THE CLASH OF ABSOLUTES

The dream of perfect peace is also the enemy of peace. The world can no longer avoid the somber insight of Isaiah Berlin, who wrote that any ideal taken to its very end brings not redemption, but pain and horror. Great conflicts, as Berlin realized, are insoluble because they involve absolutist principles and uncompromising visions. In wars of religion, no peace can be made between true faith and idolatry. In wars of ideology, no true revolutionary can compromise with false visions. And so wars continue, endlessly and insolubly. The only way to stop them is to abandon ideals -- whatever they may be -- and to make, in the here and now, pragmatic arrangements that stop the killing.

This precept holds for the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians, which has been made worse, unutterably worse, by such a dream of perfect peace. In this case, the dream took the form of one of the most glorious and creative movements of the last century: modern Zionism. A hundred years ago, some of the most vital elements in the Jewish community all over the world attempted to join the modern world by rejecting the passivity of their ancient messianic religion. They embraced modern nationalism with great enthusiasm and entered the lists of modern politics in order to establish a "normal" nation in the ancient homeland of the Jews, a goal that would free their people from confined existence in ghettos. The Zionists thought that Jews would achieve a kind of redemption by ceasing to be different from and persecuted by the nations of the world. Somehow, they thought, the inevitable discomforts and conflicts with the Arabs would be resolved. The Jews would find peace and acceptance in the land where their ancestors had once fashioned their religion and culture. But it was not to be. Instead, from its very beginning to this very day, Zionism has confronted a century of war.

The Palestinians have no corresponding messianic vision, no contemporary secular dream of a resurgent Islamic society. They simply want to be left alone in the land they believe was taken from them in wars of conquest. The results of these conquests can never be accepted by the Palestinians. Neither the Christian crusaders nine centuries ago nor the Jews in this century ever acquired title to the land. No international decision made at Versailles or by the United Nations can change the minds of those who belong, religiously, culturally, and historically, to the world on which Islam set its fundamental stamp. Palestine is irrevocably a part of the realm of the believers, especially since Jerusalem is the home of the third holiest shrine in Islam: the mountain from which the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.

The claim of the Jews on the land of Palestine is more complex but equally non-negotiable. The religious believe that God once promised the land to the children of Abraham. The nationalists believe that the Jewish people will be endangered unless their base is re-established in their ancient homeland. Thus neither group can ever grant the ultimate Palestinian demand that the Jews cease their aggression and go elsewhere. Modern Zionism began with the vision of a "normalized" Jewish people, a nation among nations that would be part of the world as of right. The most important Jewish demand is therefore that at the end of the peace process, the Arabs agree that the Jews' existence in the region is permanent and can never again be questioned. Without such a pledge, the vision of the Zionist enterprise -- that modern Israel be established as a legitimate member of the family of nations -- will remain unrealized.

return and revenge

For years, Yasir Arafat, chairman of the Palestinian Authority, has spoken the language of peace and compromise in his declarations in Western languages, while saying in Arabic that Jerusalem is totally inalienable and that not one acre of Palestine rightfully belongs to the Jews. Jewish hard-liners have seized on these statements to prove that Arafat does not want peace and never intended to negotiate an end to the conflict. Jewish moderates have countered that these statements in Arabic are merely intended to temporarily satisfy Arafat's own constituency and that despite them, he is negotiating peace in good faith.

Both assessments of Arafat's policies are wrong, but not for the reasons that are sometimes given: namely, that he is either a man of peace who cannot deliver it, or an unregenerate man of war who occasionally hides behind the rhetoric of peace. In fact, Arafat wants neither peace nor war, nor even a permanent peace process. All that he, or any successor, can deliver are de facto arrangements that tamp down the conflict but leave the ultimate ideological issues unsolved. This is because no Palestinian political leader can possibly declare that the Jews have a right to settle permanently in Palestine as its newest conquerors. This would fly in the face of the Koran and the various forms of Arab nationalism that are its heirs. Such thinking should not be hard to comprehend. Indeed, after the Roman conquest of Judea and the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70, rabbinic law refused to acknowledge the Romans' legal title to the land. The land of the Jews remained in the hands of the Jews, at least theoretically, and the Romans and all others who came after them had no claim to sovereignty. Why should Islam and its successors be any less tough-minded about their own claims?

The vehemence of the Palestinian position has never really been faced by the Israelis and their supporters throughout the world. Zionists, both in Israel and abroad, are essentially Westerners who believe that problems have rational solutions and that age-old religious or nationalist quarrels can ultimately be solved by compromise. To think otherwise is to take a tragic view of politics. But the whole point of the Zionist enterprise is to end the tragedy of Jewish existence as a persecuted minority in the Diaspora, and to win acceptance for the Jews.

