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By Shimon Peres

Shimon Peres is the former foreign minister and former prime minister of Israel who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts, along with Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, to bring peace to the Middle East. A sidebar by Edward Said, the Palestinian thinker, follows.

TEL AVIV -- The peace process between us and the Palestinians is currently at an impasse, not because of a lack of peace plans, but because the confidence that peace partners still exist has faded. Israel -- and not only Israel -- no longer has faith in Yasser Arafat. Maybe, too, the Palestinians look with skepticism upon Ariel Sharon's declarations of being prepared to make ''painful concessions'' on behalf of peace.

Many Israelis are starting to have serious doubts about the ability of the Palestinians to act as peace partners.

Is this really so?

Three and a half million Palestinians (1.2 million in Gaza, close to 2 million in the West Bank and the rest in Jerusalem and its periphery) live in the ''territories,'' between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. Attempted terror attacks on Israel that originate from the territories are practically daily fare. Most are carried out by suicide-bomber cells or individual terrorists. Hundreds of Israelis have been killed and thousands wounded in the past two years. As a result, a closure has been imposed on the territories, many Palestinians lost their lives and homes, generating deep economic deprivation and augmenting hate.

Under these circumstances, no one is doing what they would like to do. And everyone is forced to act in a way they would prefer not to.

Yet, roughly the same number of Palestinians (about 3.5 million) are living on the other bank of the Jordan River, in the Kingdom of Jordan. Virtually no security problems exist between Israel and the Jordanians. Two towns -- Eilat and Akaba -- are located at the southern tip of Israel and Jordan, a few miles across from the other. During the whole of the 54 years of Israel's existence, not a single bullet was shot by one against the other.

The 120-mile-long Arava Valley connects the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. The border runs along this plain. Mostly it is not marked by barbed wires or mine fields or moats. The area is as secure as nature intended it to be. And the Jordan River, which serves as Israel's border with Jordan, idly winds its way from the Dead Sea to the Yarmouk River, which is where it ends. The Jordanians prevent infiltrators from entering Israel, and two bridges that stretch across the border and over the river are used for the movement of people and goods.

How come reasonable -- and even friendly -- ties distinguish the relations between Israel and Jordan (the majority of whose citizens are of Palestinian descent), whereas with the Palestinians, the scenario is different?

The reasons are threefold:

-- An established and secure border exists between us and the Jordanians. A similar border has as yet not been marked between Israel and the Palestinians.

-- In Jordan, there is an effective government, whereas on the Palestinian side, the Palestinian Authority has not succeeded in imposing its authority over the various terrorist factions. Each group shoots in a different direction, discounting Palestinian governance.

-- Clearly, there are no Israeli settlements on the Jordanian side. And in any case, there are no disputes over land between the Israelis and the Jordanians, just as none exists over borders.

The conclusion is obvious. It is vital that a border between us and the Palestinians be demarcated. When a border does not exist on the ground, it does not exist between peace and violence either. Despite the differences of opinion on the delineation of the border, I believe a settlement regarding an agreed and secure border can be reached, on the basis of President Bush's vision of two states -- Israeli and Palestinian -- and the Quartet's road map, that broaches this issue.

More complicated is Palestinian governance. We signed an agreement with Arafat in Oslo in 1993. This accord was meant to have engendered a permanent peace. At the time, Arafat stood at the head of the PLO, that until then had used terror as a means to reach its objectives. In Oslo, he committed himself to stop terrorist activities, and we, on our part, started to withdraw from the territories accordingly.

However, it turned out that Arafat, who was the chosen and uncontested leader of the PLO, failed to deliver the goods and become the effective leader of a Palestinian state in the making. The PLO was composed of a group of armed organizations. These factions refused to disarm after the Palestinian Authority was created, while claiming to accept Arafat's leadership. Arafat probably thought he could induce them politically to disarm and come to terms with Palestinian Authority governance. This did not happen. The dissident organizations are albeit in the minority. Yet a minority that believes in the bullet more than in the ballot.

