The battle between Israel and Palestine has reached a painful but telling point these days: when Palestinian and Israeli parents send their children off to school in the morning, they tend to worry about whether or not the children will return home alive. Even worse is the growing fear — common on both sides in the areas of armed confrontations — that ones child, baby, or even foetus may die due to deliberate or accidental causes.
There is probably no more painful an ordeal that one side in a conflict can inflict on the other — terrorizing adults into perpetual fear for the lives of their innocent and vulnerable children. This dehumanizing process is a logical consequence of war, and it breeds an inevitable desire for revenge. Though both sides offer very different explanations for how we got here, reality now is defined by the shooters and their populations behind them calling for a combination of revenge and protection. This is likely to get worse before it gets any better, because the grandmaster shooter Ariel Sharon leads Israel, and the Fateh Tanzeem militias now drive the Palestinian armed resistance to Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, with Islamist bombers carrying out a parallel campaign of terror against civilians within Israel.
The cost of continuing down this path is very high for both sides, in material and moral terms, but both sides seem prepared to pay that cost for quite a while longer. Israelis and Palestinians have nowhere else to go, nothing more to lose. Like cornered gladiators, they will fight to the death if they have to, though just six months ago they were trying to negotiate a full peace accord.
The cost of the present conflict can be calculated in two main currencies. First is the material cost of the dead and wounded, and the parallel human suffering due to economic regression. And second is the psychological and political cost, mainly the mutual feeling by both sides that they no longer have a trustworthy negotiating partner. Each side also feels it must fight ferociously to defend its existence, and to teach the other side a lesson it will never forget.
In their current terrorized and traumatized state, both sides claim that the other has become politically illegitimate. Israelis across the board say they cannot negotiate with Yasser Arafat. Palestinians more realistically say they will negotiate with whomever is the elected prime minister of Israel, yet they do not expect to achieve any peace accord with the elected Ariel Sharon. Mutual political de-legitimization is the flip side of mutual shooting: if you cannot kill your enemy with the gun, you try to kill him or her politically. But this too will not work, because Israel and Palestine are legitimate entities in the eyes of the world, and, more importantly, of each other.
Both sides will soon have to pull back from the current cycle of shooting and re-engage in a political negotiation that achieves their key goals: mutual recognition, security, sovereignty, and a resolution of the legitimate historical claims of both sides, mainly the Palestine refugees issue but also other issues that Israel will raise.
I wrote a few months ago that the advent of the Sharon government would provide Israelis with a temporary but false sense of security, until they learn that even his super-violent military tactics and collective punishments against Palestinians would not resolve the problem, but rather would aggravate it. We live that phase right now, with more killing and suffering but no more security. Sharon sells false dreams and trades in fools gold, which is why both sides these days daily hold their breath until their children get home.
After a short period of time (my prediction was, and remains, some seven weeks from Sharons taking office), after mega-violence and revenge fail, both sides will have to get back to the negotiating table. Noteworthy efforts in this direction have already started, such as the meeting Monday between Arafat and Israeli MP Yossi Katz, the expected meeting in Europe this week between Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestinian minister and negotiator Nabil Shaath, Israeli-Palestinian public diplomacy through the mass media and quiet diplomacy through unofficial meetings, the Jordanian-Egyptian working paper on resuming the negotiations, the American-Egyptian-Jordanian leaders meetings in Washington, and other meetings and initiatives that are certainly taking place behind closed doors.
The immediate brutality, terror, fear, and revenge that define the arena are frightening and tragic, but they are also only temporary phenomena, triggered by the collapse of the negotiations of the past eight years. The urgency remains to identify why those negotiations failed from the Palestinian and Israeli perspectives, to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the mediator, and to work on new proposals that can make the negotiations succeed when they resume in a more credible format. A logical interim goal would be to agree on a simultaneous cease-fire, a mutual return to the September 28, 2000 positions, and re-engagement in more credible diplomatic negotiations.
Did we learn anything from the failed negotiations that can help us to get out of this mad cycle of death and dehumanization? I think we did: any progress must be based on equal and simultaneous moves by both sides that bring meaningful gains to both sides. One side trying to humiliate, control, dominate, or overpower the other leads nowhere. If we swallow some large humility pills and try to apply this basic lesson to halting the current fighting, we might have a better chance of succeeding in the negotiations that will have to resume in due course.