LONDON — Countries and peoples that make peace after years or even generations of enmity require very strong leaders. Just as it needed a Charles de Gaulle to tell the French to stop fighting the Algerians, a Konrad Adenauer to tell the Germans to love the French, a Harry Truman or a Douglas MacArthur to tell the Americans to embrace postwar Japan, a Winston Churchill to bury British hatred of the Germans, so it will need the wisest and most respected leaders in the Middle East to bring the Israeli Jews and the Palestinian Arabs together after decades, indeed centuries, of fighting.
Yet such leadership appears to be completely absent — at least on the Palestinian side. Far from telling the Arab mobs that they must stop hating and trying to destroy Israel, Yasser Arafat and his advisers seem to be allowing the bitterness to grow. Far from preparing the Palestinian people for the inevitable concessions that any peace or settlement with Israel was bound to involve, Arafat has done nothing to check unyielding extremism or explain that the time has come for talking rather than killing.
This is a terrible betrayal of the Arab people. The concessions from Israel were there for the taking — not all that the Palestinians wanted, of course, but enormous ones all the same. The Israelis were prepared to lower their outer guard against attack and to permit the gradual emergence of a new Palestinian state.
The most difficult compromises were always bound to come at the end — notably the status of Jerusalem and the location of Jewish settlements — and this is where the greatest statesmanship was always going to be required. Both Arab and Jewish public opinion was always going to have to be told that their demands would need moderating and not all their grievances could be settled.
There was never any way in which Jerusalem could become either a completely Muslim city or a completely Jewish capital. Sharing of the most sacred shrines was going to be necessary.
The failure to get this message into the minds of ordinary Arabs has led to the bloodshed of recent weeks. Violence has been met with violence. The greater the unrestrained mob anger on the Arab side, the more force the angry and frightened Israelis, seeing their whole nation in mortal danger, have used.
Where will it all lead? Wiser Arab leaders, meeting in Cairo, know what they should long ago have explained to their followers, that in the end, by refusing to compromise with Israel, it is the Arab world that will suffer. In the end, unless it is brought under control, mob rage against Israeli troops and police will turn to mob rage against the Arab world’s own rulers, autocrats and deeply conservative regimes.
And who will put themselves at the head of this mob rule and spreading instability? It can only be the most extreme peddlers of revolutionary hatred against moderation of all kinds, against Israel, against the advanced world, against the whole global order — namely, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, the godfathers of Hezbollah terrorism in Iran, the most dedicated Palestinian terrorists, the most violent Muslim sects.
None of these groups can create or build a better future for anybody, but they can certainly destabilize and destroy. The more sensible Arab states, such as Egypt or Jordan, can find themselves undermined, the kingdoms and emirates of the Persian Gulf can find themselves rocked to their foundations. And through the simple and unavoidable fact that the region still supplies the bulk of the world’s oil needs, the anarchy of the Palestinian streets and the weak leadership of the region can be leveraged into global destabilization.
That is why the global powers and institutions are right to want to see the situation cooled and this terrifying sequence of events halted before it becomes unstoppable. And it explains the unending obsession of the Americans, and of European leaders, with “the peace process” and the goal of a Middle East “settlement.”
Yet the most thoughtful Western diplomats and statesmen should long ago have realized what history so clearly teaches — that the resolution of Israeli-Palestinian and Jewish-Arab hatreds and conflicts can only come from within the nations and societies involved themselves, and that outside pressures and interference can often make matters much worse.
The Israelis and Palestinians have got to find the leaders from within who can control their own peoples and they have got to talk to each other, and not through third parties or on the global stage, about how to live together, side by side, instead of dying together in a hail of rocks and bullets and a sea of blood.
The world’s worried diplomats, itching to intervene and reimpose the peace process, should take some comfort from the distant past. The last 2,000 years of Middle East history may have plenty of religious division leading to schism and war. But in the Middle Ages it also contained long periods of peaceful coexistence between all sects and religious groups, whether Jewish, Muslim or Christian.
If all these groups could live and work together in peace and prosperity 1,000 or 800 years ago, whether under Saracen or Western rule, Muslim or Christian domination, then in the age of global communication and transparency the same solutions ought to be equally obtainable.
All that is need is a good supply of leadership that commands real respect on the spot, and the courage and foresight that must go with it. Until that reappears, the region will continue to boil and uncontrollable street hatred will set the pace.
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