Sunday's announced cease-fire by three Palestinian factions and Israel's pullback from the Gaza Strip buoy hopes of an end to the violence between Palestinians and Israelis. But based on the record of past cease-fires (this is the sixth since this Palestinian uprising started in September 2000), it will not be long before we see a resumption of terror attacks followed by Israeli retaliation. In fact, less than 24 hours after the cease-fire was announced, a Palestinian terrorist group murdered a Bulgarian worker in the West Bank.
In all likelihood, the media soon will be reporting that the "cycle of violence" has resumed, thereby giving the impression that both sides are equally to blame. Funny how no one uses this terminology in other conflicts. Critics don't castigate President Bush for perpetuating the "cycle of violence" by targeting al-Qaeda. Nor do they blame subsequent terrorism on the United States, as if al-Qaeda would turn into a pacifist organization in the absence of American retaliation. Yet such moral relativism is rife in the case of Israel, even though its war on terror closely resembles America's own.
Just like al-Qaeda, Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups deliberately target civilians. And just like the U.S. military, the Israel Defense Forces strike back while trying hard to avoid harming civilians, a goal often stymied by the terrorists' tendency to hide in urban areas. There is no equivalence here, which is why the vaunted "road map" for Middle East peacemaking leads nowhere.
The new peace process, just like its predecessors, is premised on the notion that Israelis and Palestinians need to make mutual concessions to end their war: The Israelis need to give up the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and the Palestinians need to stop terrorism. The problem is that most Israelis are willing to meet their obligations, but most Palestinians aren't.
Polls show that more than 60% of Israelis are willing to give up the West Bank and recognize a Palestinian state. Even Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, a longtime supporter of the settler movement, now says he is willing to end Israel's "occupation." This will require overcoming opposition from a hard-core minority, but democracies have a long history of doing just that, as we saw during our own civil rights movement. Neither Sharon nor any other Israeli leader, however, will accede to a "right of return" for millions of Palestinian refugees, which would effectively end Israel's existence as a Jewish state.
The continued harping of Palestinian leaders on this point suggests they still are not reconciled to Israel's existence. Indeed, a recent survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project found that 80% of Palestinians don't believe "that a way can be found for the state of Israel to exist so that the rights and needs of the Palestinian people are met." Another poll found only 25% of Palestinians support "cutting off funding for groups engaged in terror and violence against Israelis."
Successful negotiations are impossible when one side won't recognize the other's right to exist. No wonder the peace talks ended in frustration two and a half years ago: Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat rejected Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's offer of more than 95% of the West Bank, because he couldn't reconcile himself to living alongside a Jewish state.
Supporters of the "peace process" have convinced themselves that the problem is Arafat and that if he can be sidelined, progress can be made. Thus, they have pushed for the appointment of Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, who is seen as more conciliatory. But Abbas has almost no power and little support. A recent poll put his approval rating at only 27%. Arafat, who has 66% support, still pulls the strings, and he still refers to terrorists as "martyrs" and to the birthday of Israel as "the accursed day."
Abbas deserves kudos for negotiating the cease-fire, but there's little reason to think he'll be able to dismantle the infrastructure of terror. In fact, he has already rejected using force against Hamas and other terrorist groups.
But while some radical groups may make a show of a temporary cease-fire, they remain committed to a strategy of annihilating the "Zionist invaders." Hamas' charter still states: "There is no solution to the Palestinian question except through jihad." Such groups are likely to use the current pause much as they used the peace talks as an opportunity to prepare for a fresh round of bloodletting. The negotiations could benefit them if they result in more killers being sprung from Israeli jails and more U.S. aid going to the Palestinian Authority, which remains deeply implicated in terrorism.
However well intentioned, the latest peace process is likely to backfire as badly as its predecessor did. The only long-term hope for peace is that the Palestinians will weary of this war -- as the Israelis already did when a majority came to support the creation of a Palestinian state -- and give real power to leaders intent on stopping the suicide bombers. Bush recognized this necessity in his June 24, 2002, speech, which made regime change in the Palestinian Authority a pre-condition for progress. Abbas' appointment is a step in the right direction, but the process is a long way from being complete. Until it is, the road map is unlikely to lead anywhere.
Max Boot is Olin Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Savage Wars of Peace. He's also a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.