Arafat did not dare resort to force and establish a central body that would control all usage of arms, by all factions. Thus, the Palestinian Authority lost all effective authority, and any cease-fire agreement made with it was erratic, in that at times it was implemented by only one of 12 separate organizations and at others by all. In truth, Arafat's authority and the prestige of the Palestinian Authority were undermined by those very organizations that ignored all of the Authority's orders and turned it into a laughingstock.

The unavoidable conclusion is that to create an effective Palestinian Authority, the Palestinians need to institute reform in their system of governance. For everything to depend on a single person is an implausible proposition, especially when that individual is not prepared to take the necessary steps to ensure security and revive the peace process.

The need for reform of the Palestinian Authority is acknowledged by most countries across the world. It is also recognized by the three Arab states that are trying to promote peace in the region: Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. It is also accepted by a large portion of the Palestinians and their leadership.

The nature of the reform is endorsed by all concerned: the division among three powers -- legislative, judicial and executive -- to enjoy independence, without being subjected to individual whims; the appointment of a prime minister to conduct Authority affairs effectively; control of all splinter organizations and armed groups under one coherent chain of command; and transparency in all financial activities.

Arafat agreed to this reform, reaffirming the need for a prime minister just last week. But he has not put this into practice, along with many other promises. Implementation of the verbal assurances never followed until now. The time has come to ask the Palestinians for a time-table for the reform. Otherwise, confusion will continue to reign, as will the rising number of victims and unbearable suffering on both sides.

Israel must resume negotiations to reach an agreement on an accepted border, enabling a withdrawal from the territories accordingly. The vicious cycle arising from the concept of a cease-fire first and peace negotiations after needs to be broken. It is hard to achieve a cease-fire by the sheer use of force. It is true that terrorists are killed in operations to cease fire by fire, yet terrorism itself feeds on the very measures aimed at stopping terror. I do not suggest that the fight against terrorists stop. Yet I do feel it is necessary to fight the incentives to terror in parallel, namely: to negotiate, give hope, reduce pressure. A cease-fire needs to be backed by civil motivation. To fight terror, while also creating a political climate to stop it, is not a contradiction in terms.

The conflict is tough and complex. But at least the existence of a peace plan -- one that is more or else acceptable to most -- can make it easier to resolve. It was once believed that partners produced a plan. What is called for today is that the plan -- let's call it a road map of sorts -- produce partners on both sides, with the ability to execute it.



By Edward Said

Edward Said is professor of comparative literature at Columbia University and a leading Palestinian thinker. His comment below is from a talk on Feb. 20 to the UCLA International Institute.

My friend Daniel Barenboim -- the Israeli-born musician with whom I co-sponsor music seminars between Israeli and Palestinian students -- is most exceptional. He is exceptional because he understands what no Israeli politician understands: Much more important than fighting over who is right and who is wrong is the need for a gesture -- a gesture of compassion, a gesture of acknowledgment and responsibility. No Israeli leader has ever, ever, made a gesture of this sort toward the Palestinians. Not one. None. Not one gesture saying, ''We are responsible for what happened'' in 1948 and afterward, the way the Poles have said, for example, about what they did to the Jews. Even the Japanese have acknowledged what they did to the Chinese.

One of the qualities that distinguishes Barenboim is that he was curious to see who we Palestinians were. Like so many Israelis, he grew up never meeting a Palestinian. But then he wanted to see us, to meet us. Not for the Palestinians' sake, but for his own. He wanted to understand because we occupy the same land. He wanted to look honestly at the whole picture.

What is missing, therefore, from the whole Israeli-Palestinian conflict is someone on the political level like Barenboim who provides a compassionate, universalizing view of the whole -- someone like Nelson Mandela who will say ''we can find a way of living together, each in our own manner, as equals, despite the past.'' The starting point of this future, though, is not a plan but a gesture -- a gesture of responsibility for the past.

(c) 2003, Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Tribune Media Services International.
For immediate release (Distributed 2/24/03)