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Seeking peace by stealth
By Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler
The International Herald Tribune
April 2, 2007

The Israeli people and the radical Islamists of Hamas loathe each other. Moreover, both loathe the prospect of any renewed negotiations to end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

They are the only two major Middle East parties who do not see any political horizon out of the Saudi peace initiative. Both regard as basically irrelevant a plan that grants full Arab and Muslim acceptance of Israel in return for Israel returning all lands it has occupied for 40 years and accepting East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine.

Given such strong disillusion with peacemaking among Israelis and such entrenched distrust of negotiations on the part of Hamas, can anyone, primarily the United States, save the Saudi initiative from again being shunted aside, as it was five years ago when it was launched at an Arab summit meeting in Beirut?

In Riyadh, Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas spoke forthrightly: `We extend a genuine hand of peace to the Israeli people. We wait for them to grasp it.`

In response, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert suggests a regional peace conference.

Yet, despite Israel`s normally lively political discourse, the Saudi initiative does not seem to engage Israelis at all. Is this silence a death knell for peacemaking?

If, like Hamas, the Israeli people are not interested in hearing the buzz of peace in the air, could that not be a good thing? Maybe it is precisely what peacemakers should be looking for.

Out in the open, peacemaking stands no chance. Extremist positions, emotional attitudes and scare tactics by opponents would hold sway. The negotiating leaders would be constrained and would have to meet the toughest benchmarks. Each side would have to hunker down in its own bastion, attempts to reach common ground woulod be doomed to fail.

We have been there before. This is partly why both the Israeli people and Hamas are blase with regard to the peace process.

Recall, however, each previous instance when Israelis were not asked beforehand to endorse a sweeping break with entrenched positions: peace with Anwar Sadat`s Egypt, the 1993 Oslo Accords, even Ariel Sharon`s 2005 unilateral handover of the Gaza Strip. Public approval was obtained for each breakthrough, but only after the agreement was concluded.

Now is not the time to convince the Israeli people that this is `a historic opportunity.` (That can come later.) Instead, what is called for, to use the term of Hebrew University historian Steven Aschheim, is peace by stealth. Until a real deal materializes, peacemaking needs to be off the radar. Let peace remain a mirage for now.

Prior to the Riyadh summit, there was a wise collective mea culpa expressed by Jordan`s prime minister, Marouf al-Bakhit. We, the Arab moderates, he suggested, have failed dismally in convincing the Israeli people that the Saudi plan is infinitely better for them than the internationally-backed road map for peace.

How right Bakhit is. Arab declarations of good intentions no longer convince most Israelis.

It works the other way, too. Palestinians are not persuaded by declarations of Israeli good intentions. They, too, have lost faith in peace.

Only after stealth negotiations are crowned with an agreement in principle should the oath of silence be broken. To convert a secret agreement into workable reality, shock treatment will be needed to win public approval and to overcome skeptics and doomsayers.

Rebuilding confidence in peace can only occur if Palestinians and Israelis alike have their respective credos shaken to the core. That can only be made to happen by grand, myth-defying acts of historical dimension: On the Israeli side, say, to reverse (not merely freeze) settlement building in the West Bank, and on the Arab side, say, to undertake an audacious act akin to Sadat`s earth-shattering visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and to the Knesset in Jerusalem.

It may be hyperbole to call the Riyadh meeting the final chance for Middle East peacemaking. It is no exaggeration, however, to say that a double-barreled negotiating strategy of stealth and audacity would radically reverse the prevailing gloom and usher in the one thing the Middle East has yet to experience - a durable, comprehensive peace.

Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler are Jerusalem-based reporters and documentary filmmakers.

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