New Civilization News: Thomas Friedman on the Middle East    
 Thomas Friedman on the Middle East0 comments
10 Apr 2002 @ 19:44, by Flemming Funch

I was just listening to an interview on the Charlie Rose show on public TV with Thomas Friedman who's a columnist for the New York Times and an expert and analyst concerning the Middle East. It is the first time for a long time I've heard somebody give such a knowledgable and balanced view. This man really knows what he is talking about, he is very good at making it clear, and he manages not to take sides. Read his latest column. You might need to register to read online content from New York Times.

Lifelines to the Future


Shortly after Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, I got an e-mail note from an Israeli who was writing to her friends about her grief. She explained that when she had sat down at the computer to write her thoughts she had labeled the file "Rabin," and when she was done and went to save it, the computer software automatically asked her: "Save Rabin?" She wrote us about how much she wished she could "Save Rabin" by just pressing a key.

I was thinking about her as I read all my angry e-mail from friends in the Middle East. This is the most polarizing moment I've ever experienced. The volcanic rage on both sides — intensified by the live TV coverage from the West Bank and the ability of the Internet to transmit people's immediate reactions — is terrifying, and it is spilling, like lava, out of the Middle East into Europe and beyond. It leaves me wishing there were a "Return" key I could hit to take us back to some point before all this craziness.

Remember, it hasn't always been like this. Since the late 1970's, Israel has enjoyed long stretches of peace, or at least quiet, with Egypt, Jordan and even the Palestinians. These moments all had one thing in common: they were based on a mutual willingness to draw clear lines and defend them — border lines, moral lines and lines to the future.

Oslo gradually collapsed because everyone started blurring the lines. Israel built peace with one hand and continued to build Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza with the other, to a degree that made Palestinians feel their living space was shrinking while Israel's was constantly expanding, all under the umbrella of "peace."

Ariel Sharon played a major role in building those settlements and blurring those lines. The Jewish right always justified this with its inane mantra: "Why shouldn't Jews be able to live anywhere?" The point was not whether Jews should have the right to live everywhere. The point was whether it was smart for them to live everywhere in biblical Israel — when it meant shrinking the Palestinians' opportunity for their own state.

But Oslo also failed because the Palestinians, while talking peace in English, continued to build hate against Israelis in Arabic in their mosques and textbooks. And they continued to draw maps of a future Palestinian state that erased Israel. Yasir Arafat played a leading role in all this. Recently, the Palestinians' mounting anger with Israel lulled them into their own self-delusional argument: that the Israeli occupation justified any Palestinian tactic for liberation, including suicide bombing of civilians. You can't build a normal state on the backs of suicide bombers.

President Bush's speech last week was particularly important because he put America in exactly the role it should be playing: restoring clear lines. He drew a clear line for Israelis — that no matter how many settlements they've built, any peace deal has to be based on the 1967 lines. He drew a clear line for Palestinians — that suicide bombers are not "martyrs, they're murderers."

But Mr. Bush did not draw the line down the middle. He was more critical of Mr. Arafat than Mr. Sharon because he knows something the Arabs have consistently tried to ignore: Ariel Sharon did not come from outer space. He was elected only after Mr. Arafat walked away from the best opportunity ever for creating a Palestinian state: the Clinton plan. Mr. Arafat deliberately chose to use military pressure, instead of diplomacy or nonviolence, to extract more out of Israel, and Israelis turned to Mr. Sharon as their revenge. This context is critical, and Mr. Bush has refused to ignore it.

A firm U.S. hand in redrawing all the fudged lines is our only hope. Otherwise the distinction between the sane center and the extremists, in both communities, will become totally blurred, with the hard-liners calling all the shots.

As I said, it wasn't always that way. I attended the 1995 Arab-Israeli Economic Summit in Amman. I was seated in the press gallery, just above the Israeli delegation. A Kuwaiti delegate accidentally sat down in the Israeli section, and Israelis filled in around him. So as I looked down, all I could see was an Israeli yarmulke sitting next to a Kuwaiti Arab headdress. It was an image I'll never forget.

That's the only blurring of lines we want: the one that brings the Israeli center and the Arab center together in the middle. But it can be done only if we restore all the other lines — the border lines and the moral lines. If only there were an "Insert Lines" key on my computer, I'd press it now.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company

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