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ISRAEL

It Takes Two to Wage Peace

May 11, 2003|Trude B. Feldman | Trude B. Feldman covers the White House and State Department and reports on the Middle East.

WASHINGTON — The year was 1960. The nation of Israel was 12 years old. I had come for the first time to the Middle East. As the ship docked at Haifa, I was too weak to feel excitement. For 13 of 14 days at sea, I had been miserably seasick.

It was an inauspicious beginning to a long relationship with a promising but troubled country.

During that first visit, which became a two-year sojourn, I had a bit part in the film "Exodus," attended weekly Bible sessions held by Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, and met other leaders and officials from many countries. As a budding journalist, I covered all 122 sessions of the Adolf Eichmann trial and interviewed his wife, attorney and most of the witnesses. On assignment for Ebony magazine, I toured the country with singer Harry Belafonte during his two-week engagement, and for another five days with Eleanor Roosevelt.

Through it all, I marveled at what the modern pioneers had achieved since independence. As the former first lady told me: "Israel is a lesson in how one can develop a nation.... Out of the sands, the people have carved a wonderful, fruitful existence."

But out of those same sands have also come strife and conflict.

Over the years, I have watched as each of Israel's 11 prime ministers and their foreign ministers have tried again and again to fashion a working peace with their neighbors, including the Palestinians. I witnessed moments of optimism, as in 1977 when I covered Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's peace mission to Jerusalem to meet with Israel's sixth prime minister, Menachem Begin. And I was saddened when the forces opposed to peace seemed to get the upper hand, as when Sadat was assassinated in 1981 by Muslim extremists.

Today, as Israel and the Palestinians stand poised for yet another attempt at a comprehensive solution, I reflect on my numerous discussions on the subject with the region's leaders and with their American counterparts. One bit of wisdom stands out, stated a bit differently by each. As Israel's fourth prime minister, Golda Meir, said: "Only those who make war can make peace."

The so-called road map, formulated by the U.S., the United Nations, Russia and the European Union, lays out a plan for concrete steps that Israelis and Palestinians could take in a move toward peace and a Palestinian state. But in the end, it is the two parties that must decide to act.

The region's leaders, in principle, have always wanted peace. In 1960, Ben-Gurion told me he was optimistic about the future, describing the trouble between Arabs and Jews as a "family conflict which will not last long." He added, "The closer and more quickly we draw together, the better it will be for both of us."

He spoke not only of peace between Israelis and Arabs but also of a genuine alliance of two peoples that needed each other. "As equals, we have something to offer each other," he said. "Besides interdependence and cooperation, we need mutual understanding. It is a historical necessity, just as the Jewish state is a historical necessity that has come to pass.... It is a moral, political and economic necessity."

Ben-Gurion envisioned a "true covenant of brothers and equals" in which there would be not only "absolute equality" between Arabs and Jews but also respect. Israel, he told me, was committed to preserving the Arabs' "language, their Arab characteristics, their culture, their religion, their Arab way of life."

But as Ben-Gurion and his successors realized, no one party could make peace alone. "The leaders of the Arab countries cannot shirk their responsibilities of negotiating with us," Meir told me in 1969. "All the talks among the 'Big Four' powers [the then-Soviet Union, France, Britain and the U.S.] cannot be a substitute for the Arabs talking directly with Israel.... We must meet the Arab leaders and discuss with them recognized, secure and agreed-upon boundaries and these boundaries must be worked out with the Arabs, not amongst ourselves."

The U.S. too has emphasized the importance of direct negotiation. In 1971, Charles W. Yost, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, concluded: "We can help, we can urge, we can provide facilities, we can coordinate with the United Nations, with the Soviets, with the British and the French, but ultimately it must be the Arabs and the Israelis who either make peace or do not make peace ... and I'm not hopeful that can be done in the next year or so ... because the suspicion, mistrust and hatred on both sides are very great.... "

Begin maintained that Israel had searched for an end to conflict. "Israel always sought a full peace with true conciliation," he said. "We don't want to rule and disturb or divide ... if we make a full peace, we will be able to help one another to enrich life and to open a new period in the history of the Middle East -- a period of growth and development.... "

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