Hope lies in the people of Israel, not in the nation's leaders

It’s hard to say something about the situation in the Middle East. Somehow, one has the impression that everything worth saying has been said, together with a fair amount of things not worth saying.

Rationality has, unfortunately, quite abandoned a confrontation in which one of the opponents has been enduring a brutal occupation for the last 20 years while the other is under the constant threat of suicidal terrorists, and the political players in the crisis leave little space to hope.

Ariel Sharon, the prime minister of Israel, is more or less the worst person that could cover such a delicate role. In a more fair world, he would have been sentenced as a war criminal for his role in the massacres in the Palestinian camps of Sabra and Chatila 20 years ago, in which 3,000 Palestinians, mostly women and children, were killed by the Lebanese army under Israeli protection. Only the intense fear of weakening the position of Israel saved Sharon from being sent to jail by his own government, and he was freed with the ambiguous formula of “”criminal negligence.”” What credibility this man can have in any negotiation with the Arabs is anybody’s guess.

Arafat is a spent leader who was unable, in the time following the Oslo accords, to create a credible structure of government that could survive without him. That ancient sin of the Arab political class — the cult of personality — is coming back to haunt him. Israel succeeded in discrediting Arafat by asking him to stop terrorism: an impossible task.

The American government, ruling over an orderly and, all in all, not too fanatical country, couldn’t stop the Oklahoma bombing, the bombing at the Atlanta Olympics or dozens of crazy killing rampages. After having systematically undermined his power in the turbulent Palestinian situation, to ask Arafat to completely stop the terrorist attacks or to be considered responsible is pure madness, and reveals a clear will to undermine any political settlement.

With a discredited Arafat and his Palestinian Authority left powerless, Sharon will have the opportunity to move heavily into the territories. To him, it matters little that this will signify a further increase in terrorist attacks and Israeli civilian casualties. He understands the dynamics of terrorism and is using this understanding to his own advantage.

A third player in the region is the United States, whose role has always been ambiguous. The United States’ support of Israel, whatever its source and its rationale, has pretty much ruled it out as a possible negotiator, leading to a dead end. Arab countries don’t trust the United States as a mediator — Israel is trying to impose it. Only U.S. withdrawal from the negotiations and a carte blanche to whomever will step in could solve this impasse.

The problem is that such a move would leave the matter in the hands of a fourth player: Europe, which is the primary cause of today’s troubles. After World War II, shocked by the holocaust and feeling (not unreasonably, at the time) that Jews would not be safe in Europe, the European powers returned them to a land to which they were tied by old biblical prophecies, but from which they were separated by 2,000 years of history. The Arabs took the decision with the same enthusiasm with which Californians would take the decision to return the whole state to the native Americans (who, at least, have a much closer connection to it).

Worse, the European powers created the state of Israel and left the scene without dealing politically with Arab countries to guarantee the acceptance and the security of the new state.

Yet in spite of everything, there is some hope. Hope is in the people of Israel, who are better than the ruling class that represents them. It lies in Roby Damellin, whose 29-year-old son was killed by a Palestinian sniper and who publicly asks why he was sent to fight and die in an unjust and oppressive war. It lies in Michal Pundak, who shows the picture of an Israeli soldier aiming his gun at two Palestinian kids with raised hands. Pundak compares it to another picture, 50 years old: a Jewish child in Warsaw, wearing short pants and an old overcoat, terrorized, hands raised, a Nazi aiming a gun at him. One of the photos is a symbol of the Shoah. She asks: “”Did we become like them?””

The hope is that the movements that ask why the people of Israel, who know the most brutal of oppressions, have become the oppressor; who ask Israel to stop every intervention beyond the 1967 borders, who understand that the stupid, desperate, fanatic spiral of terrorism will not be arrested unless there is a fair political resolution of the occupation.