The impending restart of peace talks between Palestinians and Israelis here in Washington Thursday calls to mind the many opportunities that slipped through the fingers of peacemakers in the past. What is essential now is to avert the mistakes of those talks — especially the pride and haggling that dragged down hopes of millions of people for a better and peaceful life.
I was sitting in the front row in Sharm el Sheikh on Oct. 16, 2000, when President Bill Clinton came out for a press conference, flanked by Ehud Barak for Israel and Yasser Arafat for the Palestinians. The signs of defeat were apparent. Only Mr. Clinton spoke, and he took no questions. Messrs. Barak and Arafat sat in silence, the failure of the last-ditch efforts of the United States lying in the dust at their feet. The second intifada had begun two weeks earlier and would kill 5,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis.
Why can't the two sides finish the conflict that began in 1948? When you talk to people in Ramallah and Ramle, in Jericho and Jerusalem, there is an overwhelming agreement on the shape of an agreement:
•The West Bank and Gaza go to the Palestinians;
•Large Israeli settlements adjacent to Israel go to Israel in exchange for an equal slice of land;
•The Old City of Jerusalem is open to all faiths and nationalities, under international supervision;
•Arab refugees from 1948 and 1967 get monetary restitution but resettlement limited to the West Bank;
• Palestinians recognize Israel and agree to halt all attacks against it;
•Cooperation is pledged between both sides on patrolling Jordan Valley and Gaza borders.
But despite near-universal agreement on these issues, peace has remained elusive. The missing element on both sides has been humility, and (ironically for two nations whose religions seek mercy and compassion) mercy and compassion.
The first thing that needs to be said by both sides at the new talks is: "I am sorry. We are sorry. Personally and collectively, we failed to stop the fighting and the hostility. We wasted the lives and energies and the futures of our peoples in a senseless struggle that could have been averted."
The second thing that needs to be said is: "Let's forgive each other. Accept my apologies and forgive me. Please. We need to forgive each other and start over."
Palestinians and Israelis who are middle-aged recall the good times. I drove with Israelis from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv freely into Jericho, Ramallah and Nablus. We parked on the street and ate hummus and pita and fried fish in the restaurants.
Palestinians drove to the beach in Haifa and shopped at the malls of Tel Aviv. It was a time of getting along, in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
It was not perfect. But life seldom is. Israelis braced for war and feared the Arabs surrounding their small state. Palestinians found jobs at good wages inside Israel and profited as Israelis frequented their car repair shops, restaurants and other businesses. But they were occupied by Israelis — people of another language, religion and culture.
Before the 1967 war, they were also occupied — the West Bank by Jordan and Gaza by Egypt. But at least they were fellow Arabs and Muslims. When I went in 1982 to El Arish, a northern Sinai city that had recently been handed back to Egypt after nearly 15 years of Israeli control, people said they regretted the loss of jobs in Israel. They said Israelis were just like other people — some good, some bad — but they liked having Egyptian police walking their streets rather than Israelis.
The two intifadas ended a period of peace. Was it for the sake of honor and independence that the organizers encouraged children to throw rocks? An 18-year-old Israeli soldier with a bruise on his forehead summed it up when I met him at a gas station in 1982 and I asked what it was like to patrol the rising intifada: "We get some and we give some," he said with a rueful smile that summed up the foolishness of the conflict.
When I drove out to Shepherdstown, W.Va. in early 2000 to cover Syrian-Israeli peace talks, I saw that foolishness once more. First off, the Syrian news reporters were allowed to talk to us, the Americans, but not to the Israeli reporters. Second, the talks crashed and burned over 30 yards bordering the Sea of Galilee that Israel refused to throw in along with the return of the Golan Heights.
As a result, everyone went home empty-handed, Syria allowed Hezbollah to step up attacks on Israeli troops in Southern Lebanon, and Mr. Barak withdrew from Lebanon. Hezbollah and its sponsor Iran trumpeted that withdrawal as a sign of Israeli weakness, sparking a wave of support for militancy that led to a second intifada and brought Hamas to power in Gaza.
A troubling report I have just received from observers who met with Hezbollah recently indicates the Lebanese Shiite group — believing it had won the 2006 war with Israel — is poised to fight a new war, using longer-range missiles it received from Iran.
Saeb Erekat, whom I met in his Jericho office as well as in Washington over the years, and Benjamin Netanyahu also know the shape of a peace agreement acceptable to the vast majority of their peoples. I only hope they have the guts to resist the extremists on both sides, and that they summon up the compassion they seek in their prayers to strike a deal that leads to permanent peace.
Ben Barber is a journalist who covered the Middle East for 30 years for many newspapers and magazines. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.