Israelis and Palestinians: Standing at Crossroads

Atlanta Journal-Constitution

We can't expect miracles from one meeting in Annapolis, but it's a pivotal step toward lasting peace in the Middle East.

The Israelis and Palestinians are at a historic crossroads, and it will be tragic for both peoples if they do not leave it walking side by side.

This one, like several before, is in the United States—at Annapolis, where this week Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will meet not just bilaterally, as they often have recently, nor even through the increasingly active diplomacy of Tony Blair and Condi Rice, but under the umbrella of international concern. Egypt, Jordan and now even Saudi Arabia will attend.

All members of the "Quartet" —the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia —have a stake in the outcome, but nothing like that of the people who must share a piece of land not much bigger than New Jersey between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

Neither people really wants to do this. Each must give up dreams held for centuries. Israelis must leave land the Bible says (and archeology confirms) Jews were formed in. Palestinians must give up places their grandparents owned and the hope of universal return. But if they do not make these sacrifices, they may not have as good a chance for many years.

History makes strange bedfellows. Olmert and Abbas were pushed together by Hamas, whose violence threatened them both. Hamas came to partial power through an election that should not have been held. As we have learned to our sorrow there and elsewhere, democracy means more than voting booths and ink-stained fingers. It means the rule of law, for which Hamas has no respect. So it attacked and destroyed in Gaza the people it was supposed to be sharing power with, Palestinians all.

That civil war last spring showed what Hamas really was —in case its medieval abuse of women and thorough embrace of terrorism hadn't convinced us —and the world turned to the flawed but reasonable West Bank Palestinian Authority. Peacemaking and nation-building have proceeded apace. Tony Blair, retiring as Britain's prime minister, set up shop in Jerusalem; his quiet, aggressive, balanced and professional diplomacy on behalf of the Quartet —essentially the world —has brought the parties closer than they have been in years. For the first time, over many Jewish objections, Israel has put the division of Jerusalem on the table —a huge concession and a major step toward peace.

Neither Abbas nor Olmert is popular with his people. Neither controls the elements on his side that are implacable enemies of peace. Both have been incompetent and corrupt. But for now, these flawed men are the best hope.

Olmert released hundreds of Palestinian prisoners weeks ago, and is releasing another 400 this week. True, Israel is holding thousands more —nothing like the proportion of African-Americans held in our own prisons, but still too many. More will be released. Olmert also has transferred hundreds of millions of dollars to Abbas's government. True, they were owed it, but Israel could not dole it out to terrorists sworn to destroy her.

Those terrorists are now largely confined to Gaza, and the world at large —not just Israel —will leave them there for now. When the West Bank begins to look like a viable Palestinian state, the Gazans will join it.

American and European leftists snipe wildly from afar. Ignoring reality, they say there have been no efforts toward peace. Believing Iranian propaganda, they see Israel as the Goliath, while on the map it's a tiny David in a vast Islamic world. Twisting U.N. resolutions, they claim that Israel must first withdraw to its 1967 borders —something U.N. votes have always left to later negotiations.

Israel will give up many settlements. Jewish soldiers will drag Jewish settlers out of the West Bank as they did in Sinai in the 1980s and in Gaza two years ago. Some densely settled territory adjacent to Israel that was once part of Jordan will stay in Israel, and the Palestinians will be offered parts of Israel densely settled by Israeli Arabs.

Today, Israeli Arabs —though second-class citizens at least as disadvantaged as African-Americans —would rather remain Israeli. (Think about that undisputed fact and what it says about Israel.) But if enough hope can be generated in the new Palestinian state, they may come to feel differently.

Meanwhile Israel's other Arab neighbors have joined with her to build Palestine and energize the region. Jordan, the PA and Israel, with Germany and Japan as investment partners, are jointly planning to build Jericho into a vibrant Palestinian city, and to expand agriculture and industry in Jenin and other Palestinian areas. The Left has not explained why, if Israel is so evil, not just the United States but the EU, the United Nations, Russia and a number of Arab nations support the ongoing, slow but real path to peace.

Over decades, violence can become a bad memory. The hated fence can come down, and it will matter less who is on which side of the border. Sites all over the Middle East sacred to Muslims, Christians and Jews can be accessible to all. And the hope for the future generated by growing prosperity can turn even young men's troubled souls toward lasting peace.

Current events are just first steps; we can't expect too much from one meeting, however important it may be. There are always countless obstacles to peace. But discouraging talk can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The first steps must be taken now. It all begins very soon at Annapolis.