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Reaching for Lasting Peace in the Mideast


Jerusalem. -- The grins and back-patting last week in Washington between two former enemies, the leaders of Israel and Jordan, may well blossom into wider peace in the Middle East.

The question is: Could it last?

The question seems presumptuous, for there is much work -- and many possible pitfalls -- before suspicious Israel and its wary Arab neighbors fully agree to live in peace.

Violent acts in the region or far away, such as the bombs set recently in Buenos Aires, Panama and London, can shatter a cease-fire if they score painfully enough.

But last week's end to the formal state of war between Israel and Jordan breathed a gale of optimism into predictions that peace can happen.

For the first time since Israel was born in battle in 1948, the possibility is in sight it will have treaties with all of the Arab neighbors with whom it has fought five wars.

Egypt signed in 1979. The Palestinians made their deal last September. Jordan needs only some months to work out the final kinks with Israel. And the last holdouts -- Syria and its understudy, Lebanon -- now are under the pressure of being left out.

Even pessimists believe that Syria will reach a deal with Israel sooner rather than later. Their positions are not far apart; the chief difficulty is in finding arrangements both Israeli Premier Yitzhak Rabin and Syrian President Hafez al Assad can sell to their skeptical publics.

"The Arabs understand that Israel is not a foreign stain on the map of the Middle East, whose existence it is possible to erase," said the Hebrew daily Yediot Ahronot. "And we understand that we cannot live by the sword."

So, then what? Could the Middle East enter an era of relative quiet similar to that of Europe in the past half-century? Or would the treaties quickly join the litter of broken and unfulfilled documents that already pave the history of the region?

The most optimistic prospect is the one painted, naturally enough, by Israel's chief cheerleader for peace, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.

Mr. Peres believes economic ties are the bindings of peace. He predicts business arrangements and mutual economic dependencies will soon unite the Middle East in a way that would make war unwise, unprofitable and unlikely.

The ingredients for this economic matchmaking are there. Israel is a small but industrial country, lacking natural resources but overflowing in productive technology.

The Arab world is large and poorly developed, offering a vast market and the ability to pay with resources such as oil, labor and -- in some parts -- water.

Like Europe, the Middle East is a relatively small neighborhood, which can be bound together with a few open highways or oasis-hopping flights.

There is a common culture of souk traders, even among former enemies.

Mr. Peres, in his book "The New Middle East," envisions a regional economy where "the market is more important than the individual countries, and a competitive atmosphere is more important than old borders."

It is, after all, the economies of the Arab countries that drove them to the verge of peace.

They are drained by the cost of repeated unsuccessful wars and nearly 50 years of pumping up their armies. They need a respite to put some economic order in their own houses and quiet the rising dissatisfactions of their strapped peoples.

These economic pressures are not likely to change overnight. Nor are the political motivations that have led the Arab leaders into grudging relations with Israel. The Cold War is over, ending the superpower standoff that propped up both sides. The countries are left to their own concerns.

Egypt, for example, has no taste for fighting yet another war on behalf of the Palestinians, whom they don't like much anyway. Jordan is too weak and vulnerable to challenge its stronger neighbors. Syria is slowly molting its Stalinist-age central control; better to do that without the interference of another war. Lebanon just wants to rebuild its gracious avenues.

"The conflict is dwindling. The Arab dominoes are crumbling," exalted retired Israeli Gen. Shlomo Gazit, former head of military intelligence, in a Yediot Ahronot interview. But he cautioned: "We cannot make the delusionary mistake of believing that they have all been simultaneously transformed into lovers of Zion."

Indeed, there are a few large and ugly flies buzzing around the ointment for peace. Israel could find harmony with its immediate neighbors -- and at least shrugging acceptance from the Persian Gulf states and other distant Arab countries -- only to face continued problems from Iraq, Iran or Libya.

Those three countries remain unreconstructed foes of the Jewish state. All have proven their ability to create havoc from a distance, through the furtive reach of terrorism or the arc of Scud missiles. They would have to be cornered and dissuaded -- through a united front of the other Mideast nations acting on mutual interests -- from wrecking the peace.

But the biggest danger, ironically, is the one in the mirror. The people most likely to foil peace are those who would benefit most from it: the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Despite their peace agreement, the wary new relationship between Israel and the Palestinians is too fragile, with too many explosive issues left resolved, to be assured it will succeed.

The enmity between these closest neighbors is acrid and strong. Each has demonized the other thoroughly: to many Israelis, Palestinians are "terrorists;" to many Palestinians, Israelis are Gestapo-like oppressors.

The start of Palestinian autonomy in Jericho and the Gaza Strip has been surprisingly smooth. But Palestinians and Israelis have charted a collision course with opposing iceberg positions.

They signed a mutual five-year agenda of discussion on major matters, but the civility of the ceremony obscured the fact that they were simply measuring the fuse before it is lighted. Any number of issues could explode when the proper spark hits it.

Take Jerusalem, for example. Israelis swear with religious conviction they will never again see the city divided as it was before 1967, or relinquish control to the Arabs. The Palestinians, likewise, will not -- cannot -- accept a solution without Arab East Jerusalem, which is the hub of their West Bank education, transportation, health care, business, politics and religion.

Or take statehood. The Palestinians will not rest until their nation has a state of its own with power of its own. Israel has vowed there will be no Palestinian state, and demonstrated it intends to keep overall control of the Palestinian entity, surrendering only nominal power.

Or take settlers. There are about 120,000 Jewish settlers living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Politically, Israel cannot get them out. Practically, Palestinians cannot allow them -- and the massive troops needed to guard them -- to stay.

World leaders can only hope these intractable disputes will be confined to the 50-mile-wide sliver of land between the Mediterranean Sea and Jordan River. But history has shown the Palestinian cause to have such an emotional draw the rest of the Arab World can get sucked in.

"For the Arab-Israeli conflict to end, the crux of the conflict -- the Palestinian issue -- must be solved," said the East Jerusalem daily, Al-Quds. Only then, the paper concluded, can there be "an atmosphere of optimism that this region will enjoy security, stability and peace."

I= Doug Struck is The Baltimore Sun's Mideast correspondent.

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