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Copyright © 2002 Express Publishing Inc.
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For the week of April 10 - 16 , 2002

  Opinion Columns

Our role is to keep the shark moving

Commentary by ADAM TANOUS

As long as I can remember, and then some, the Middle East has been quagmire of misery. The dominant imagery since the ’60s has been of unremitting violence, rubble-strewn streets, dust-covered wives and mothers wailing in anger or woe after someone’s pointless death.

It has now reached a point so beyond the pale that my instinct sitting safely here in the Wood River Valley is to say let them have each other—just go to war, finish this absurdity once and all. What can we do, really? We have problems of our own. Why should we expend energy, money, time on an insoluble problem?

But then the reality of the situation trickles in. It is easy to assume the political players over time—Rabin, Netanyahu, Sadat, Sharon, Mubarak, Arafat—are the only ones involved in this blood feud. In a way, they all deserve one other. But, of course, the situation involves others less culpable for the political, economic and social disaster unfolding.

There are millions of people stuck in the middle: Palestinians and Israelis just trying to send their kids to school, contribute something to their communities, have a few laughs, live a little. And they are the ones being killed by bombings and incursions. Their actual homes are what constitute all that rubble in the streets we see on the news.

So, as much as we’d like to, it is not really morally defensible to throw up our hands,.

Who’s to blame for the situation spinning so wildly out of control?

Perhaps a better question is who’s not to blame. Like any true disaster, there has been a conjoining of ill-conceived policies, poor decisions and failures in leadership.

Say we begin with Arafat, though there is no beginning point—the Middle East problem is circular in nature.

Arafat is a tireless defender of his people, but there is no doubt he has lost credibility on the international scene and even with various Palestinian factions. Months ago he had control of militant groups like Hamas and Hizbollah, groups that have admitted to having killed civilians, and he did nothing about it. He has refused to condemn suicide bombings. There is the charge, though still not proven, that he has directed the bombings. A document allegedly signed by Arafat and directing payment to families of bombers was found during an Israeli raid.

Statements of condemnation by politicians sometimes seem to us like little more than sound and fury, but in the Middle East the subtleties of language have profound importance. Every statement is loaded with inferences. Signals can be sent with something as simple as word choice.

That, of course, was then. Arafat has, subsequently, lost significant control of the Palestinians. Given that he is under siege in a building surrounded by Israeli tanks, it is hard to imagine what power he has left.

Sharon is no less at fault for the debacle. Both he and Arafat are acting out of enmity for one another, rather than with rational, political strategy for attaining their goals. Sharon has isolated Arafat in his compound, has offered him a one-way ticket into exile. He has succeeded in turning a relatively unlikeable guy into a quasi-martyr. All Sharon has done by isolating Arafat in his dark, cement compound is inspire thousands of Palestinians to the cause.

And if Arafat should die of hunger or mortar shell, something his age-old enemy Sharon would relish, things would get much worse. The full anger and concomitant violence of Palestinian and other Arab factions will surely explode.

What’s more, Sharon’s policy of rounding up Palestinians, destroying homes, detaining journalists and preventing rescue workers from helping injured people is alienating much of the world. While such actions are not quite the moral equivalent of suicide bombing, it is nonetheless, misguided and wrong.

The United States has contributed to the problem by maintaining a hands off approach to the whole issue. Not until last week did Bush decide to send Secretary of State Powell to the region. It comes much too late in the game. The U.S. is the only country in the world that has significant influence over Israel. We are also deeply involved with Arab countries on the other front of terrorism. Our entire war on terrorism is linked to this issue, whether we like it or not.

We are the most powerful nation in the world. With that comes some added responsibility. We have a responsibility to help prevent an entire region from igniting in violence.

The other aspect of this that tends to get overlooked is Israel’s approach to the Palestinians seems to depend to a certain extent on the extent of our involvement in the region. When we are involved they feel a sense of security that might not otherwise be there. Their sense of security surely determines not only their aggressiveness but their willingness to compromise.

What can we possibly do?

We can engage both sides. We won’t solve the Middle East problem, but we can keep both sides talking. Talking is movement and movement reduces violence. When I was a kid there was always this fact or myth—I still don’t know which—floating around about sharks: If they stop moving they die. I feel the same way about the Middle East. In a place where death and revenge goes back centuries, inertia breeds violence.

Ultimately, I think there are some hard realities that may not sit well with people. Talks will have to begin with or without a cease-fire. It seems absurd, but it is hard to imagine waiting for a cease-fire. There are too many people willing to derail the process, if only out of spite for the other side. Perhaps Sharon has control of his military, but I doubt now that Arafat has control of the more radical Palestinian factions. He may have at one time, but that time is past. Waiting for a seven day cease-fire would be foolish.

Another hard reality is that some sort of international peace-keeping force will eventually have to go to the area. And U.S. forces will have to be involved. It would be naïve to think otherwise.

A Palestinian state will have to come into existence. There are 3 million Palestinians out there. They can’t be ignored. They need to have a recognized home, and until they do this conflict will never be resolved.

Most of the international community considers an Israeli pullout from the West Bank and Gaza strip—territories occupied by Palestinians—to be a prerequisite to peace.

By the same token, Israel needs to have its security guaranteed, whether by the U.S. or the U.N. Until they feel secure, they will continue to wreck havoc on the Palestinians. And as they do, many more Palestinians will strap explosives to their waists and hope to kill as many people in their wake as possible.

And what Israel surely must know is they will not stop the violence hog-tying Arafat. He has made monumental mistakes, has lied through the years, has overstepped the bounds of what we would consider a civilized leader. But to hold out for a more principled leader is to wait for many more innocent people to be killed.


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