These past few weeks have been some of the bloodiest in the Middle East since the eruption of violence that followed Ariel Sharon’s visit to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount in September 2000. Palestinian snipers and suicide bombers have been murdering Israeli citizens, not only in the Occupied Territories but also in Israel proper, with a degree of success unmatched in the decades-long history of this conflict.
Meanwhile, Israel has increased its employment of jet fighters and tanks to terrorize lightly armed Palestinian refugee camps, killing dozens of noncombatants, many among them women, children and the elderly. All the while, the rhetoric emanating from the political leadership on both sides of this conflict makes a mockery of the memory of the hundreds of victims of this new round of violence during the past 18 months.
“If the Palestinians are not being beaten, there will be no negotiations,” Ariel Sharon was reported in The New York Times as saying. “The aim is to increase the number of losses on the other side. Only after they’ve been battered will we be able to conduct talks.”
Israel has been beating and battering the Palestinians steadily for the past year and a half, and the only consequence has been to embolden Palestinians to conduct ever more brazen attacks on Israelis.
Paradoxically, however, these past few weeks also have provided possibly the most encouraging development to emerge from Middle Eastern affairs since the Camp David Agreement. In response to some prodding from Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman, Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah proposed the ultimate agreement: Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza to 1967 borders in return for full normalized relations with effectively all of the Arab world.
If the Saudis are serious –and there is increasing evidence that they are — and if they have the support of other influential Arab nations still technically at war with Israel — which also seems to be happening, as government sources in Damascus proclaimed that the Syrian and Saudi positions were virtually identical — then it is incumbent upon the international community, and specifically the United States, to promote this proposal actively and energetically.
At the moment, the biggest obstacle to the proposal’s success is the part of the Israeli electorate that voted Ariel Sharon into office. Just as there is a portion of the Arab world that will never accept Israel’s existence even in pre-1967 borders, there is a portion of the Israeli population that will never support an Israeli pullback and the establishment of sovereign Palestine in effectively all of the West Bank and Gaza.
This small but vocal minority has managed to hijack the Israeli position vis-a-vis the Palestinians. A serious promotion of the Saudi peace proposal can move that community back to the fringe, where it belongs, but only if the Israeli electorate can be convinced by the United States and by the countries of the Arab League that, in return for abandoning valuable and precious — albeit illegally settled — occupied territory, it will be able to live in a safe Israel, with the ability to travel to and do business with Arab states from Syria to Saudi Arabia. Faced with strong Israeli public support for the peace plan, Sharon will be forced to seriously consider it as well.
I don’t know much about public opinion polling, but I am confident that Israelis, and not just dovish Israelis, can be persuaded that the Saudi formula for peace is a good one. I was living in Tel Aviv during the last Israeli elections for prime minister. The morning after Sharon’s victory over the center-left Premier Ehud Barak, I went shopping in the open-air vegetable market near my home. As I put bananas into my backpack, the vendor said to me, “Who did you vote for? I voted Sharon, but if Peres had been running, I’d have voted Peres.”
Jeff Albert FOR ’03 is a doctoral candidate at the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.