An opportunity to find lasting peace

When Yasser Arafat died last week of an undisclosed illness, he left his Palestinian supporters bereft of their greatest modern ally. His passage offers a unique opportunity to the peace process in Israel, but it also comes with great risk.

For years Arafat had been labeled an obstructionist and charlatan. He was renowned for his great agility in avoiding direct questions and was reputed to have misappropriated untold millions. But it is undeniable that he was the single most influential Palestinian leader of the last century. Yasser Arafat, love him or hate him, was a man devoted to his people, a tireless advocate of the Palestinian cause.

In discussing Arafat’s death with members of the PSU community, I found widespread hope that the Israel/Palestine conflict would be resolved. Arafat’s final return from exile, though posthumous, will have a resounding impact on the Middle Eastern landscape.

The risk is that the power vacuum left in his absence will be filled not by one unified front, but by contesting factions. This would be a disaster for the Palestinians. They cannot afford to fracture their voice in such a situation. The hope is that, now that the great "obstacle" has been removed, real steps toward peace can be taken. The one thing that should be clear to anyone is that peace in Israel is in everyone’s best interest.

The majority of the world’s population belongs to one of the three religions that were born in the Middle East. Muslims, Jews and Christians all look to that little sliver of land at the Mediterranean’s eastern end for their spiritual origin. The land, the air and the water are suffused with history and faith. Combine the spiritual importance of the region with its economic importance, thanks to petroleum, and it becomes deadly obvious that something must be done to stabilize the situation.

The only viable solution is a confederation of sorts between two equal states, or one unified, secular state. Many Israeli Jews reject the second permutation, as demographics show that they would be a minority in their "own" country in twenty years. In the past, hundreds of thousands of skilled, reliable Palestinian laborers have crossed into Israel to work. Now they are held in a state of virtual arrest, penned in ghettoes behind elephantine fences, a state of affairs far too like the one from which the first Israeli settlers fled. By keeping the Palestinians out, the Israelis hamstring their own cause. Not only do they rob themselves of a large pool of intelligent workers, but the poverty that results makes easy recruits for groups like Hamas or al-Aqsa.

At some point the chain of violence has to be broken. There are decades of fear and suffering on both sides – for what? Neither side has anything to gain from the demise of the other. Blowing up children waiting at bus stops only results in the razing of Palestinian villages; the razing of Palestinian villages only leads to suicide bombers. The vicious circle draws taut around the neck of both peoples, and neither can survive the struggle.

We should use our nation’s huge influence on the Israeli government to encourage them to vigorously pursue peace initiatives, and to do so immediately, before the historic opportunity provided by the death of Yasser Arafat is gone beyond recall.

Riggs Fulmer can be reached at [email protected]