The chance for peace is such a fleeting thing. Blink and you miss it. Open your eyes again and the guys with the biggest guns have shot peace down. I left home on Saturday with good reason to think that peace was coming to the Middle East. When I got back and read the news just two days later, it might all just as well have been a dream.

But it wasn’t a dream. For one day, the chances for peace in Iraq and in Israel-Palestine had been absolutely real and near at hand.

First Iraq: On June 24 The Times of London published the details of a peace plan hammered out in months of negotiations by a wide range of competing factions, including a number of so-called “insurgent” groups. U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad was reportedly in the thick of the process. The plan called for a timetable for U.S. withdrawal and amnesty for “insurgents” who had killed U.S. or Iraqi military forces, not civilians. As one U.S. official told The Times, whenever a war ends through negotiation, it includes a troop withdrawal and an amnesty like this. The only alternative is to fight on until one side achieves absolute victory, which seems impossible in Iraq.

But would Khalilzad, a card-carrying neocon, sign on to this peace plan just days after Republicans in Congress had insisted there would never be a timetable for U.S. withdrawal? It sounded fishy to me; too good to be true. And it was.

When I got home again on June 26 The Times headline read: “Shias cut back olive branch for insurgents.” The plan that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki presented to Iraq’s parliament on June 25 “was a watered down version of the document shown to The Times on Thursday,” the article explained.

“Noticeably missing from the final draft was a call for the Government to recognize the difference between resistance and terrorist groups and a written invitation for resistance groups to join a national dialogue. … The published plan also removed a demand for the Government to agree upon a timeline for the withdrawal of foreign forces based on the readiness of Iraqi troops. It dropped a pledge to revisit the constitution and cut a clause on reinstating employees who had jobs in ministries that had been dissolved under the US-occupation. … Zalmay Khalilzad, the American envoy to Iraq, called the plan a good step ‘to mend Iraq’s wounds.’”

But this bait-and-switch plan can’t possibly mend any wounds. It will only inflame them, because it is (as an L.A. Times headline said) a “Divisive Plan to Unify Iraq.” Some Sunnis are justifiably furious because they’ve been swindled. Others apparently see the deal as the best they can get. And Juan Cole suggests that it’s an effort to rehabilitate former Ba’athists, driving a wedge between these secularists and more religious Sunnis. So Shia politicians, shepherded as always by the U.S. embassy, are trying to split the Sunni political scene. Yet Shias, too, are divided. Some think that even the watered-down plan gives the Sunnis far too much. Others would have supported the original, more generous plan.

The only thing that’s certain is the role of the U.S. in all this: manipulating Iraqi politics for it own ends, stirring up the stewpot that has long since passed the boiling point and making the lethal mess even worse. Some Iraqi leaders have been sounding awfully uppity lately, talking about U.S. troop withdrawal and getting friendly with Iran. The last thing the Bush administration wants is an Iraqi government that can really unify the nation and act independently. Khalilzad surely knew what his bait-and-switch plan would accomplish.

Meanwhile, the administration can proclaim that al-Maliki and Khalilzad have offered a fine peace plan, which was cruelly rejected by “the insurgents.” That might mollify some among the U.S. foreign policy elite who really want to get American troops out of Iraq soon. And it will surely make great fodder for Republican candidates on the campaign trail: “We tried our best to make peace. But the enemy understands only one thing: massive force. That’s why we must stay the course … blah, blah, blah.”

If the Bushies weren’t smart enough to figure out this trick on their own, they could have learned it from the government of Israel. The Israelis too, have a chance for peace in their hand. But they are poised to squeeze their iron fist and destroy it.

The two major Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, have finally signed an agreement creating a unified stand. Together they are offering Israel a long-term truce and peace plan as a basis for negotiations. As I’ve reported here before, the Israeli government is desperate to avoid such an outcome. It’s killed a number of civilians this month in its violent drive to provoke Hamas counter violence and drive a wedge between the Palestinian groups.

Nevertheless, the Hamas moderates have withstood the pressure from their own extremists, egged on by Israel, and managed to seal a deal with Fatah. The Hamas negotiators insisted on wording that is purposely vague, so that they’ll have a chance to bring some of their more extreme members inside this big tent. But there’s no doubt that, as a headline in Ha’aretz announced, it’s “a plan that implicitly recognizes Israel.”

The Israelis have been saying for decades that this is what they want most. Now that they finally have it, they’ll surely show that world that it’s really what they want least — because it pressures them to negotiate an end to their occupation of the West Bank. They won’t just sit back and let it happen.

Fortunately for the Israelis, a Palestinian group (reportedly involving some Hamas members) attacked an Israeli military outpost, killing two Israeli soldiers and capturing a third. These Palestinians want to scuttle the emerging peace plan as much as the Israelis do. Now Hamas politicans, from Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh on down, are busy trying to get the captured Israeli released and get the peace process back on track. Another Ha’aretz headline summed it plainly: “Split deepens between Hamas’ political, military wings.”

If Israeli leaders really wanted peace, they would explain all this to the world and say: “We are glad that the Hamas political moderates have united with Fatah. We are ready to negotiate on whatever plan the Palestinian government comes up with.” Polls show that 90% of Palestinians will support that plan, calling for two states living peacefully side by side, as long as Israel shows a real desire for peace.

Since the Israeli leaders don’t want peace, they are blaming all of Hamas for the attack. Though it was an act of war — the kind of thing U.S. soldiers in Iraq do every day — the Israelis spin it as a moral outrage that licenses them to respond with massive violence against the entire Palestinian government. That will make the Israeli government a partner with the anti-peace Palestinians in dooming the hopes for peace, as they well know.

After all, that’s the whole point. Just as the peace plan engineered by the U.S. ambassador in Iraq may very well be intended to doom hopes for peace there.

The guys with the biggest guns have good reason to shoot down the fleeting dove of peace. They built those biggest guns to prove to the world — and mostly, I suspect, to themselves — just how tough they really are. And they feel driven to keep on proving it. So they need an enemy they can shoot at. If they can make it look like they’ve given peace a chance, they get a fig leaf of moral justification to cover their immoral asses and keep the war going.

-Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of "American Nonviolence: The History of an Idea." Email to:

© 2006