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Saturday, Nov. 1, 2003


Break the chain of violence

LONDON -- There are new incidents almost every day in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Both sides retaliate and innocent bystanders, including children, are killed. No remorse is shown. Mercy and forgiveness seem never to be considered.

The temptation is to wash our hands of the whole bloody business and let both sides wear one another out. But even apart from humanitarian considerations we cannot afford to allow things to get worse. With the recent Israeli attack on a target in Syria near Damascus and the continuing insecurity in Iraq, there are dangers that the dispute will engulf other parts of the Middle East.

Suicide attacks are very difficult to stop. So far, perhaps because suicide is regarded as sinful in Christian eyes and because most Western terrorists -- such as those who operate in Northern Ireland or in the Basque separatist movement -- are not prepared to sacrifice their lives for their causes, suicide attacks have been confined to Islamic extremists who believe in holy war and jihad. If such attacks are to be stopped, it is essential that Muslims everywhere loudly condemn suicide attacks as contrary to the fundamental principles of Islam and warn that the perpetrators are not going to heaven.

Much more also needs to be done by the Palestinian Authority to deter the extremist groups who plan and carry out these attacks. Unfortunately, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat has shown that he is powerless to do so, and has exacerbated the problem by preventing an effective government from being formed under a prime minister independent of him. The declared Israeli intention of removing Arafat from the scene may be understandable, but it is ill-conceived as it has bolstered his popularity among Palestinians and increased support for him in other Arab countries.

Syria may be a nuisance to Israel and to the United States vis-a-vis Iraq, but its government is weak. Threats and violent actions such as the recent Israeli raid are liable to only make matters worse and reinforce Arab support for Syria.

Each side in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute demands that the other side take the first step, and seems unable and unwilling to start negotiations without conditions. If such attitudes are maintained there can be no progress.

The Israelis should have the courage to end the vicious spiral by demonstrating to the Palestinians that there is no need for despair over finding a resolution to the dispute through negotiation. The Israelis should also make it clear that while violence must stop, they will not allow such incidents, however horrific, to be used as an excuse to avoid taking steps that will make the "road map" for peace work.

So far the Israeli government has done little more than pay lip service to the road map's proposals. Unless it can be demonstrated to Palestinians that progress in political negotiations is possible, and that it will lead to a viable Palestinian state, violent incidents will likely increase. It is certain that Israeli assassinations of Palestinian militants and attacks on refugee camps in which bystanders and children are caught up in the fighting will only fuel the hatred of the Palestinians.

The Israelis claim that the wall they are building will keep the two communities apart and reduce opportunities for violence. Some sections could have this effect, but others are likely to exacerbate tensions by dividing Palestinians from their workplaces and from their relatives and neighbors. The wall also seems to be designed to protect Israeli settlements in Palestinian areas and make the establishment of a viable Palestinian state more difficult. The Israelis should make it clear that they will stop building the wall, and indeed will start to dismantle it, once it is certain that violent attacks will cease.

Many Israelis and Palestinians simply want to get on with their lives in peace and safety. The biggest obstacle is posed by the extremists on both sides.

There are elements not only among the Palestinians but also in other Arab states who have not yet accepted that an independent Israeli state has been established in what was Palestine, and that there will be no chance of peace for anyone if they continue to fight for the expulsion of Israel from these lands.

On the Israeli side there are extremists who believe that the Jews have a divine right to the Holy Land up to the River Jordan, and that the Palestinian Arabs should either leave the Holy Land or accept an inferior status of, at best, second-class citizens in Israel.

Unfortunately there seem to be elements within and outside the Zionist movement in the U.S. that supports extremist demands. It is difficult to estimate how important such elements are in U.S. elections, but candidates do often try to win the Jewish vote by publicly demonstrating their support for Israel.

To many observers, not only in the Mideast but also in Europe, the apparent lack of evenhandedness in American U.N. policies whenever there is a vote affecting Israel damages U.S. credibility and hampers any steps to achieve peace by encouraging Israeli demands. Americans reject the suggestion that they maintain double standards, but that is how their attitude is generally seen.

In recent weeks it has seemed to some that the Americans have given up in their efforts to achieve a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem. It is important for the prospect of peace that the U.S. be seen as actively seeking ways forward. It also needs demonstrate that it will be evenhanded. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is a realist. He needs to be shown that if he continues to be intransigent and vindictive, Washington will be as tough with him as it is with the Palestinians.

Unfortunately, it is doubtful whether U.S. President George W. Bush has the will to do this. He is likely to argue that his first priority must be Iraq, but the mess in Iraq will only get worse unless progress can be achieved in the Israeli-Palestine dispute.

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.

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