The Zionists want to remake the Jewish people as a "normal" entity. Israel has recognized that this change is not happening quickly. But until recently, Israel firmly believed that the day would come when a global settlement of the conflict would be negotiated. Although Arab refugees from Palestine have not found new homes in the Arab countries to which they fled, Israelis believed that some resettlement and much compensation would resolve the question. In August 2000, at Camp David, Prime Minister Ehud Barak was bold enough to try to lead Israel into a settlement in which he gave away much of the Old City of Jerusalem itself to Palestinian control. Barak could not believe that the Palestinians would reject what was clearly the most generous settlement that any Israeli prime minister could ever offer them.

Had the Palestinians accepted the deal, their agreement would have allowed Barak to vanquish his domestic enemies by waving before them an unimaginable victory: an Israel finally at home in the Arab world. But it did not happen. Would it have happened if Israel had better treated the Arab populations in its pre-1967 borders? No, for Arafat could not deliver permanent peace to the four million refugees outside Israel's borders. These refugees have sustained themselves during a half-century of misery on the dream of return and revenge. This dream Arafat dared not take away from them. Thus, the most that Israel was able to offer the Palestinians was not enough to make permanent peace.

The result of this failure within Israel and the Jewish world was simple and dramatic. It seemed to confirm the view of hard-liners within the Jewish community who have long said that peace is not possible, and that the only response to Arab riots and guerrilla warfare is to intensify the military struggle. Meanwhile, the moderates, the "peace party" among the Jews, were plunged into deep trouble. They always believed that a generous offer from the Israeli side would bring permanent peace. But Barak's offer did not. Now some of the members of the peace camp profess bitter disappointment in their Arab comrades. Others, however, still believe that mutual acceptance is possible. They must believe it -- for the very essence of the Zionist dream is crumbling before them.

Israel now faces many of the same difficulties as did the Diaspora for many centuries. The Zionist state will have to live with uncertainty, insecurity, and the remaking of its safety year by year, perhaps even day by day. Of course, such instability is not Israel's lot alone. Many other states and nations live in lasting discomfort and even danger. The difference is that Zionism did not ask those who took up its cause to live with uncertainty. It promised them just the opposite. Thus the chaos today seems to give the lie to the pledge made by the Balfour Declaration in November 1917, when the Jews were told that they could look forward to the happiness and stability of a national home of their own.

MUDDLING THROUGH

Is there any hope for the future? Yes, but only if all sides abandon messianic dreams and remember Isaiah Berlin's message that we cannot resolve great ideological problems. We can only make pragmatic arrangements that bring some calm to the world.

What would be the outlines of such a pragmatic arrangement in the Middle East? At the very core of the lasting quarrel between Israel and the Palestinians -- and the Arab world as a whole -- is the question of what is to be done for the Palestinian refugees. Indeed, the central goal of Israeli diplomacy since 1948 has been to find a way to convince the Arabs to take the refugees off Israeli hands. The time is overdue for all parties concerned -- Israelis, Arabs, and the powers of the world, led by the United States -- to stop talking about grand solutions. It would be more than enough, now, to simply make life better for some of the Palestinians who have lived in camps for half a century. An international effort should be made to offer them technical education in such popular fields as electronics, where the skills learned are immediately useable all over the world. Such education should be given on the broadest basis to young people in the refugee camps, especially in the West Bank and Gaza. It would offer hope to people who have long sat, trapped in anger.

Such an educational program would be seen by some as an attempt to weaken Palestinian nationalism, by offering young people the promise of careers outside the camps. But it will give younger Palestinians, and their families, a realistic choice between throwing rocks or shooting at Israeli patrols, and training for a productive life. Those who accept such training may insist that they will never forget the homes that their grandparents once occupied in Jaffa, even if their careers take them to Silicon Valley. The opportunity should still be offered to them, without demanding as a precondition the end of their attachment to their nationalist dream.

On the extremely difficult question of Jerusalem, a very simple suggestion is that nothing be done. The arrangement that Defense Minister Moshe Dayan worked out after the Six-Day War in 1967 for the care and management of that most sacred and most fought-over place -- the Temple Mount, which the Muslims call Haram al-Sharif -- has held up. Why should the dreamers of the dream of ultimate peace now want to change it? The very worst way to solve the problem would be an international commission of the major religions of the world, or a U.N. body. Both such formulas would produce conflict, because all sides involved would have their own agendas. If there must be some international oversight, let the least partisan and self-interested groups be the referees between Israelis and Palestinians. It would be much better, however, for Jews and Arabs to keep muddling along on their own.

Barak's proposal, that control of much of the Old City be given to the Palestinians in return for their agreement to final peace, was greeted with disdain on both sides. The Arab world found the offer to be too little. Arabs regard the whole of al-Quds, the holy city at the center of Jerusalem, to be non-negotiable. On the other side, Jews, from the right to very nearly the extreme left, made it clear that they would reject any proposal that surrendered the Old City to Arab rule. Both sides prefer war to even the most generous proposal for peace that might be advanced by the other. Would it be horrible, then, if Jews and Arabs simply agreed to live with the current arrangement in Jerusalem, which, although unsatisfactory, they have tolerated since 1967, rather than attempt to move toward a glorious new future, when such movement will clearly bring untrammeled war?

