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Hope against hope, and the search for peace

The Missing Peace The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace Dennis Ross Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 840 pp., $35 * The Path to Geneva The Quest for a Permanent Agreement, 1996-2004 Yossi Beilin RDV Books/Akashic Books: 378 pp., $22.95 * How Israel Lost The Four Questions Richard Ben Cramer Simon & Schuster: 308 pp., $24

August 01, 2004|Michael Parks | Michael Parks is the director of the School of Journalism at USC's Annenberg School for Communication. He was the editor of The Times from 1997 to 2000 and a Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent for the paper, covering China, Russia, South Africa and the Middle East.

Throughout human history, every war, every conflict, however terrible, however long, has eventually ended. The Hundred Years War between England and France lasted from 1337 to 1453, the Russo-Turkish Wars continued from the 17th century well into the 19th, but both came to an end. France and Germany, after several long and bloody wars over two centuries, are now at peace. For those caught in such conflicts, the historical inevitability that they would end at some point brought no comfort, but end they did.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, too, will end, but not knowing when or how compounds the pain of both peoples -- who suffer tragic losses daily -- and adds to the despair of their friends. The thin results of a decade of serious peace efforts might easily lead to the conclusion that peace is not possible in the Middle East, certainly not now.

Two men, writing from inside those efforts, disagree strongly with that conclusion. Peace is possible, they assert, and important steps can be taken even in the midst of the current violence. For 12 years, from 1988 to 2000, Dennis Ross held the Mideast peace portfolio for the United States, serving in the first Bush administration and then in the Clinton administration. Yossi Beilin, a member of the governments of three Israeli prime ministers, Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak, initiated the talks with the Palestine Liberation Organization that led to the landmark Oslo agreement in 1993.

"Some may look at the Middle East and draw only one lesson: Peace is not possible. Conflict is the norm. A decade of peacemaking efforts was noble but futile," Ross writes in "The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace." With his day-by-day chronicle of American diplomacy in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one might expect cynicism and disillusionment from Ross, but he insistently details improvements in the political landscape of the Middle East others may not see and the progress that Israelis and Palestinians have made toward peace.

Even taking into account the long impasse in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Ross sees an "opening," a possibility for political progress, in the planned unilateral moves by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to pull out of the Gaza Strip and much of the West Bank; those moves, however, are likely to come at a high cost for the Palestinians with rival factions already battling for control.

"Peace may not be just around the corner, but it is not beyond our grasp to produce a way station to it," Ross insists, arguing that limited agreements, even the coordination of unilateral moves, on how and when Israel withdraws can "re-create an environment that makes peace possible again."

Beilin and Ross have written diplomatic memoirs, each wanting in part to frame events with his own interpretation. But Beilin and Ross want them also to be important books for the peace process. In celebrating what worked -- and some initiatives did succeed -- and dissecting what failed, Beilin and Ross seek to encourage renewed efforts. Both books are published at a time, however, when prospects are particularly grim for any negotiated resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Beilin, one of the most creative minds in Israel's search for peace and security, writes with hope in "The Path to Geneva: The Quest for a Permanent Agreement, 1996-2004" that yet another dramatic breakthrough -- like Oslo in 1993, like Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's trip to Jerusalem in 1977 -- will develop and draw upon the 2003 Geneva agreement that he helped foster with Yasser Abed-Rabbo, a key Palestinian negotiator, who has proven himself as courageous as Beilin.

That peace plan, drafted privately by leading Israeli and Palestinian political and military figures, resolved through very difficult compromises the toughest issues -- borders and security arrangements for Israel and the new Palestinian state, resettlement of Palestinians still living as refugees, the incorporation into Israel of the close-in Jewish settlements on the West Bank and the repatriation of settlers from other areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and, finally, a way for Israel and Palestine to share Jerusalem as a capital with a complex system of sovereignty over religious sites.

"Some foresee for Israel another hundred years of living by the sword, believing that those with faith in peace are naive and do not understand the region in which they live," Beilin writes. But this would be an always-at-war state with its prolonged occupation of the Palestinian territories and, in reality, would end the Zionist dream on which Israel was founded, Beilin asserts; with only violence ahead, generation to generation, Israel would become the most dangerous place in the world for Jews to live and only those unable to leave would remain.

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