After 100 years of sustained Arab Israeli conflict, and over fifty years of personal involvement in promoting peace and reconciliation, with no imminent peace agreement, one is likely to become pessimistic about the peace prospects. I have witnessed violence in Palestine as far back as the 1930s and the 1940s. I was there when the United Nations 1947 Partition Plan was rejected by the Arabs and accepted by the Jews. I was there when Israel was born and the Palestinian refugee problem was created. I have persisted in studying the problem, explaining the issues, and proposing solutions. I have lectured, published books and papers, and collaborated with like-minded peace promoters, Arabs and Jews, always hoping that I could make a difference. Many others outside government have done the same, probably with more dedication than mine. Yet, the results have often been depressing as far as the establishment of peace is concerned.
The costs and the benefits of the conflict have been large, but differentially distributed. The Palestinians have suffered a catastrophe or what they call Nakba. They lost thousands of lives, tens of thousands have been injured, maimed, or jailed, while hundreds of thousands have been dislocated and made into refugees. The Arab states suffered defeat in war, and humiliation through occupation of their land by Israel. In contrast, Israel did suffer the loss of life and injury, but it gained independence and sovereignty, and acquired more territory than allocated to it by the United Nations. In the meantime Israel has become a military power and a first class nation in science and technology. Even so, both Arabs and Israelis still seem unconvinced that it is time to compromise enough to make peace. In the meantime several of my co-promoters of peace have passed away with unfulfilled dreams of peace and tranquility in the Middle East region. The fight between Palestinians and Israelis has become especially cruel and ugly, with suicide bombing by Palestinians and targeted assassinations by the Israeli military. Many observers have argued that peace between these two people is impossible because their demands and counter demands are irreconcilable. They say the Palestinians are too weak to fight, too proud to compromise, and they have lost so much they have no room left for compromise. Israel, on the other hand, is too strong and greedy to want to compromise.
I do not share this assessment. In fact I see many signs that a breakthrough is not only possible, but also highly probable in the near future. For example, the Palestinians and Israelis have recognized each other’s legitimate right to exist as independent and secure states, each in a part of the contested land. In 1988 the Palestinians recognized the right of Israel to exist in peace and thus paved the way for Israel to look more positively on the Palestinians’ political and territorial claims and meet them in negotiating a settlement. They went to Madrid and Oslo, to Camp David and Aqaba, and back to Camp David and Washington D.C. Arafat and Rabin shook hands there and signed a Declaration of Principles agreement, with President Clinton playing host, broker, witness, and champion of peace between them. The Palestinian leadership came back from the Diaspora to form the Palestine National Authority and create the semblance of a Palestinian government in the land they considered their own. The road was not smooth. It was full of potholes and obstacles to peace. Distrust and intransigence prevailed and the negotiations fell through, but the forces of peace have remained alert and persistent.
It is true that failure of the negotiations has provoked a violent Intifada (uprising) by the Palestinians, which has been costly to both Palestinians and Israelis. The loss of life and property has been augmented by economic hardship for the Palestinians and use of excessive force by the Israelis. Even so the peace promoters were able to come up with positive proposals for peace. The Quartet, (the United States, the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations) proposed a Road Map to peace. To the surprise of many, both Arabs and Israelis accepted the Road Map, though Israel had some reservations regarding details. Unfortunately both parties dragged their feet on fulfilling their obligations, thus making implementation of the Road Map a casualty of their ambivalence, but the Road Map is still on the table and both parties say there are committed to it.As a peace agreement seemed to be beyond reach, Ariel Sharon declared his intention to take unilateral action in the direction of peace. He unilaterally disengaged the Israeli military from Gaza and evacuated Jewish settlements from Gaza and parts of the West Bank.
The disengagement from Gaza has been far short of Palestinian expectations, but it did remove the Israeli troops and give the people internal freedom and "autonomy". The exaggerated celebrations by the Palestinians were a good indication of their hope and willingness to cooperate with Israel for more steps in that direction. Most Palestinians remained skeptical of Sharon’s intentions, especially as he continued to build the Wall, which the Israelis call the Fence, to separate Israel from the West Bank. The Wall has inflicted hardship on the Arab population in the occupied West Bank, but even so it indicates that Israel concedes that the land beyond the Wall belongs to the Palestinians. Furthermore, by evacuating the Jewish settlements Israel acknowledged that "facts on the ground" such as the settlements and the Wall, are removable. Because of his policies Ariel Sharon faced trouble within his coalition, especially from his party, Likud. Rather than retreat, he surprised everybody by quitting the Likud party and forming a new party, Kadima (Forward), with a platform of peace. He even managed to attract leaders from Likud, Mapai (Labor), and other parties to join his new party and support his platform. Though it is premature to assess the strength of the party and whether Sharon can deliver on his peace promises, his influence cannot be ignored as a positive sign.
Sharon is not alone in Israel seeking peace with the Palestinians. While he was creating an earthquake in his Likud party, Amir Peretz was causing an eruption in Mapai, his party. He replaced Shimon Peres as Chairman, declared his commitment to peace, and put more focus on socio-economic conditions in the country. All of these changes in Israeli politics tend to favor peace with the Palestinians. However, peace agreements require both sides of the conflict to cooperate. Interestingly enough, radical changes seem on the horizon in Palestinian politics as well. New leaders are challenging the status quo organization, intellectuals and technocrats are raising questions and forming new parties, all of which suggests that the Palestinians are also beginning to face reality. They seem to recognize that corruption must be ended, self-reliance must be encouraged, and peace with Israel is indispensable for independence, reconstruction, and rehabilitation of their economy and society. Furthermore, they seem to be approaching change by democratic means, including elections, which is another positive sign in favor of peace.
Last but not least, I think of the positive, though invisible, influence of the non-governmental promoters of peace. Their role is invaluable as educators for peace and co-existence, and as sources of ideas and strategies for peace making. Academicians, freelancers, and non-partisan experts are essential for educating policy makers, leaders, and the public on the horrors of war and the inevitability of peace. This is the mission I have adopted about half a century ago, and it is still the mission I work for, always hoping that the parties to the conflict will soon march, side by side with their neighbors, on the road to security, peace, and stability in their own countries, and in the Middle East region at large.
* Professor emeritus of economics, University of California, Davis, CA.