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Jewish World Review Nov. 10, 2000 / 12 Mar-Cheshvan, 5761

Jonathan Tobin

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Struggling With a Crisis of Faith: Clap your hands if you still believe in Oslo -- NEAR THE END of J.M. Barrie's classic children's play "Peter Pan," the hero asks the audience to help determine the outcome of the story. Those in attendance must help save Peter's beloved Tinker Bell by clapping their hands to show that they believe in fairies.

One gets the same feeling listening to some Israeli leaders talk about the peace process.

An example of such a blind faith can be found currently running Israel's Foreign Ministry. Shlomo Ben-Ami, Israel's current foreign minister, was in the country last week and took the time to sit down with a few Jewish newspaper editors to elaborate on what's become of the Middle East.

Ben-Ami, a former academic, is a brilliant and articulate man and, in many ways, a fine spokesman for Israel. I have heard many Israeli leaders explain Israel's strategy in pursuing the Oslo peace process, including prime ministers Ehud Barak, Shimon Peres and the late Yitzhak Rabin. But after listening to Ben Ami, I have finally been forced to come to a conclusion. Belief in Oslo is not a political ideology. It is a religion.

Ehud Barak's astonishingly generous offer of 90-plus percent of Judea and Samaria, along with part of Jerusalem, was rejected by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and answered by months of a deliberate campaign of Arab violence. Arafat has demonstrated for all who care to see that he is uninterested in a negotiated solution. He has told us, time and time again, that he is uninterested in anything short of Palestinian control over the Old City of Jerusalem and swamping Israel with millions of Palestinian refugees.

Yet Ben-Ami still thinks Arafat is capable of "a reasonable compromise." In fact, nothing not the lynching of Israeli soldiers, the car bombing last week in Jerusalem or the vicious Arab diplomatic offensive seems to have changed the foreign minister's mind about anything. Like all too many politicians, years of experience have convinced him that everything he believed in the first place was still right.

Ben-Ami not only thinks such a compromise can be reached, he is also willing to put the same concessions offered this summer by Barak at Camp David back on the table.

What particularly pleased the minister was the fact that the Camp David concessions, which were very unpopular among the Israeli people then and even more unpopular today, had earned Israel applause from the world. For him, the support of the Europeans seemed well worth the proposed sacrifice of Jerusalem's unity.

The minister admitted that after all that had happened since July his faith in Oslo was a bit unusual.

"It sounds unrealistic, even surrealistic," said Ben-Ami. But he really thinks that the violence may lead to a breakthrough in the peace process. "Perhaps a crisis was needed to understand the pain of the other partners," the Israeli said while citing with approval a New York Times op-ed by Thomas Friedman that suggested just such a possibility.

To hold to such a belief after it has been so thoroughly discredited by events is a testament to his faith not in Arafat, but in the idea of peace itself. It is so powerful that it has enabled otherwise wise men like Ben-Ami to see what they want to see and hear what they want to hear. But he also made no effort to disguise his doubts. As with any true believer, Shlomo Ben-Ami is having a crisis of faith.

"I don't know what is worse, the violence or the crisis of conscience that is the outcome. My guess is that the crisis of conscience is not less serious," Ben-Ami told us. He said a "conflict has developed in our minds for those of us who have spent a lifetime believing that peace is possible. It is a serious crisis."

He went on to explain that he could "understand" the anger of ordinary Palestinians who live under the rule of a Palestinian regime that is "essentially corrupt."

"What I can by no means understand is the anger and the behavior of the Palestinian elite those who are our partners in peace. They know very well that we were about to give away most of the land," said the frustrated minister.

The Palestinians, he said are, "on the verge of once again, missing an opportunity. If we reach the conclusion that they are unable to control the situation or unwilling to control the territory," Ben-Ami declared. "If they are unwilling, that means they don't want peace. This is the question that must be answered."

The only problem with that statement is that the question has already been answered in the negative many times by the Palestinians and their leaders. When Ben-Ami said that in the next weeks we would finally see if Israel truly has a partner in Arafat, I couldn't help but think how many times I had heard other Israeli leaders say the same words. But no matter what the Palestinians do, the Oslo believers continue to give them another chance and pay for it in land and power.

The explanation for Ben-Ami's refusal to give up on Oslo is that, as he put it, "we need to believe."

Such a belief is touching and almost understandable, given the burden this terrible conflict has placed on Israel's people. But if a notion can't be proven true or false, it's no longer part of a discussion about politics or security. It is, instead, a debate about religion.

In this instance, belief in Oslo is no different from belief in the giving of the oral and written Torah at Mount Sinai or the virgin birth of the Christian messiah. You don't debate about such things. You either believe in them or you don't.

Having bought into the logic of Oslo, it seems there's no escape.

Leaders like Shlomo-Ben Ami objectively know that Arafat is a swindler but having left themselves no alternative but the intellectual dead end of Oslo, they find themselves prisoners of their own thinking. That's what has led to the escalation of Israeli concessions to heights Rabin never dreamed of when he reluctantly shook Arafat's hand. If a new chance for peace requires even more Israeli concessions, don't bet they won't happen. And that's exactly why Arafat always seems to profit from Palestinian violence.

Just as in "Peter Pan," perhaps if we all decide to really believe in the truth of the Oslo process, peace like Tinker Bell will still miraculously come to life.

The real-life villains of the Middle East, however, are a lot more dangerous than Captain Hook. One can only pray that Shlomo Ben-Ami and the Israeli people he leads will not, in this version of the play, wind up inside the belly of the alligator instead of Arafat.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. He was the recipient of the American Jewish Press Association's highest awards in two categories: First Place in the Louis Rapoport Award for Excellence in Commentary and Editorial Writing for his column "Israel's China Syndrome -- and Ours" and First Place for Excellence in Arts and Criticism for his column "Jewish Art, Jewish Artists." The awards were given to Mr. Tobin at the AJPA's 2000 Simon Rockower Awards dinner at Washington D.C. on June 22, 2000. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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