Commentary: Middle East peace remains an elusive dream

It wasn’t very long ago when optimists and realists could agree on one point: The outline of a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians was clearly visible. Peace seemed within reach. The so-called Clinton parameters had built a tacit understanding of what it would take to create a Palestinian state and bring an end to the long-running Arab-Israeli conflict. One more determined effort, it seemed, could bring the sides together. But the dizzying march of events in the Middle East has trampled over that scenario.

On the whole, the long-term prospects for a democratic and peaceful Middle East may be gradually improving, but the people of the region must travel a long and treacherous road before reaching that destination.

President Obama renewed his call for negotiations towards peace. But every passing day seems to bring new evidence of how far the prospects for peace are receding. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will deliver a speech to the U.S. Congress that his aides had once said would bring a “historic” announcement Israelis hoped would put the peace process back on track. Perhaps Netanyahu can conjure a miracle and convince Palestinians to return to the negotiating table. His speech, and the Palestinians’ reaction, might still surprise us. But reasons for near-term optimism are hard to find. It’s no wonder Sen. George Mitchell, the peace negotiator appointed by President Obama, has ended his efforts.

The anti-tyranny turmoil in the Middle East pressured the bitter Palestinian foes Hamas and Fatah to end their dispute on terms that appear to doom the chances for peace. Palestinians have walked away from negotiations. Their recent Hamas-Fatah deal left little room for reconciliation with Israel. Fatah, the party of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, did not demand that Hamas agree to the most basic requirements for peace: Hamas still rejects Israel’s right to exist.

Some have made much of statements from some Hamas officials that they would accept a state along the 1967 borders. But Hamas is crystal clear that its goal is destroying Israel. Ismail Haniyeh, Gaza’s Hamas prime minister, told 10,000 supporters gathered to mourn the creation of Israel that he has “Great hope of bringing an end to the Zionist project in Palestine.” When pressed on recognizing Israel, Hamas leaders say they could not do that to future generations. In other words, their “compromise” vision of a Palestinian state would be a forerunner of efforts to destroy Israel. Nobody denies that.

To Hamas, creating a Palestinian state would not end the conflict. But ending the conflict is the entire point of making peace.

In the long-run, democracy in the Middle East will help the cause of peace. But we have not even reached the short run. We stand amid the battlefield for the future. The prospects for a quick peace are getting crushed in the regional turmoil.

This hurts Palestinians because clashes in places like Syria are delaying the creation of their state. It is bad for Israelis because it blocks their wish to live in a normal country, no longer plagued by the hostility of neighbors and the constant threat of war. Arab dictators, in their desperate efforts to stay in power, look increasingly willing to provoke a war with Israel to distract their people and unite them in nationalist fervor. Syria’s Assad has killed at least 850 pro-democracy protesters. He, his partners in Iran, and the radical militias he supports want to change the subject.

On May 15, thousands of Arabs tried to breach Israel’s borders with Syria, Lebanon and Gaza. The assault was partly organized by Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas. They would like nothing more than the world to become transfixed by images of Israeli soldiers shooting Arabs. That’s why Hezbollah in Lebanon and the besieged Assad government in Syria bused thousands to the border. U.N. peacekeepers in Lebanon did not stop this flirtation with war.

To Israelis, the sight of hostile throngs breaking through their borders brings reminders of the dangers they face. It’s the kind of image that stiffens the spine. It’s not good for peace.

Arab leaders, meanwhile, have become afraid of their people. They will not tell them now to compromise with Israel.

Inevitably, many will blame the entire situation on Israel. But right now, with Mideast fires raging, it’s hard to see how that vision of peace that so recently seemed within reach can soon turn into reality. Now only the most determined optimists expect good news on peace in the near future.