A Moment Before the Embrace of Death

It is still in our power, but not for much longer, to prevent the Israeli-Palestinian death hug. There were a few weeks of quiet here, which only Sharon managed not to notice. We can still return to them.

It's not hard to see where it's leading: new warnings, new dimensions of violence; red lines that will be crossed; limitations that will be removed. We are in the throes of intimidation and fear. The headlines quote the intelligence warnings. Intelligence quotes the boastful Palestinian speeches. The Palestinians listen to the threats of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and the march of folly accelerates toward the unavoidable collision.

As always in such circumstances, everyone is "right." "We can't remain silent about this," they say; "the other side understands only force"; and other such things, each of which may be correct in its context, but which taken together is a bunch of nonsense. Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat announces that he will reach Jerusalem dead or alive, and Sharon leads the Labor Party into a systematic destruction of everything constructed by former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin before he was assassinated. Without any hope on the horizon, there will be no limits placed on violence by either side, and public support for it will mount because there will always be acts of "escalation" on the other side, which will "justify" it.

The Jews and the Palestinians are no more foolish than other nations. Both have already experienced a different reality. With tears of joy to the sound of the national anthems, they signed agreements, laid mutual long-term plans, made humanitarian gestures, maintained close security cooperation that prevented bloodshed and sent their children to youth camps together. Was all this merely mutual deception, whereas now the "truth" is being exposed in the guise of young Palestinians who commit suicide in the cities of Israel and young Israelis who occupy the living rooms in Tul Karm? Nonsense.

It is still in our power, but not for much longer, to prevent the Israeli-Palestinian death hug; before we return the Palestine Liberation Organization to the terrorism of the 1970s; before the Palestinians return us to the retaliatory operations of the 1950s; before the entire world gives up on the attempt to help us understand what they have already understood in Ireland, in Cyprus and even in Kashmir; before our children leave us here to our insanity and move to other regions; before we lose any chance of attracting Jewish immigration, even from distressed countries.

Again we are living according to a conception. It can be heard from almost all sides: "[Former prime minister Ehud] Barak offered everything, got an intifada and now it's clear that there's nobody to talk to, and nothing to talk about." This conception reached an epitome this week when the new head of Military Intelligence, Aharon Ze'evi, brought sensational "information" to the members of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee: Arafat will not agree to peace even in exchange for Jerusalem and the realization of the right of return. The media reported this just as they would have reported intelligence information about an explosive device found in Rafah. Like every conception in the past - regarding Egypt before the Yom Kippur War or the issue of withdrawal from Lebanon - it is mistaken, and we know that this is the case when on all sides, everyone makes identical declarations. There is someone to talk to - even if he is problematic; there is something to talk about - the Clinton plan and the "right of return" will not be a part of any agreement.

There were a few weeks of quiet here, which only Sharon managed not to notice. We can still return to them. We can immediately declare a halt to acts of retaliation and revenge, personal assassinations, the reoccupation of West Bank cities and the humiliation of the Palestinian leadership. We can invite the elusive General Zinni to come here, and we can even sit together with the Palestinian leadership without him, and decide immediately, without games and without fooling around with seven days of quiet, on the agreed-upon Tenet and Mitchell outlines, and work toward a final agreement whose outlines are also clear to everyone.

Today it is possible, tomorrow the violence will paralyze all of us. The nuclear threat by the countries on our periphery will change the balance of power, and what is happening in the delivery rooms will change the demographic balance. Before we long for the days of late January 2002, when despite the difficulty and the violence and the pessimism, it is still possible to change direction, we must act. Ramallah is still only a 10-minute drive from Jerusalem.