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August 21, 2003

Both Sides Need to Stay on the Path

http://www.jewishjournal.com/opinion/article/both_sides_need_to_stay_on_the_path_20030822

The terrorist who blew himself up on a crowded Jerusalem bus Tuesday night did more than murder 20 Israelis and injure more than 100 others.

As was undoubtedly his intent, he also dealt a serious, perhaps fatal, blow to the struggling, fragile "road map" peace process. The horror of this attack is all the more tragic because it comes at a time when Israelis -- and especially Jerusalemites -- were finally allowing themselves the hope that things might be getting better.

During my 11-day visit to Israel and the West Bank in mid-July, cafe owners, cab drivers and kibbutzniks all told me that the hudna (as the month-old cease-fire is universally known) was the best thing to happen since the start of the current intifada in September 2000.

While Jerusalem was still largely empty of tourists, and while terrorist attacks did not stop completely, Israelis were once again venturing out into their city. Cafes and restaurants were full of people (one cafe owner told me he actually had to hire additional staff to meet the sudden rush of customers). Under the watchful eyes of the now-ubiquitous security guards, crowds gathered to listen to music at outdoor concerts and attend the annual film festival. For the first time in years, Jerusalemites told me, people were allowing themselves to believe that an end to the terrible violence might be achievable.

Some will claim that this week's bombing proves that the road map is inherently flawed and that it must and will fail. But this is not the case. The attack was not so much evidence of the failure of the road map as it was a reminder of what is in store if the peace process is allowed to fail.

The relatively peaceful summer of 2003 that Israelis enjoyed until Tuesday was a direct result of this process, and a promise of what an end to the conflict could bring. And while I still believe that it is not too late, that promise is in danger of being lost, perhaps for many years to come. Unless both sides, as well as the Bush administration, redouble their efforts and adhere to the reciprocal obligations required of them by the road map, the process will indeed fail.

This will be especially tragic, because the majority of both Israelis and Palestinians support the road map and want it to succeed. And though it is much pilloried by rejectionists on both sides who oppose the ultimate objective of the process (an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict through the establishment of a democratic Palestinian state peacefully coexisting next to a secure Israel), the road map has been embraced (however reluctantly) both by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and by the new Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas. The hudna, as well as moves by Israel to withdraw from some Palestinian cities, release prisoners and to ease travel restrictions on Palestinians, gave some measure of hope to people on both sides. The road map is imperfect, yet pragmatic and achievable.

But even before Tuesday's tragedy, danger signs were everywhere. Despite widespread support for the peace process, both sides continued to harbor deep suspicions about the motives of the other. Both sides knew that a single terrorist bombing could shatter the current calm and reignite horrific violence. But Palestinians claimed that they could not fully crack down on terror until Israel did enough to strengthen the hand of the new Abbas administration, and Israel claimed it could not do that until Abbas cracked down on terror. Both sides claimed the other was not doing enough to fulfill its road map obligations. Both sides claimed that they could not act until the other side acted first. And neither side was willing to confront its own rejectionists until the other did so. This terribly irresponsible inaction afforded the suicide bomber and the murderers who sent him the opportunity to attempt to single-handedly veto the popular will of both the Israeli and Palestinian peoples.

While the Abbas government has announced that it will arrest those responsible for the bus bombing, its refusal to date to move to dismantle terrorist infrastructures remains deeply concerning. As we have seen, Palestinian inaction is a very real threat to the peace process. But so, too, is the Sharon administration's dedication to strengthening Israel's control over the West Bank. This is not something most American Jews want to talk about, especially now, but it was readily apparent everywhere I traveled in the West Bank last month. The cautious optimism I found in Israel was less apparent among Palestinians there, many of whom had yet to see an improvement in their lives. Most Palestinians I spoke with supported the hudna, but many expressed doubts that the road map would succeed. Even as life slowly returned to normal in Israel, many Palestinians continue to live under harsh circumstances. Some of this is because of actions Israel has had to take to try and prevent suicide bombers from reaching Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. But many of the checkpoints, fences, military patrols, Jewish-only roads and land expropriations that infuriate and disrupt the lives of ordinary Palestinians are not aimed only at stopping terrorists. Rather, they are part of the presence Israel maintains in the West Bank to sustain the settlements there. Despite the fact that most Israelis favor giving up the occupied territories in exchange for peace, and despite the fact that the road map calls on Israel to freeze all settlement activity, under the Sharon government settlements continue to expand and the settler population continues to grow. West Bank hilltops are dotted with the caravans of the illegal outposts Sharon pledged to remove.

The reality is, while both sides have taken constructive and positive steps, neither is doing all that it can to ensure that the road map succeeds. If Abbas and Sharon refuse to back their conciliatory words with action, and if the Bush administration is unwilling to leverage political pressure on both parties, the road map will indeed fail. For American Jews who love and care about Israel, now is not the time to sit back and wait. The pain and outrage we feel today must inspire us to increase our efforts to work for peace. We must encourage the Bush administration to help the parties stay the course, even -- especially -- in the face of the desperate and evil acts of those who do not want the road map to succeed. We must call upon both sides to stop actions on the ground that are contrary to the agreement they have signed and the pro-peace statements they are making.

To be sure, the road map is an imperfect path. But what are the alternatives offered by those who oppose it? The status quo means endless occupation and endless war; even Sharon, the grandfather of Israeli hawks, acknowledges now that the occupation is untenable for Israel. And the day will soon come when Palestinians comprise a majority of the people living between the Jordan River and the sea. What will Israel's response be when the battle cry of the Palestinians changes from "jihad" to "one person, one vote"? The road map still offers the chance to achieve a workable two-state solution. We must not let that chance slip away.

Daniel Sokatch is the executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance.

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