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Losing Ground

Madeleine Albright was supposed to rescue the Middle East Oslo Accords. But with the bombers influencing the agenda, it's clear now that Israel must take the initiative for peace.

September 14, 1997|Amy Wilentz | Amy Wilentz, a former New Yorker writer, is working on a book about Israel

Jerusalem is a bleak place these days. The night of the triple-suicide bomb downtown on the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall, Israelis, as is traditional after such tragedies, spent the wee hours cleaning the place up and repairing what could be repaired, and then returned to the scene of the tragedy en masse the next day to eat ice cream and buy Swatches and stuff themselves with falafel and prove, by this show of insouciance, that they remain tough and resilient and Israel will not be cowed.

But, in some ways, Israel has been cowed. Now is the moment of truth, and the bombings seem to have destroyed the Israelis' capacity to imagine a way out of their terrible predicament. Centrists like Labor Party leader Ehud Barak, a former Army chief who was supposed to help lead Israel peacefully and prosperously into the 21st century, now advocate "separation" of the two populations. This means, in essence, that a Berlin Wall should be erected between Israel and whatever Palestinian entity emerges from the ashes of Oslo.

Separation is quintessentially unimaginative--it contains no solutions. No more Palestinians on the Israeli side, and vice versa. As Israelis like to say in English: "Det's det." In the full heat of his anger after the bombing, one liberal Israeli told me he was for separation: "We'll have full employment in Israel, and no one will be able to come here to blow himself up and, as far as I'm concerned, the Palestinians can starve to death." Ugly words at an ugly moment, and there appears to be no real leader left to take Israel down another path.

Some days, it seems as if the suicide bombers are running the peace talks. Certainly, no one else is speaking out in such unmistakable terms. In spite of U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright's frenzied to-and-fro across Jerusalem and the West Bank, the bombers seem to be the only ones contributing actively to the process; certainly, they have been speaking with a booming voice at the (by now) largely theoretical negotiating table. "You have given me nothing," Yasser Arafat seems to say as each bomb goes off: Here are the consequences.

On the Israeli side, the suicide bombers also have a role to play. Helped by Yigal Amir, the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's killer, they bombed Benjamin Netanyahu into the premier's office, in a classic example of left and right extremes working toward the same ends. Now the bombers' tactics seem like part and parcel of the Netanyahu government's "peace" policy. Every time a bomb goes off, Netanyahu uses the crisis as an excuse to retreat further from the Oslo accords.

Especially, it seems, he is eager to put an end to territorial givebacks: Under his administration, three Israeli withdrawals agreed to in the interim accords have failed to take place. He ran on a platform of peace with security and has given the Israelis and the Palestinians neither.

Everyone here is hoping the Americans will, in the now-threadbare cliche of this threadbare peace process, "jump-start" the talks. But that would take a miraculous transformation in U.S. thinking. It is clear from the lackluster performance of Albright, and from the plain lack of new ideas and creativity the Americans have been bringing to the talks for the past two years, that the Clinton administration is not going to revive this Lazarus.

Do the Americans even want to? State Department policy has veered sharply toward the Israelis in Clinton's second term, and Albright's visit--her long, "cordial" talks with Netanyahu (how could a superpower that desires peace have a "cordial" talk with this man right now?) and her seeming indifference to the Palestinian side--is further evidence of this. The Americans are not going to rescue peace. Clearly, they are not interested in saving the Palestinians from their fate. Now, only if the Israelis want peace, can peace come.

But there is apparently no leader among them brave enough to remind the Israelis--in these painful, frightened times--about the benefits of peace with their next-door neighbors. It's a reminder that they should be hearing, but a hard one to absorb. Israelis today live in continual fear, certain that what seems the most normal place on the most normal day--the market, the bus, the movies, the mall, the ice-cream stand, the park--may explode at any moment into something unimaginably destructive and bloody.

Across the checkpoints, Palestinians also live in fear, in what are rightly called Bantustans, small cities and surrounding villages among which travel is not permitted. Their economy is destroyed. Their young people cannot get to universities outside their towns, cannot find jobs, have no hope and no future. Many spend most of their time throwing stones at Israeli soldiers and breathing tear gas.

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