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Israel in transition

By James Carroll, The Boston Globe, 04.08.08

IN LAST week's announcement of his intention to soon resign as Israel's prime minister, Ehud Olmert said, "I continue to believe wholeheartedly that reaching peace, ending terrorism, strengthening security, and establishing a different relationship with our neighbors are the most vital goals for the future of the state of Israel." That litany of purposes, however, reduces to the first one stated - peace. Israel has now joined the United States in a period of political transition, a good time, perhaps, to remember what is most essential to both nations' well being.
Americans are a chastened people. Across the political spectrum, we are having to reckon with the evident failures of national policy across the last eight years. The Bush administration, with broad support, put its faith in the shock and awe of military swagger, and it has not worked. Washington's hyper-belligerence sparked a grass-roots insurgency in Iraq that cannot be defeated, empowered extremists in Tehran who would otherwise remain on the crackpot margin of Iranian politics, and underwrote the recalcitrance of those in Israel who fail to see peace as the only real security. The lesson of Bush administration failures must not be lost on those who would replace Olmert.
Two facts loom large in Israel and Palestine today. The first is that, despite perceptions to the contrary, prospects for peace are good. Internal divisions among Palestinians and the disarray of Israeli politics seem only to have motivated Palestinian and Israeli negotiators, especially including Israel's Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, whose chance of succeeding Olmert would be enormously enhanced by a peace agreement. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have their own personal stakes in the success of the ongoing talks, and so, for that matter, does George W. Bush. Yet the most important reason for positive expectations, and this must be continually insisted upon, is that the broad outlines of compromise - defined by a decade's worth of declarations, from the Clinton parameters to the Geneva plan - are well known and widely supported by majorities of Palestinians and Israelis both.
The second fact that looms large is the seemingly unbreakable grip of inertia, the stalemate habit of mind that has so long prevented both peoples from getting to agreement, despite all the obvious benefits it would bring. This inertia is fed from the Palestinian side by suspicion and anger at the astounding Israeli refusal to keep promises, whether on the halting of settlements or the easing of occupation restrictions. Palestinians hate how blind the world is to what they are suffering. Israelis, for their part, resent the inability of outsiders to grasp how deeply threatened they feel, not only by enemies who would obliterate them if they could, but by the moralizing readiness of many Europeans and Americans to hold them to exceptional standards of behavior. In the ploy that blames a Jewish lobby - and not oil - for tensions between the United States and the Islamic world, Israelis can easily recognize an ancient scapegoat mechanism.
So those are the facts of the Israeli-Palestinian condition: Peace is possible, and inertia, born of anger and fear, prevents its coming. Conventional wisdom suggests that, in a time of transition like the one just beginning, political leaders are too weak to bring about the resolution of such a complicated dispute. But in times of transition, hard-set attitudes can become fluid, and the review of priorities comes naturally. What is most important can show itself with new clarity. Reckoning with the failures of past approaches is an especially important task of times like this.
Transition is more the enemy of inertia than of change. In transition, more than in any other situation, hope can redefine politics. If political leaders are weak, their surest source of strength can come from the will of the people. Ending terrorism, enhancing security, improving relations with neighbors - these are Israeli goals. Ending the occupation, rescuing the economy, restoring the ancient dignity of a proud people - these are Palestinian goals. America's goal, meanwhile, must be to repair the damage it has caused. The most important act of leadership, from Jerusalem to Ramallah to Washington, is to insist that all these goals will be achieved at once, and only, with the coming of peace.
James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.