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The U.S. Needs to Lead in Middle East

This op-ed by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter was published in the New York Times on Feb. 14, 1988.

While the situation in the occupied territories continues to deteriorate, neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis can or will make the first genuine move toward reconciliation. Only strong action from Washington can end the violence.

Among several dozen Palestinians with whom I met in the occupied territories last year there was an almost unanimous assertion that the Palestine Liberation Organization was their sole representative and spokesman, but at the same time a realization that the P.L.O. was almost totally ineffective in making progress, that Jordan was not an acceptable choice to represent Palestinians' interests, that life under Israeli military rule was becoming increasingly unbearable, that somehow they had to take care of themselves and that violence was increasing inexorably among the young. My impression was that the adults did not deplore this latter trend.

Israelis were understandably concerned about their nation's security, and Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and other powerful leaders still able to block any concessions expressed fears that reduction of military authority in the occupied territories and yielding of power to Palestinian Arabs would weaken Israel's ability to maintain control of its own destiny.

Most of the Palestinians and the political leaders in Syria, Jordan, Egypt, China, the Soviet Union and Britain expressed to me their agreement that the most acceptable route to peace was through an international conference to be convened by the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.

In this approach, the Security Council would provide for direct talks between Israel and its neighbors, guarantee the enforcement and financing of agreements, but reject any right either to impose decisions on the Middle East participants or to veto any deals made in bilateral negotiations. There was strong support for these basic premises among Labor Party leaders in Israel, opposition from most Likud leaders and equivocal reactions in Washington.

For 40 years, self-anointed Arab representatives have overdosed Palestinians with political promises and unfailing underperformance. The P.L.O. has proved incapable of bettering their economic or political condition. It is obvious that no combination of Arab forces can compel Israel to leave the territories.

The superpowers have been focusing their attention on domestic affairs, arms control, Central America and Afghanistan — not on peace in Palestine. Since 1967, all manner of verbal accords, declarations, frameworks, plans and resolutions have not changed the political status of the 1.5 million Christians and Moslems living under Israeli occupation. They see no significant prospects for change in a stalemated Israeli Government.

Now the sustained confrontations in the West Bank and Gaza are forcing Israelis and others to consider the grievances of the Palestinians. Their anger has focused on Israel, but they are almost equally annoyed with other powers that have failed to change their perennial status as outcasts and pariahs. The young demonstrators have exhibited an unprecedented commitment to their cause and a surprising threshold for absorbing personal pain. They have found themselves to be instant heroes when beaten or imprisoned, and are not likely to cease their demonstrations, regardless of the reaction of Israeli soldiers.

By burning tires and throwing stones, the Palestinians have induced the Israelis to respond with strong action — real bullets fired into demonstrating crowds and deliberate beatings of people on the streets and in their homes.

These actions have brought a wave of revulsion and condemnation, expressed most vehemently by Jewish and other supporters of Israel in the United States, who are put in the unenviable position of defending a long-term military occupation and the denial of basic human rights. Without using terrorism or armed struggle, young Palestinians are appealing directly to the conscience of the world. They have pre-emptively attacked Israel's most cherished characteristic: its moral fiber.

The violence may contribute to better prospects for early peace talks: Such an effort cannot wait until after this year's elections in Israel and the United States. The highly publicized suffering and violence have attracted the world's attention and revealed some potentially beneficial changes. New forcefulness and leadership among Palestinian Arabs have enhanced their role and decreased the influence of Jordan and the P.L.O. Many Israelis have been forced to examine the plight of their neighbors and to acknowledge the damage to their own nation's reputation as a democracy dedicated to justice and human rights.

With anger and mutual recrimination at a high pitch in the region, there is an increasing need for outside efforts to initiate negotiations, most notably from the United States. Regrettably, the Reagan administration responded for too long only at the ambassadorial level with an inevitably fruitless attempt to orchestrate exclusive talks among Israelis, Jordanians and West Bank and Gaza Palestinians. Many Israelis — and their adversaries — will welcome the news that Secretary of State Shultz now plans to intercede personally. The time is surely right for such an intercession, bringing with it the full influence of the White House.

There are some immediate steps that can be taken to stop the violence and at the same time move toward permanent peace. These include:

  • Exploring ways to open market outlets for the manufactured goods and agricultural produce of Palestinian Arabs.
  • Announcing a freeze on new Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
  • Holding municipal elections, as was done in 1972 and 1976 as a first move toward Palestinian self-rule -a move already advocated by influential young leaders within the Likud bloc.

But these steps alone will not resolve the crisis. Washington should pursue talks involving Israel, all its neighbors and the permanent members of the Security Council, with the goal of bringing all the parties into an international conference. With strong American leadership, despite some inevitable objections from Israelis and others, it is possible to bring great benefits both to Israel and her neighbors. Peace is not a zero-sum game; it is a win-win proposition.

Jimmy Carter, the former President of the United States, is Distinguished Professor at Emory University and chairman of The Carter Center, a public-policy organization.

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