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Jewish World Review July 10, 2000 /7 Tamuz, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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To the summit -- and back down again? -- THE ODDS are even at best that the three-way summit now on for Camp David this week will produce any kind of agreement. Even the kind of agreement the Mideast has become familiar with -- the kind announced with handshakes, tears of joy and grandiloquent words of reconciliation, all preparatory to the usual breakdown and threats, if not worse. That's the Middle East. (Sigh.)

The peace process that has looked inevitable for a decade since the whole, arduous series of conferences began in Madrid back in 1991 now begins to look decidedly evitable. The Israelis and Palestinians find themselves at the end of the road, not sure whether it has led them to a new vista or another dead end.

How each side envisions peace may be so different that it's hard to see how a summit can produce anything but, at best, another ambiguous paper agreement that will be interpreted quite differently by all the signers. So why would Bill Clinton invite/summon Palestinian and Israeli leaders to Camp David?

Well, would peace be any closer if he hadn't? Talk is almost always preferable to letting contentions stew. The president is to be commended for getting the two sides together at the highest levels. Even if this summit turns out to be as big a bust as his earlier Syrian-Israeli summit-cum-fiasco. At least, both Israel's Ehud Barak and a nascent Palestine's Yasser Arafat will have explored their differences, and will surely have been shown what bounties peace could bring.

And if Bill Clinton would talk tough for once, both Palestinians and Israelis would also get a glimpse of what awaits the recalcitrant: No more generous American and international aid, the opprobrium of a candid world and full American support for the other side.

Of course there are dangers in talking -- as Neville Chamberlain, that sucker of suckers, discovered. Yasser Arafat may be coming to Camp David expecting to hear not the Israelis' final offer but only the Israelis' latest final offer. Throughout every stage of this process, it is the Israelis who have had to make the tangible concessions, while the Palestinians need promise only a peace that somehow is never reflected in their words back home.

On the contrary, there are times when the whole machinery of the developing Palestinian state seems enveloped in the kind of hate-speech that poisons the atmosphere, and the next generation. Ah, yes. Just what the Arab world needs -- another tawdry little police state mired in demagoguery and run by a corrupt but at least inefficient coterie, which is what Arafatland is shaping up to be.

For the moment, Chairman Arafat is up against a wall. He's promised to declare Palestinian statehood on September 13, even in the absence of a peace treaty. If he does so, the Israelis may declare their independence of him, annex disputed territory on the West Bank, draw their own borders and generally join in a mutual provocation come September.

It's hard to believe that most Israelis or Palestinians would welcome that kind of spectacle with all its incendiary potential. But if their leaders cannot summon the strength and support required to make peace, the field will be left open to a new generation of diehards.

The outlines of peace long ago began to take shape on the map, and both Israelis and Palestinians are ingenious enough to fill the gaps that remain -- like Arab rights in Jerusalem and Israeli security in the Jordan Valley. Verbal formulas can be invented to appease national pride; land can be demilitarized.

There is no reason Palestinian sovereignty in theory cannot co-exist with Israeli armor in fact. Less important than what percentage of the West Bank will shift to Palestinian authority is the spirit in which such an agreement is reached and then carried out. And it's the spirit of peace that seems woefully lacking.

Palestinian statehood long ago ceased to be an issue; it is coming if it isn't already here. In a way, Israeli statehood is the issue. The sons of Ishmael can afford to lose any number of wars; they are not about to disappear from the map of the Middle East. The children of Israel cannot afford to lose even one, which is why Ehud Barak's coalition government is crumbling fast as Israelis perceive their security at risk, and foresee their narrow state squeezed out of existence.

With each series of concessions, Israeli resistance to more grows. Which is why Ehud Barak needs to make it clear that his final offer is final. And that he's offering Yasser Arafat not just a deal, but a last opportunity. For Ehud Barak's coalition government grows less coalesced each day. And if it falls, Israel's next government is unlikely to be as forthcoming.

Lest Israel forget, this summit could prove a lost opportunity for the Jewish state, too. In Yitzhak Rabin, this generation of Israelis has already lost its Gedaliah ben Ahikam. That's the name of a minor governor of the rump kingdom of Judah under Nebuchadnezzar a couple or three thousand years ago, or just a moment ago in the history of the Jews. Gedaliah would surely have been forgotten by now except that somehow, amid all the great warriors and prophets of Israel, he is the one remembered in the Jewish calendar with a fast day on the anniversary of his assassination. For like Yitzhak Rabin, he was slain by a zealot who advocated war.

Will the Israelis, in their rush to judgment, or rather their rush to fear, now lose the opportunity their contemporary, assassinated Gedaliah gave his country? If this chance for peace is lost, Israel's leaders must make it clear that it was not through any lack of effort or good will on their part.

The model for this summit at Camp David is clearly the three-way Sadat-Begin-Carter negotiations of 1978. Unhappily, Yasser Arafat is no Anwar Sadat; he is neither so strong or good-willed -- or explicit. Happily, Ehud Barak is no Menachem Begin; he is clearly prepared to make freely the kinds of concessions that had to be forced out of a hardliner like Mr. Begin. And we will see whether Bill Clinton can duplicate Jimmy Carter's feat. It wasn't easy then, and it hasn't grown easier since. But at least this president is willing to try.

Even if this week's summit fails, at least all sides will have been obliged to explore the limits of possibility. And, if wisdom prevails, to stretch them. After all, it's a land of miracles.

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