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Looking back, book on Mid-East peace failed to look ahead

A lifetime ago, I spent my junior year of college at Tel Aviv University in Israel. The year 1978-79 was a unique and fascinating time to be in Israel, in two critical ways.

First, it was a safe place to be. To my knowledge it was the first year-long period without a fatal clash between Jews and Arabs since before the Zionists arrived in the 1880s.

Compare that to the past week, when 100 people have died in bombings, missile attacks, and sniper fire. I have never in my life perceived Israel and the West Bank as a more dangerous place than it is now.

The second distinction of my now-hazy year in Israel was that the Camp David Accords were signed that year, following the historic visit to Israel by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. In Israel, as history unrolled, we studied the creation of formal peace between two sworn enemies. As a result of the treaty, I was able to join a group travelling directly from Tel Aviv to Port Said, Egypt, in June 1979 -- the first time anyone could legally do so since 1947, before the State of Israel came to be. I still look upon that adventure as a privilege.

While in Israel, I bought a book that, like many books, is a true time capsule: "If Peace Comes: Risks and Prospects," edited by Alouph Hareven.

The title itself can never escape its skepticism and its irony.

If peace comes.

The 135-page volume examined problems and prospects ranging from education and science to tourism and the economy.

"We need elements of an inter-nation ideology, even a supra-nation ideology, that could serve as a common vision for all Middle Eastern peoples," wrote Yehezkel Dror in his chapter, "A Middle Eastern Manifesto."

Twenty-four years later, as I re-read portions of this book, I am struck by two things: the assumption (valid circa 1979) that the Soviet Union-U.S.A. dichotomy would always exist. Who could have predicted that by 1991 we would see the end of the Cold War? And whatever happened to the sense of "common vision"?

The second phenomenon I see in "If Peace Comes" is the snubbing of any concept of a Palestinian state or Palestinian people.

The late-1970s writers gave little credence to the notion of a Palestinian state. And they simply did not fathom the depth of Palestinian hatred as it would become manifest in the 1990s and today.

I am no Middle Eastern scholar. I can't claim I ever predicted that Israel and the West Bank would pour with flames, and the blood of innocents, on a daily basis in 2002.

However, I sat in a courtyard of a Tiberias hostel in 1979 and listened to a young Palestinian man tell me that his compatriots would one day revolt. I listened in a university basement as Meir Kahane, the late right-wing Jewish leader, warned of a day when Arabs would attack Jewish marketplaces.

I witnessed demonstrations by the Shalom Achshav (Peace Now) group shouted down by their countrymen. There has always been little room for real dissent among Israelis.

Could Middle Eastern scholars have been unaware of the coming continental shift in the scale and ferocity of the region's violence -- as unaware as the Cold Warriors were of the impending melting of the Iron Curtain?

Could they have known in 1978 that Palestinian sentiments would fester and then erupt? I think so, not that I blame them for choosing to ignore the likelihood.

Much of this myopia is evidenced in the writings of the late Yitzhak Rabin, who went on to earn the Nobel Peace Prize. (Rabin went on to become Israel's greatest leader since its first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion. Rabin was assassinated in 1995, and I believe the breakdown of Palestinian-Israeli relations can be traced to that very moment.)

Rabin wrote in "If Peace Comes" that "Arab-Israeli strategic relations are composed of three interacting systems." He listed relations between Arab States and Israel, inter-Arab relations "and their effect on Arab attitudes to the state of Israel" and thirdly, "the role played by the Arab-Israeli conflict in the world power struggle."

Rabin would later come around, but at this point he made no mention of Palestine.

Also in "If Peace Comes", Scholar Alouph Hareven wrote a chapter titled "Can We Learn to Trust Each Other?" that contains this coolly illuminating paragraph:

"Israel's problem ... is how to find stabilizing factors to counteract the effects of distrust in the inter-Arab system. The answer can be found on at least four levels: Israel's strength, the isolation of the unstable Arab elements, the American commitment to Israel, and the American relations with Saudi Arabia."

This is all quite accurate, but even the reference to "unstable Arab elements" was primarily to Syria, and not the Palestinian Liberation Organization or Yasser Arafat, the future and legitimate leader of the Palestine movement.

The scholars could not even characterize Palestine, and Palestinian aspirations, as one way to "find stabilizing factors."

To Hareven, the question of trust was on four levels: "emotional, strategic, cultural-Islamic, and inter-Arab."

No mention of the Palestinians.

Yehezkel Dror approached such a thing, saying "a Middle East vision must be based on realistic assumptions ... it must offer an ideal of coexistence congruent with expected developments in Arab nationalist aspirations, as a substitute for the vision of the purely Arab Middle East."

Dror's phrase "nationalist aspirations" makes a veiled reference to the Palestinians, but seems to choke on the word.

Granted, this is just one book. None of this is to suggest that current Israeli policy is based on an anthology of different thinkers' beliefs written a generation ago.

But I believe "If Peace Comes" reflects the basic reticence that Israelis have always felt -- with good reason -- about the realities of "peace" in a region that since the turn of the 20th century has been a burning ground for intractability that too often results in violence.

The book shows an enduring, and misguided, assumption: that guiding the destiny of the Middle East, and finding "regional strategies" for peace, is in the hands of the Israelis, the Americans, the Syrians, the Egyptians, the Russians -- everyone else but the Palestinians.

If peace comes? I believe that a few more weeks of the terror we have read about in Jerusalem, Gaza, Ramallah, and Jenin will lead to a permanent, grinding state of war. At the very best, we will see a "cold peace" with occasional violence for years to come.

Such a dreary status will preclude any real progress until the unlikely event that an array of Sadats and Rabins emerges to bring statesmanship back to the Holy Land.

In his final speech, on Nov. 4, 1995, Rabin said, "I want to say bluntly, that we have found a partner for peace among the Palestinians as well ... We will demand that they do their part for peace, just as we will do our part for peace, in order to solve the most complicated, prolonged, and emotionally charged aspect of the Israeli-Arab conflict: the Palestinian-Israel conflict.

"This is a course which is fraught with difficulties and pain," said Rabin. "For Israel, there is no path that is without pain. But the path of peace is preferable to the path of war."

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