385. "Mideast Needs A 'Wall' to Cool off Violence." USA Today (April 9, 2002) p 15A.


Now that President Bush has sent Secretary of State Colin Powell to stop the bloodshed in the Middle East, my advice to him and all of us -- based on the 21 years that I lived in Israel -- is that we stop asking who is in the right.

Some hold that Israel is to blame for its occupation of the Palestinian territories and its fierce military incursions on Yasser Arafat's compound and surrounding areas.

Others believe that the Palestinians are hosts to terrorists, willing to blow themselves up for the cause, which is to overthrow Israel and take over its land.

Progress toward ending the violence, it then is presumed, will come once the party in the wrong yields. But what makes this conflict so bitter is that it is not a clash between right and wrong, but between two rights. And therein lies a possible solution, if we can get past the myths and begin gradually to find points of commonality and compromise.

Both sides can lay strong historical claims to the same pieces of land and to the same holy city, Jerusalem. Both sides can argue that the other invaded their turf. So the only way to proceed is to put the past behind us rather than use it as a basis for a solution.

We should also set aside a few myths.

First, we should stop deluding ourselves that it would make a great deal of difference if Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon or Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat were replaced. In general, we make a mistake when we personalize international relations. Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes recently asked Sharon whether it is true that the core of the problem is that he hates Arafat. And we hear daily that if Arafat just got off his duff and ordered an end to the violence, we would be on our way to cooling the conflict.

In fact, the best way to illustrate that the personalities of the leaders matter little is to think back to when Israel had a very boyish prime minister, Ehud Barak. He offered to yield what is widely agreed amounts to some 95% of what the Palestinians can possibly hope for, and probably much more than what the majority of Israelis are likely to be willing to concede in the foreseeable future. Yet Barak's offer was rejected, showing that the forces at work are much greater than anyone's personality.

The worst myth of all is that the conflict can be settled in some kind of new or renewed Oslo agreement or Camp David retreat, by a round of negotiations among diplomats or heads of states. (Former British foreign secretary Lord Hurd recently suggested that Sharon and Arafat should be locked in a room and not allowed to leave until they make peace.)

In effect, this approach is part of the problem. The sides are so angry and so adamant that if an agreement were to be made without involving the masses in the process, it would be extremely unlikely to stick.

What is needed to get to that point, therefore, is a three-step approach that gives both sides time to cool off and to develop a sense that what they are gaining will be better than what they are currently suffering.

The first step entails some form of separation. Basically, like two bullies who keep beating each other up, the two need to be split up and sent to their corners. This can be done by positioning an international peacekeeping force along the 1967 line (before Israel began occupying the West Bank and Gaza) and erecting a fence of the kind that separates Israel from Lebanon and has largely pacified that border.

Yes, there are some sticky questions that would have to be worked out as to where the troops or fences would be placed in Jerusalem and how the Jewish settlers are going to be protected. Dealing with these issues might be eased if it is understood that the peacekeepers and fence are temporary measures.

The second step would be some well-choreographed small moves toward reconciliation. For instance, there might be some population exchanges in which some settlers move back to Israel and their settlements are used to house some Arabs now in refugee camps. Or some contested territory might be turned into a bi-national park (an idea previously raised). Israel might promise to recognize a Palestinian state, as Palestinian leaders embrace the Saudi idea of recognizing the right of Israel to exist, within its 1967 borders.

The last step would be to get people to start thinking about what is called "the final stage," when Israelis and Palestinians can live together in peace. It may now seem absurd but it is urgently necessary to remind everyone of the bright prospects of a peaceful future and the stake both sides will have in it. Children will be able to go to school without fear. Parents will know that their sons and daughters will live out the life nature promised them. Both sides will share the economic benefits of peace. Developmental aid might replace the billions currently rained on arms by the United States in Israel and Egypt.

The details are much less important than the realization that without separation first, leading to a cessation of hostilities and some such psychodrama, the Israeli and Palestinian people will not accept the unavoidable compromises they all must make.

We will get there if we stop trying to figure out who is right and should yield, and find points that each side has in common. We are not seeking justice, but peace. We will get there only if we insist that to go on shedding blood is wrong for all concerned.

Amitai Etzioni, a professor at George Washington University, is the author of The Spirit of Community and a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.

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