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At the Precipice, Can Peace Process Survive?

March 23, 1997|Amy Wilentz | Amy Wilentz, who writes about the Middle East for the New Yorker, is now working on a book about Israel

JERUSALEM — No lesson is better learned from the last terrible week in Israel than that without the political center, there can be no solution. This does not mean the governments of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres always, or even often, prosecuted intelligent policies concerning the Palestinians. They, too, built settlements; they, too, expropriated, bulldozed houses, issued macho pronouncements; they, too, used inhumane closure between Israel and the West Bank as a punitive as well as a security measure.

But one thing they did not do was conduct their peace process at the brink. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu always seems to be backing toward a precipice. He's ready to tumble over the edge at any minute, taking with him the rest of Israelis, including school girls, 6-month-old babies, mothers and grandmas. Three more people were killed Friday, when a Hamas suicide bomber walked into a sidewalk cafe in Tel Aviv, where people were in costume for Purim, and blew himself up.

Whose bidding is Netanyahu doing as he blithely approaches his doom? Israel's extreme right--the kind of people who think it is wise to issue challenges at delicate moments and who believe in proceeding on controversial bottom-line actions without consulting their negotiating partner. Netanyahu can blame Palestinian President Yasser Arafat from here till eternity for last week's suicide bombing and the violence that is spiraling out of control all over the West Bank, but Israelis will not blame Arafat, or not only Arafat. Arafat has a partner in the Oslo process, and everyone knows who that is.

That is the man who wants to sacrifice all the tiny, hard-won, difficult gains of the past few years for a hill near Bethlehem. He is the one who went ahead with the bulldozers at Har Homa--in spite of the warnings of all sane people who knew it would spark not just immediate violence but give rise to the old and terrible bad feeling of Palestinians for Israelis that is always ready to surface. For a long time, people who supported peace thought Netanyahu was inching in that direction, but slowly for fear of angering his right-wing backers. Now it seems he is placating the international community in gestures toward Oslo, but that he is really against peace with the Palestinians and intends to bushwhack the entire deal with his diggers and dump trucks.

Arafat has tried to cope with this partner, the clumsy man who cut in on the easy fox-trot he and Peres were executing as they moved with Astaire-and-Rogers precision down the spot-lit stairway to final-status talks. But as Netanyahu has moved right, Arafat has moved left--so it is hard for their arms to reach to continue the modern minuet.

Unfortunately for Arafat, the Israeli extreme right, for the moment, leads to bulldozers and closures and tear gas; but the extreme Palestinian left means Hamas and suicide bombs. And suicide bombing doesn't garner you a lot of sympathy in the forum of world opinion, no matter how desperate your political plight. It's just not perceived as a legitimate tool of discourse, and Arafat should not have truck with people like Ibrahim Makadmeh, a Hamas leader who was a mastermind of last year's suicide bombings in Israel, according to Israeli intelligence sources, and whom Arafat released from prison a week and a half ago, presumably to placate the militant group.

Surely, Arafat cannot want Hamas as his heavy. He stands to gain just about nothing from this latest bombing. Hamas seems uncontrollable, a loose cannon in its timing if not in its targeting. Last year, everyone was convinced that the group did the bombings to "torpedo"--the popular word at the time--the peace process by undermining Peres in the eyes of security-minded Israeli voters, and get Netanyahu elected. But, today, it seems as if Hamas is on the rampage because the peace process is not moving fast enough.

Hamas always takes the violence up a final notch that makes the whole situation seem unmanageable, senseless and incapable of resolution, which it perhaps is.

It is worth remembering, finally, that Hamas, whatever you may think of it, is not a small cell but a large organization composed of actual people, some of whom feel impelled to such acts. What can you say, symbolically, about an act of premeditated political violence that takes with it not only the targets but the perpetrator? You have to say that the authors of a political expression that culminates in simultaneous suicide and homicide will never be susceptible to the idea of negotiating. They are not into the dynamics of communication. Give and take means something different to them.

In the situation in which the Israelis and Palestinians find themselves, Hamas is saying, partnership and communication are only about death and destruction. It is the conscious nihilism of the suicide bomber that is so shocking.

Yet, the rest of us soldier on in the hope that something sane can prevail. Netanyahu and Hamas are not good bets for a peaceful outcome, but there are still many people on both sides who want some kind of equitable compromise, and hope they can soon find leaders competent enough to achieve that not-very-dramatic thing.

The worry is that between Har Homa, on the one hand, and Hamas, on the other, even the peaceful centers of both populations may become alienated. Then there will be no hill on which to build a peace.

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