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Jewish World Review April 29, 2002 / 17 Iyar, 5762

Michael Barone

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Living with conflict |
"Powell's Trip Leaves Mostly Doubts," reads the headline on Page A1 of the April 18 Washington Post. "U.S. Influence in Middle East Could Suffer From Mission's Limited Results," reads the subhead.

The premise on which the story is based is that peace will be served only if the United States presses Israel and the Palestinians to a comprehensive settlement of their differences. This is the premise on which many-particularly veterans and admirers of the Clinton administration-have pressed the Bush administration to get deeply involved in settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But there are some conflicts in which comprehensive settlements are impossible and in which seeking a comprehensive settlement does more harm than good.

One such conflict is over Kashmir. No government of Pakistan could agree to any settlement that did not end Indian rule over most of the majority-Muslim province. No government of India could agree to any settlement that required India to retreat in any significant way from the current lines of control. The continuation of the conflict certainly has its costs-Pakistan-sponsored terrorism, the potential of war between two nuclear powers. But any conceivable final settlement would gravely destabilize the governments of Pakistan and India, which would be worse. The world has lived with the conflict over Kashmir since 1947; it can live with it for many years more.

Another such conflict is between Israel and the Palestinians. And on this one the proposition that seeking a comprehensive settlement will cause more problems than not seeking one has already been tested as rigorously as any abstract proposition can be tested in the messy real world. Bill Clinton spent vast amounts of time and psychic energy seeking a final settlement in 2000. He evidently believed he could get Israeli leaders and Yasser Arafat to agree (or so his chief advisers in that effort say), and perhaps he acted out of a characteristic frenzy of renown and a yearning for the Nobel Peace Prize.

But he failed. And his efforts, no doubt contrary to his intentions, made things worse.

For Arafat's rejection of the terms on offer at Camp David in July 2000 and Taba in December 2000 and his launching of the second intifada in September 2000 convinced the Israelis that his goal was the eradication of the State of Israel. And not just some Israelis but very many of the voters who had supported Ehud Barak's astonishing concessions. The peace movement lost almost all its political support, and Barak was swept from office by an unprecedented majority.

Seeking a comprehensive settlement brought into open view the fact that the differences between the two sides were unbridgeable and the fact that one side seeks the eradication of the other. It sparked a massive increase in violence-the second intifada-and rounds of hate-filled propaganda from the Palestinians and in the Arab world generally.

Today, it is plain that no Israeli government would offer as much as Barak did in 2000. And there is no reason to believe that Arafat would accept anything less. Thus, a comprehensive settlement is not possible. And seeking one would have grave negative effects. Most important, it would distract George W. Bush and his administration from pursuing the war against terrorism in Iraq.

Happily, Bush did not let Secretary of State Colin Powell's six-day mission to the Middle East metastasize into a quest for a comprehensive settlement. The Israelis continue their effort to wipe out the terrorist infrastructure in the West Bank. Arafat remains, at least for today, penned up in Ramallah. The United States has not tried to get Ariel Sharon to negotiate with Arafat. Instead, the United States has continued to criticize the Palestinians for acts of terrorism, though it has declined to apply the label of terrorist to Arafat. For the moment anyway, the level of terrorist violence is down. The world has lived with the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians since 1948 (although the term "Palestinians" was not in use till the 1960s). It can live with the conflict for some time to come.

Michael Barone Archives

JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of, most recently, "The New Americans." He also edits the biennial "Almanac of American Politics". Send your comments to him by clicking here.


©2002, Michael Barone