THE SHOCK AND revulsion with which most people, including world leaders, reacted to the carnage that destroyed the lives of 20 young Israelis near a beach in Tel Aviv paradoxically may have created a precious opportunity to halt the dizzying descent into madness that is occurring in Israel and in the West Bank and Gaza.
This latest opportunity may well disappear, as so many previous ones did, in a matter of days, if not hours, because no one in the Middle East ever seems to learn anything from past disasters. But there are important truths for each of the parties-Yasser Arafat, Ariel Sharon and the Bush administration-which, if heeded, can help the parties step back from the brink and turn in a new political direction.
To begin with, Arafat must finally understand-and act on-the obvious moral distinction, one that so far seems to have eluded him, between Palestinian resistance to occupation and resort to terrorism. Resistance to occupation is indeed a Palestinian right, while terrorism is an abomination that discredits the Palestinian cause. Like the Palestinians, Americans themselves exercised the right to free themselves from occupation in 1776, for reasons probably less compelling than those Palestinians face. But they did not seek to achieve their freedom by blowing up innocent civilians in London.
Terrorism is also ineffective. What this latest Hamas outrage has accomplished is to induce international opinion to accept an Israeli scorched- earth retaliation that could well set back the Palestinian cause 50 to 100 years. Of course, the consequence of such unrestrained vengeance might well have devastating effects on Israel's future as well, but that, one would like to believe, could hardly serve as consolation for the Palestinians.
If the current hiatus holds but does not lead to a meaningful political change in Israel's intolerable occupation of the Palestinians, Arafat should heed the voices of his own Palestinian community that have been urging that the intifada be replaced with an extensive campaign of nonviolent resistance. Such nonviolent resistance is far more likely to succeed with Israel's public and to gain the support of the international community than the depredations of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, whose intoxication with the slaughter of innocents is seen in the West as representative of the feelings of all Arabs and of Islam, thus reinforcing their most shallow stereotypes.
Until recently, Sharon's vision did not extend beyond the notion of an endless Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza-an occupation whose viability for Israel would be assured by what he called a non-aggression pact.
The moral and political bankruptcy of that vision did not seem to register with most Israelis, including Israel's disappearing (or disappeared) Left. Sharon's notion of diplomacy has been "Just say yes," pretending to accept various international initiatives for ending the violence and resuming the political process, such as the recently released Mitchell Committee Report, while in fact rejecting them outright. He learned quickly it is a deception the United States would largely accommodate.
In the last few days, however, Sharon has shown an uncharacteristic restraint that one must hope is not merely tactical but augurs a new understanding that the lives of 3 million Palestinians cannot simply be put on hold for another 10 or 20 years. If the cease-fire declared by Arafat holds reasonably well (and that is the most one has a right to expect), Israel must respond not only by freezing the settlements, as urged by the Mitchell Committee Report, but by placing renewed and expedited peace talks at the head of its strategic agenda.
The Bush administration, having looked into the abyss and having become commendably engaged in a serious effort to help the parties step away from it, must seize the moment by accepting as its fundamental operational principle the overwhelming disparity between the two adversaries, a disparity that has serious policy consequences. For Israel, with a wildly successful economy and military power that dwarf those of its neighbors, the primary goal is security and stability. Absent Palestinian violence, the status quo serves that goal for Israel very well indeed. For Palestinians, however, the status quo is an unmitigated disaster. If the United States is to play a constructive role, it must avoid its enlistment by Israel in the service of the status quo-a danger that an understandable preoccupation with ending the violence presents.
If Palestininans are to be persuaded to abandon a strategy of violence, not to speak of terror, the political alternative must be seen by them as real and achievable. For this to happen, Israel must be persuaded that a strategy limited to the avoidance of violence will never reap for Israel anything other than even greater violence. That is the American challenge in the hours and days ahead.