"How can Israeli soldiers fight a 10-year-old boy who wants to die? Or a teenager at the wheel of an exploding truck, smiling because he knows that in 10 seconds he will be in Heaven?
This is the generation I am afraid of!"
These are the words not of an Israeli general warning of a stalemate with Hezbollah but of Laila Sharaf, Jordan's one-time information minister, more than 20 years ago. In an interview with me in 1984, she predicted that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would remain a regional one, and that the fallout from the conflict, exacerbated by Ariel Sharon's war in southern Lebanon, would fan Islamist radicalism from Iran, threatening the very regimes Israel could make peace with.
King Hussein had appealed to the United States to outline and help enforce a package agreement for Israel, Palestine and Jordan. What he got was George Schultz's initiative, which patched together a futile "peace treaty" between Israel and Lebanese Christians, leaving the occupation of Palestinian territories and East Jerusalem alone.
Those were the days before Syria armed Hezbollah with missiles or Hamas even existed, and when American economic power seemed charismatic. Those were also the days when 50,000, not 500,000, Jewish settlers lived across the Green Line and Israel's military actions in Lebanon were presumably for the sake of destroying Fatah -- now Israel's favored Palestinian partner.
Today, southern Lebanon is again the scene of heartbreak, and according to the terms of the fragile cease-fire, an international force, presumably to be led by France and Italy, is being gathered to reinforce the blue helmets of UNIFIL. But is it not finally time to recognize that coordinated international action on Palestine, including NATO boots on the ground, has always been the only way to a sustainable regional peace?
Indeed, international forces -- not just in Lebanon but also in Palestine and East Jerusalem -- would reinforce the larger truth: That Israelis and their neighbors cannot build their states unless they succeed at economic globalization together. This vision of economic integration -- of economic hope -- is different from the Pax Americana of the 1980s, but it is still the only rival in the region to rage and fanaticism, which has taken on a religious cast and an increasingly apocalyptic rhetoric.
Among the casualties of the recent war is Ehud Olmert's electoral promise to unilaterally bring Israelis quiet, let alone establish their permanent borders. Who believes now that Israelis can annex the settlements they really want, especially around Jerusalem, and then wall off the Palestinians? But the war has also discredited Islamist claims that Israelis will retreat under fire. Hide missiles among the people, and more homes in Gaza and southern Lebanon will be reduced to rubble.
The tragedy of bombs has already given way to the pathos of spin. President Bush's first reaction was to back up Olmert's anxious claim to have dealt terrorism a serious blow. But like the Yom Kippur War in 1973, there are no winners here, only rival claims of ultimate power to make the other side suffer more. Arab fears of air power are now matched by Israeli fears of missiles, and Arab fears of tanks are matched by Israeli fears of anti-tank missiles. Arab losses from having missile sites bombed are matched by Israeli losses when CNN and Al Jazeera film civilian casualties at missile sites.
New invasions in the region may not be unimaginable, but new occupations are. Military power seems essential for defense and useless for offense.
Psychologically at least, this is an obvious opportunity, which many seasoned observers have urged Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to seize.
Brent Scowcroft, Zbigniew Brzezinski and others have argued that an international force for southern Lebanon be accompanied by an international forcing of the issue of Palestine -- a renewed peace process, driven equally by the United States and the European Union. Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema has suggested U.N.-helmeted Italian troops not just for Lebanon but also for Gaza.
Israelis should grab such offers with both hands. Defense Minister Amir Peretz has floated, then yanked back, the idea of renewing talks with Syria. He should have stood his ground. For what we have otherwise, he knows, are conditions for renewed escalation.
Hezbollah will regroup and the Israeli military will have to keep trying to thwart it. Israelis and Palestinians will keep up their revenge attacks. Syria, frozen out of talks over the Golan Heights since 1999, will continue to advance Iranian threats to regimes in Amman, Cairo and Riyadh. If you are not moving forward, you are sliding backward into an abyss.
But forward to what? Less obvious than the need for international peacekeeping forces is that the only peace that could outlast a peace process will also be international in character -- not just two states, as Rice keeps repeating, but a region laced with economic interdependencies, themselves reinforced by an international presence.
The forces of moderation on all sides -- the Beirut bourgeoisie, the educated elites of Ramallah, the entrepreneurs of Tel Aviv -- are embattled custodians of the only vision that can counter the zealotry that has emerged from years of violent stalemate. This vision is the promise of economic development on all sides, secured by international policing and investment, and relying on the Persian Gulf's financial capital and Israel's intellectual capital. It is a promise of self-determination, not only national self-determination.
Imagine that, in spite of the bloodshed, a border between Israel and Palestine could at last be negotiated. Imagine that the Saudi-brokered agreement among Arab states to collectively recognize Israel comes to pass, returning the Golan to Syrian sovereignty. Could Israel and Palestine ever exercise the jurisdictions of sovereign states without the other's permanent cooperation or that of Jordan? What of Syria's control over key Israeli water sources, which helped precipitate the Six-Day War in 1967?
Think of policing Jerusalem, which will have to fill with tourists to jumpstart development. Think of developing the Jordan Valley or managing traffic between the West Bank and Gaza. Think of developing a currency when, as now, 95 percent of Palestinian exports go to Israel, or of telecommunications infrastructure, or the need to monitor the migration of desperately poor migrant workers from the Nile Delta.
Palestinian entrepreneurs will have to build from nothing: housing, food processing, apparel. They are doomed if the route of Israel's wall divides their markets. Israel's technology-driven economy, for its part, will have to grow at an unprecedented rate if only to absorb Israel's own large Arab minority into a Hebrew-speaking civil society. But Israeli entrepreneurs are doomed if, owing to Palestinian violence, they cannot build relationships with Western European customers.
In short, both sides will have to cooperate to globalize and globalize to develop. And the plain fact is that Israel and Palestine will need to build on what international intervention sets in motion. Mutually recognized borders, policed with the assistance of European powers, can get them and other countries in the region moving on the path toward European-style economic integration.
It is naive, no doubt, to speak of such a vision while the guns are still smoking -- just not as naive as imagining that the guns will be silenced for long without it.
Bernard Avishai, a writer and management consultant living in Jerusalem, is author of "The Tragedy of Zionism" (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1986) and the forthcoming "A Hebrew Republic" (Harcourt). This essay originally appeared in The Forward.
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Posted on Sep. 14, 2006 at 8:00 pm