Palestinians ended up with an acreage roughly equal to the pre-1967 West Bank and Gaza.

Even so, it is not possible to move straight to the territorial talks; the Israelis will not agree. They insist on sticking to the staged timetable in President Bush’s "road map". Under it, the Palestinians must reject terrorism and recognise the state of Israel before the so-called final status talks can commence.

This creates a problem for the Palestinian leadership. Their militants to argue that Palestinians were giving away important negotiating assets without receiving anything in return. It is not as if the Palestinian masses have a limitless trust in Israeli good faith. There is bound to be some incident on the West Bank, no doubt at a fragile moment in the talks, to inflame Palestinian passions and to imperil the lives of any Palestinian leaders who were prepared to continue with the unequal negotiations.

It is equally hard for Israeli politicians to bypass stage one. Their people will be profoundly suspicious of any talks which do not commence with a Palestinian repudiation of terrorism. The suicide bombing campaign had a dramatic effect on Israeli opinion. Many Israelis came to believe that an enemy which would send its children to murder their children must be an inhuman enemy. So Israelis will find it hard to go into prolonged discussions unless terrorism is removed from the agenda, especially as any peace deal would mean the uprooting of Israeli settlers, many of whom would not go quietly.

On that, there is a further complication. In several of the settlements which would have to be evacuated, there are Israeli graveyards. The tombs are not numerous, but some of them contain the bodies of victims of terrorism.

It will be hard enough to move the living. It will be an emotional nightmare to move the dead. There is only one way to persuade enough Israelis that this is an acceptable price: a deal which guarantees their rights to live in safety, with no more terrorism: a peace which passeth all backsliding.

If the Palestinians were not even prepared to sign up to stage one of the road map, many Israelis would conclude that any talk of peace was a snare and a delusion.

There is a most delicate equipoise between progress and suspicion. There are also two figures, neither designed for equipoise, who could yet throw their decisive weight on to the scales of hope.

Like all second-term Presidents, George Bush is a man in a hurry. For the next four years, he commands the greatest power on earth. Then the clock stops and the assessments begin. Already thinking of his place in history, Bush knows that an Israeli/Palestinian deal would be a formidable commendation to posterity. As his pro-Israeli credentials are impeccable, he is also the right president to counsel the Israelis against procrastination.

Not that this may be necessary. There is another man in a hurry. At 76, Ariel Sharon is in a race against time as well.

He also has little domestic life. His wife is dead and he has few interests outside politics.

Sharon is an unlikely peacemaker. Not so long ago, he seemed to believe that the best outcome for Israel would be the removal of all Palestinians across the River Jordan.

But he too is now ready to renounce fantasy. He has decided that Israel must make peace and must accept a Palestinian state. Even former political opponents, such as Ehud Barak, whom Sharon defeated, now believe that he has changed: that the warmonger has become a peacemaker.

In pursuit of a political objective, Sharon has all the subtlety of an armoured bulldozer. But that may be what Israel needs at this juncture in its history.

Given the amount of volatility and hatred just below the surface in both communities, it would be very easy for the peace process to collapse. But there are enough people on both sides who have come to realise that the alternative to a deal is unending bloodshed.

There are now more grounds for hope in this embattled region than there have been for many years.

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