Arie Arnon: Where are the brave leaders to get us out of this mess?

'I worry that what is waiting for us is even worse than what we have experienced so far'
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After 30 years in the peace movement in Israel, I've seen movements in morale go up and down, but never have I seen such a fall as we have experienced over the past 14 months, when the latest intifada began. If we think back to the attempts made at the end of the Clinton administration – both at Camp David in July of last year and at Taba in January of this year – it is remarkable to realise how close the two sides were to reaching an agreement. Neither side would have got all it wanted, but polls at the time showed the majority of ordinary people were willing to accept the painful compromises that would have been necessary.

Unfortunately, those who were unwilling to give up their long cherished desires were able to scupper the agreements. The Palestinians found it difficult to accept that only a small minority of the 1948 refugees would be able to return to their homes in Israel, and the right-wing parties in Israel were not willing to abandon their colonising projects in the West Bank and Gaza. The result was the rise of a popular view on both sides: that there was no partner for peace on the other. That realisation was followed by the intifada, the election of Arial Sharon and the ever-escalating violence.

Now we have reached a point where the masses on both sides have also taken up the more radical positions, and the hawks have the upper hand. In fact, the hawks, or what may be called the "rejectionists" (of the Oslo peace process), on both sides are in a strange way co-operating. Arial Sharon, and the right-wing parties that put pressure on his government, would like to turn the clock back 10 years. They have no wish to share the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea with a Palestinian state. They want to control the whole area. Some of them dream, and some believe, that the Palestinians will eventually leave. Others think they will be satisfied with limited local rights, rather than full citizenship. How all this will work out, they leave as a problem for the future. Equally, the Palestinian rejectionists, be they religious or secular, do not wish the state of Israel to remain on what they think of as Arab land. They do not wish to share Jerusalem, accept a limited right of return for the refugees or live in a small (secular) state run by the Palestinian Authority.

Neither of these matching sets of rejectionists has any rational vision of the future. Fundamentalists don't think about foreign investment, international opinion or democratic rights. The fact that the Palestinian economy is suffering terribly and the Israeli one heading into recession does not motivate them towards ending their incompatible demands.

Now, following the suicide bombs of the weekend, the Sharon government is taking the opportunity to implement a very tough policy in the West Bank and Gaza that will lead to yet further escalation of violence. For a long time, the extreme right wing in Israel has wished to dismantle the Palestinian authority and dissolve any distinctions between it and the rejectionists. With its statement that the "Palestinian Authority is an organisation supporting terrorists", that is what the Israeli government has now done.

But it won't serve what should be the aim of government policy: to control the terrorists. In fact, these actions will make it harder for the Palestinian Authority to implement a ceasefire in its area. It may be true that Arafat did little to stop the inifada over most of the last year, but since 11 September, important parts of the Palestinian Authority and the movements that support it really wanted to stop the cycle of violence and move to political negotiations. But it almost seems as if the Israeli government does not wish the Palestinian Authority to take control of the elements who seek to kill Israeli citizens.

The only way out of all this escalating bitterness and violence is a return to the negotiations that are now so out of favour. But that time must return. The current round of violence will eventually leave everyone exhausted and searching for a way out. After all, even bitterer conflicts have been resolved in the end. That is small comfort, but it is the only one available.

Even laying out rationalist solutions is depressing these days, but it must still be done. The best option remains to go back to the negotiating table, but how to stop the violence first is, of course, the big question. It can only be done by the international community inviting both sides to a conference.

But when you think of the fact that Arial Sharon would have to turn himself around by 180 degrees to sign the sort of deal that was on offer at Taba, or that the Israelis would have to trust Yassir Arafat to carry out the agreement that he had not accepted before, you realise how difficult it will be for a new agreement to be struck.

For now, I worry that what is waiting for us is even worse than what we have experienced so far. And, unfortunately, I do not see a brave, creative leadership emerging from either side that could get us out of this mess.

arnona@bgumail.bgu.ac.il

The writer is a leader of Peace Now and a professor of economics at Ben Gurion University, Israel

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