To the Editor:

Compared to most efforts, "The Last Negotiation" by Hussein Agha and Robert Malley (May/June 2002) is a model of clarity, intelligence, and even-handedness. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become so complex and loaded with history that the authors should be commended for outlining the principal claims and arguments of both sides and offering a way out of an otherwise intractable situation. They oppose pursuing further interim agreements insofar as these are more likely to reinforce suspicions and further underwrite the game of claims and counterclaims. So great is the mutual mistrust by both parties that only a politics of intervention by outside powers can guarantee the security of the region.

But is the authors' solution likely to work any better than the one they reject? Three principal questions might be raised in this regard.

First is the problem of how and where to draw a line of parity. There is no common standard of equity. Ironically, democracy becomes part of the problem when party politics in both Israel and the United States come under pressure from the right and undermine any solution broadly acceptable to the protagonists.

Second, the present situation is not so much a war between combatants as a conflict similar to other guerrilla campaigns such as those of the Algerians against the French, the Jews in Mandate Palestine, the Mau Mau rebels in Kenya, or the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland. All these follow roughly familiar lines of nationalism versus colonialism. In such cases, police, army regulars, and conscripts are pitted against underground and terrorist movements and find themselves at a disadvantage. The usual response is to rely on brutal countermeasures, ever more vengeful reprisals, and torture. But rarely are such measures effective in ending violence or isolating those who orchestrate it from their support networks. More often, military campaigns bog down while violence simply becomes a way of life.

In that case, violence creates its own objects. Indeed, the longer it continues, the more violence converts clandestine networks into a form of social life. Moreover, when "normal" activities are restructured around violent actions and episodes, the enemy becomes more sharply defined. Hatred becomes the all-consuming center of life. Indeed, violence is in these terms addictive and offers special roles for its adherents: the young to sacrifice and kill; their parents to provide moral support; the leaders in clandestine undergrounds to plan, mobilize, and supply weapons; the old to roll bandages or serve in medical posts or food supply chains; and so on. Resistance, then, redefines obligations. Even in male-dominated "honor and shame" societies, violence changes the relationships between men and women. Above all it exempts participants from conventional moral principles. Such circumstances defy the conventional land-for-peace bargaining rationality. In short, within the madness of the general conflict, a different rationality forms that marches to its own drum.

As the above examples suggest, the longer the conflict rages, the more of a quagmire it will become for the Israeli military. Insofar as it is their long-term strategy to undermine the legitimacy of the Israeli state, the Palestinians have succeeded to a remarkable extent. Time does not appear to be on the Israeli side, so what is the incentive for the Palestinians to go to the bargaining table? And what is the Israeli solution -- to condemn Palestinians to a fate equivalent to that of historical Judaism, making them permanently stateless persons?

This is the basic paradox that Agha and Malley need to confront. The Palestinians may well be persuaded to agree to a cease-fire and accept a U.S. or UN presence on the ground, but only if they believe it will not prejudice their long-term strategy: the eventual elimination of Israel. In that case, how willing will the United States be to guarantee the existence of Israel, and for how long? Without an answer, the last negotiation may itself be as illusory as any other alternative.

David E. Apter

Henry J. Heinz II Professor of Comparative Political and Social Development, Yale University