There's a single way out of the Mideast's miseries

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Two decades after giving up the title of Middle East correspondent, the journalist and author Richard Ben Cramer recently returned to Israel to learn how that country had changed. In How Israel Lost: The Four Questions (Simon & Schuster, 320 pages, $24), he says his first goal was to understand why the country's standing has fallen so low.

Before he made the trip, I gave him the names of several friends in Jerusalem, and we talked about places we both knew well. Cramer was looking forward to revisiting old haunts. But he was disappointed, even offended, by what he saw. His findings will deeply offend supporters of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and will no less deeply offend admirers of Yasser Arafat. Thanks to its even-handed bleakness, this dark, high-strung book performs the important service of documenting the colossal scale of Sharon's and Arafat's failures, and the smoldering wreckage of Israeli and Palestinian society.

Israel lost its standing, and has lost much of its civility, because of its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The occupation has lasted 37 years. Cramer can find no redeeming features for either side from Israel's rule of another people. It hasn't improved Israel's security. It failed to improve the lives of Palestinians. It failed to make Palestinians more accepting of Israel.

The Palestinian uprising, a war in which neither side has any hope of defeating the other, is the proof. Israel's prime ministers -- Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Benjamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak and now Sharon -- have rarely even uttered the word "occupation." It does not change the fact that the occupation has coarsened the life of everyone in the region.

On the Palestinian side, the occupation has brought devastating poverty and land confiscations that will embitter Palestinians for generations. Israel's military checkpoints and regulation hamper the most basic human routines. Earning a living, going to school or buying groceries depends every day in large part on the forbearance of soldiers at a checkpoint. "Here's where things stand in Palestine," Cramer writes. "An Arab population of more than three million -- an educated and cultured people -- is being abased." That is one of the things Israel's government refuses to see.

On the Israeli side, the occupation is corrosive in almost every part of public life. People now are defined by their opinions about the occupation. All real dialogue -- between Jewish settlers and the political left, between the religious and the secular -- has stopped. As Cramer says, "Facts are no longer facts if they come from someone who's on the other (i.e., wrong) side." The government, meanwhile, defends all its actions against the Palestinians as responses to terrorism, or the threats of terrorism.

It's a way of pretending the country's problems are simple. Always, the problem is "terror," and the best solution is always said to be an iron fist. What goes unaddressed is that the occupation itself helps create the hatred and desperation that produce violence.

Under Sharon, Israel has set an impossibly high standard for a formal peace. The Bush administration has endorsed it, by failing to press hard for anything else. The standard is this: Peace means being able to hear a pin drop.

It means the Palestinians not only must prevent all acts of violence but that the quiet must be unblemished. The peace must be so nearly total that Israel's prime minister will be able to hear a pin drop in Gaza City or Nablus. The Likud Party and its partners on the far right demand that Palestinians make no sound. One more shooting, one more protest that turns into a rock-throwing riot, then a formal peace agreement will be off.

Under those terms, the deal will always be off.

Even amid violence, a meaningful peace is possible. Ask the people of Northern Ireland or the people of Bosnia. But ask Jewish settlers or Sharon's government, and the response is that the Palestinians are not to be trusted unless the peace is absolute.

A unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, as Sharon now proposes, is a tempting substitute for a formal agreement. The Bush administration last month alarmed the Palestinians and the European Union by backing Sharon's plan, and endorsing his desire to retain large settlements in the West Bank. But acting unilaterally brings its own dangers. It commits the Palestinians to nothing and guarantees Israel nothing. Without a signed agreement, no party has obligations. It would mark Israel's surrender to the idea of no peace and its gamble that there would be no war.

It's tempting because Israelis are unlikely to agree among themselves on any other course. The country has fractured into mutually hostile tribes. Cramer identifies them as Israel's Russians (with their own newspapers, their own TV stations, their own political parties), the ultra-Orthodox (with their own newspapers, radio stations and parties), the Sephardim (the same), the old Labor Party establishment (the same) and the settlers with their far-right allies (the same). He dubs those hard-liners "Tanks 'n Torah."

All the tribes behave according to an "ethic of occupation": Each takes what it needs by force -- government subsidies, a share of jobs and graft -- and looks out only for its own interests.

The book is far harsher on the Palestinians. After having so many chances to prove himself otherwise, Arafat is dismissed as selfish, vain, a person who ultimately thinks small. He surrounded himself with sycophants who were also thieves. They became the poisoned heart of the Palestinian Authority.

Cramer documents the Palestinian Authority's moral and political corruption through the experiences of a Palestinian he calls Kandil. His story is a tale of horror. Kandil worked for more than 20 years for an Israeli company until political realities forced him to quit. To settle an old score, a neighbor took advantage of Kandil's Israeli "taint" by reporting him to police.

Police detained Kandil at a jail within Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah. They beat him for weeks without bothering to accuse him of a crime. The Palestinian chief prosecutor joined in the torture by administering electric shocks. To stop the beatings, Kandil signed a blank sheet of paper that later became part of his signed "confession" to an implausible string of kidnappings and murders. He survived thanks only to the Israeli troops who destroyed most of Arafat's compound and set the prisoners free.

A few things go awry in this book. Cramer's conversational style is occasionally off-key, and schtick too often takes the place of insight and original reporting. He argues that almost everything about the Oslo peace accord and the failed talks at Camp David in 2000 was done in bad faith, an exceptionally dark point of view that doesn't leave many ways out.

His own peace plan is provocatively straightforward: "The West Bank and Gaza for the Palestinians, and Israel for the Jews, for once and for good." That's it. Israel should give back all the land it captured in 1967, and Palestinians should abandon all claims to Israel.

Poll after poll finds a majority of Israelis and a majority of Palestinians supporting arrangements very similar to that. There is leeway to swap some small percentage of the land on one side for a small percentage of the land on the other, but that is all.

Many people recognize deep down, as Cramer says, that those are the only workable, sustainable terms. Land for peace is the one potentially successful formula. Anyone demanding more -- Sharon at his worst, Arafat at his worst, and the extremists on both sides -- will bring about far more violence and misery than any people should have to bear.

Robert Ruby is the The Sun's foreign editor. He is a former Middle East correspondent for the paper and author of Jericho: Dreams, Ruins and Phantoms.

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