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Breaking out of the futile, deadly dance

How one views the seemingly insoluble conflict between Israelis and Palestinians depends to a great extent on where one drops in on history.

In the case of the Middle East, is it the latest suicide bomber, the indiscriminate killer of unsuspecting innocents, who finally tilts the scales of justice and public opinion toward Israel? Or is the latest invasion of Palestinian land by Israeli troops and tanks, the latest Israeli shooting of a rock-throwing schoolboy that brings an exasperated understanding of Palestinian frustration and rage?

Pope John Paul II condemned the violence of both types of “extremism,” but that characterization brought a sharp rebuke from the Israeli ambassador to the Holy See, who was offended that someone would “equate Palestinian extremism and fanaticism with the use of force by Israel to defend itself.”

And on it goes, in a seemingly endless cycle of violence, accusations and retaliations. PLO leader Yasser Arafat inexplicably walks away from a settlement offer last summer and sets the stage for Ariel Sharon, who delivers on every expectation that he will be a provocative, unyielding hardliner. The two are engaged in a futile, deadly dance.

It is beyond question that any solution will have to involve the traditional apparatus of international negotiations -- including not only the United States but also the force of opinion from the European Union, as well as Jordan and Egypt.

Another given is the fact that any long-term peace initiative will have to involve the use by the United States of the leverage that comes with years of lavishing military and economic aid on Israel. U.S. loyalty to Israel and its survival should, at this point, be beyond question. At the same time, the proof of loyalty should not be a blind, unquestioning indulgence of aggressive military policies and continuing settlements in violation of earlier agreements.

Whether or when any of that can happen is, of course, unknown. So it is encouraging that individuals such as Bruno Hussar and Dalia Landau and their respective projects, Oasis of Peace and Open House, have been willing to buck the tides in Israel.

While the world waits for another dramatic moment -- another handshake, perhaps, in the Rose Garden -- as evidence that peace may have a chance, on-the-ground efforts already displaying tolerance and reconciliation are the best hope for the long haul.

The stories of Hussar, Landau and others, including the tale told by Neve Gordon, a regular contributor to this paper (see Page 14), demonstrate that a wider range of opinions exists in Israel over difficult issues than we might be led to believe by U.S. media coverage of the region.

In comments reported just before press time, Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah said, in answer to a question about suicide bombers, “God is a God of love. He is not a God who tells you to kill your brother, whether your brother is Israeli or Palestinian. When you kill in the name of God, you’re killing the name of your self.”

On the other hand, he called Israeli military tactics a continuing “injustice” that includes occupation of Palestinian land, “humiliation of the people, their massacre” and “deprivation of liberty that God gave them.”

The efforts noted above, those in which Palestinians and Jews have joined together, give recognition to Sabbah’s last point. In almost every instance, it is the Jewish participants who have the farthest to travel to meet Palestinian brothers and sisters in a show of concern for justice. The Jews involved approach those programs from a position of advantage. The Jewish state, after all, has a clear economic and military advantage, and Jews working for reconciliation must make difficult and deliberate choices to arrive at an equal footing with their Palestinian counterparts. The Palestinians in these organizations, in turn, have returned the trust. Both sides, in a sense, have had to step out of the stream of inevitable conflict and decide to create a new tributary of history.

Not a bad model. If only they could get their leaders’ attention.

National Catholic Reporter, December 28, 2001