Three Stooges

Forgotten in the carnage of the current Israeli-Palestinian war is the fact that on March 27, the 22-nation Arab League unanimously endorsed the Saudi Arabian peace proposal offering Israel normalized relations with the Arab world in exchange for a Palestinian State in the West Bank and Gaza.

This was a breakthrough proposition, a proposal to trade land for peace that many in Israel have long wanted and which Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations (Egypt, Jordan and Morocco excepted) have never before offered. It's more comprehensive than the land for peace deal offered by former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and rejected by the Palestinians two years ago at Camp David. The Barak plan would have allowed Israel to maintain a military and settler presence within the Palestinian nation which is why it was rejected.

The Saudi/Arab League initiative came during a period of Palestinian suicide bombings against Israeli civilians and despite Israel's refusal to allow Yasser Arafat to attend the Arab meeting. And it was greeted by a horrendous Hamas-sponsored terrorist attack on a Passover seder within Israel's original and legitimate border. The attack was predictable. Palestinian rejectionists (like their Israeli counterparts) have consistently done everything possible to sabotage the peace process. But it was also despicable, aimed at a religious service, and guaranteed to provoke Israel to step up its military reprisals.

Virtually ignored in the mayhem that followed was the fact that the Hamas bombing was, at least symbolically, aimed at the Arab League's peace initiative as much it was at the Jews at the Passover seder. Had Sharon shown restraint and decided not to meet violence with more violence, Hamas and its rejectionist allies would have been isolated from the Arab consensus. Yes, there would have been more terrorist attacks, as there have been anyway, but the pan-Arab consensus to finally pursue the land for peace option would have been strengthened.

The Arab proposal may have been a sham, an attempt to ingratiate themselves with the US and deflate the rising tide of Arab extremism that threatens the stability of many Arab countries. But the world will never know their true intentions, because Israel rejected the proposal.

The Palestinians have rightfully been accused of undermining their potential allies in Israel, those on the left who have long advocated a two-state solution. Sharon, as he has done in the past, has replicated Palestinian folly, undermining the Arab moderates, Israel's potential partners in a "land for peace" trade-off.

Like the Palestinian suicide bombings, Sharon's onslaught in the West Bank was also predictable. Sharon has opposed every peace initiative with the Palestinians, including Camp David and Oslo. His three-stage "peace" proposal (a cease fire followed by a partial interim settlement followed by more negotiations) is truly a sham, offering the Palestinians nothing more than the humiliating status quo. Just as Yasser Arafat has paved the way for the Palestinian-hating Israeli right-wing to come to power, Ariel Sharon's one great accomplishment is the recruitment of a new generation of angry, despairing Palestinian terror bombers.

The Bush administration gave the Saudi proposal its initial endorsement and then backed away in support of Sharon's military retaliation. One reason that the Bush administration abandoned the Arab League's position is that in addition to offering a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, it united the Arab states against a US attack on Iraq. And the Bush administration wants to attack Iraq more than it wants to settle that conflict.

The Bush administration's tepid support for Palestinian statehood has always been cynically motivated by its obsession with Saddam Hussein. That's the paradox of its role in the Middle East peace process. In order to get Arab support for attacking Saddam, Bush has to show himself to be supportive of the Palestinian cause. The Arabs called Bush's bluff on this one.

The Bush administration does not like peacekeeping. A few weeks ago Bush's spokesman, Ari Fleischer, blamed President Clinton's active pursuit of a Middle East peace for the current spate of Middle East violence. He was later made to eat his words but I think they represent White House thinking.

Bush's reluctance to support the new Afghani government, which the American intervention created, is an example of this. By refusing to commit to long-term peacekeeping, the administration encourages warlordism and, hence, undermines whatever has been gained by the defeat of the Taliban. The Arab world is watching Afghanistan. No doubt they are awed by our military prowess. But I doubt they are much impressed with our commitment to peace.

What we are stuck with is three world leaders acting (with apologies to Larry, Curly and Moe) like the Three Stooges. A whack on the head provokes a poke in the eye which leads to a twist of the nose which inspires a kick in the shins and on and on. It's the Three Stooges' comedy of violent retribution transformed into murderous real-world politics and intensified a thousand times. And there'll be no stopping it until the international community steps in and breaks the lunatics apart.

The Israeli hawks and the American neo-conservatives who cheer Sharon on have always insisted that no one in the Arab world wants to recognize Israel and discuss peace. The Arab League vote shows them wrong. And the Israeli peace movement, beleaguered as it is, continues to speak out. As Barak's Justice Minister, Yossi Beilin, wrote in the New York Times (3/30/02), "The Israeli war against the terrorist infrastructure will give birth to more terrorists because the terrorist infrastructure lies within people's hearts. It can be uprooted only if there is hope for a different kind of life in the Middle East." Beilin, and Israelis like him, believe that there still is hope, but the US and the international community has to move fast and get behind the Saudi/Arab League proposal for two separate independent states.

There is no alternative to this but disaster.

Marty Jezer writes from Brattleboro, Vt., and welcomes comments at

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