Let everyone -- Jews, Arabs, and international leaders -- face reality: the 1967 arrangement, for Arabs to administer the shrines on the Temple Mount and for Jews to exercise police power in Jerusalem as a whole, has worked far better than any of the alternatives that keep being proposed. Think of how many people will remain alive if the sensible choice is made to continue with the inglorious muddle that now exists.

The other major problem in peacemaking is what to do with the Jewish settlements on the West Bank, in the territory that Israel conquered from Jordan in the Six-Day War. It is tempting to say that here, too, the combatants should desist from making any changes and somehow muddle through. But such a suggestion will not work. Whenever the Israeli hard-liners are given the slightest leeway, they establish new settlements, sometimes in the guise of beefing up older communities, sometimes for some other reason, such as contributing to Israel's security by protecting lines of communication. Among the Palestinians, the anger at the loss of more and more of the West Bank into the hands of Israeli settlers, and the loss of more and more water into the swimming pools and gardens of beautiful model suburbs, has passed the explosion point. Making a pragmatic peace now between the two sides will require an agreement that this creeping annexation must end. Otherwise, the riots and guerilla warfare will continue. Such an arrangement need not foreshadow the dismantling of all Jewish settlements. But it must end the argument that Israel's security requires more and more strongholds on the West Bank.

No one except Jewish nationalist ideologues really believes that the whole West Bank venture is about Israel's security. Likud Prime Minister Menachem Begin made it very clear in 1977, when he first came to power, that the purpose of putting Jews on the West Bank was not to make Israel more defensible. Begin said, without hesitation, that he had been elected prime minister of Israel in order to carry out an ideological policy: that the land of Israel, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River, was inalienably Jewish. He would defend that policy even if the actions it required sometimes seemed to compromise Israel's security. Even Israel's general staff recognized that although maintaining some strong points on the hills would be useful to Israel's defense, the military effort needed to protect a large number of settlers on the West Bank would be greater than would be their contribution to Israel's safety.

On this issue, the time has come for Israel to make a clear-cut and pragmatic choice in its own interest. Although the upcoming election may further limit Israel's flexibility, it must abandon the idea that a settlement or two in the Gaza Strip, in the very midst of hundreds of thousands of angry Palestinians, is a boon for its security. Israel must make a distinction between settlements on the outskirts of Jerusalem and other Israeli population centers, and those isolated settlements that were scattered about in order to divide up the land of the West Bank and prevent the formation of a cohesive Palestinian territory. Such a decision may not inspire Arabs to see the dawn of peace, but it will give them less Israeli traffic on their roads to shoot at. Fewer Palestinians and Israelis will die.

ON THEIR OWN

The suggestions made above may seem strange, because they will not require major American diplomacy to effect or American money to fund. Superior education for Palestinian refugees will certainly cost some millions of dollars, but this is not beyond the resources of foundations interested in the Middle East, or of European governments eager to show what they can achieve on their own. Meanwhile, packing up some of the most provocative of the settlements will cost Israel less money than it has spent to maintain them. Even if Israel decides to pay to return the settlers to homes inside the country and to compensate them for their losses, these sums will not add up to billions. And the payoff will be high: a radical and welcome change in the nature of this deep-seated conflict. Israelis and Palestinians will be forced to work things out on their own, unable to nurture the hope of a grandiose peace requiring such deep concessions on either side that only the Americans have the resources to pay for it.

Perhaps the best way that the United States can contribute to peace between Jews and Arabs is to de-emphasize the conflict. At the very least, Washington should dispel the impression that it will offer grand prizes for those who help realize its vision of a fundamental peace settlement, announced with drama and fanfare on the lawn of the White House. The way to make peace is for Israeli settlements and Arab villages to work out between them, on their dusty streets, an end to the shooting.

The more grandiose a solution to the conflict, the more likely that it will require massive U.S. involvement, with Americans monitoring the arrangements and safeguarding the newly defined borders. The great virtue of the more modest deals proposed here is that they will not require large third-party involvement. If peace is ever to come to this region, Israelis and Palestinians must decide to relieve themselves of the burdens they have borne, with great discomfort, for quite a while. Temporary arrangements and compromises may seem to chart a long and plodding road toward peace. But they are likely to achieve their goal faster than the interminable peace process followed thus far, during which young diplomats have grown old and gray.

De-emphasizing the grandiose expectations of the American leadership has become even more plausible in these days of uncertainty that have succeeded the U.S. presidential election. Neither party now has a decisive mandate in the White House or Congress. The United States is in no position to define a bold plan or to insist that the protagonists in the Middle East conflict follow an American lead. The stars have conspired to produce an occasion for caution, both in the region and on the international scene. We should therefore move forward in pragmatic steps. The power for miraculous solutions is not in our hands.

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  • Arthur Hertzberg is Bronfman Visiting Professor of the Humanities at New York University and the author of many books, including The Zionist Idea. He is currently working on a memoir to be published in 2002.
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