By JAMES KLURFELD
LONG ISLAND NEWSDAY
With the election Sunday of Mahmoud Abbas as the new Palestinian president, there is the slightest sense of optimism about the Mideast peace process for the first time in five years.
The emphasis should be on slight, but it's a far better situation than when Yasser Arafat was around and encouraging violence against Israel.
Abbas has specifically and consistently said that he believed violence has been counterproductive to the Palestinian cause, including Tuesday after an exchange of hostilities between the two sides. The key question, of course, is whether he can prevail in that view over the radicals.
But it's also important to understand what an improved relationship between Israel and the Palestinians will mean -- and what it will not mean. There is one school of thought, certainly in Europe but also here in the United States, that an improvement in the Palestinian situation will lead to an improvement in the anti-Western, anti-American feeling in the rest of the Muslim world. Indeed, there are some who argue that a Palestinian-Israeli agreement is key to peace in that entire region.
There is ample reason to be skeptical of that view.
The reality is that the Israeli-Palestinian dispute has often been used as a scapegoat by Arab leaders to divert attention from their own internal problems or to camouflage the deeply felt disputes between Muslim nations. The hatred between Sunni and Shiite Muslims has nothing to do with the Israeli-Arab dispute, for instance. Nor do the longtime rivalries between states such as Iran and Iraq or Saudi Arabia and Iran.
In fact, there is a mountain of evidence that Arab leaders have exacerbated the Palestinian situation because it was a way to divert attention from their dismal failure to build modern, democratic, prosperous states. Rather than trying to encourage a peaceful solution in the Mideast or to improve the tortured situation of Palestinian refugees, the Arab states have almost always sat on the sidelines playing their duplicitous games. The latest example was in the summer of 2000 when President Clinton brought Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak to Camp David.
Despite the unprecedented offers from Israel to find a formula for peace, none of the other Arab countries joined in any serious, substantial effort to convince Arafat that a compromise was worthwhile or, at least, to continue to negotiate. The Saudis, while paying lip service to the process, continued to finance suicide bombers.
There is also a body of opinion that the only way the United States can turn the tide of anti-American Islamic opinion is by taking a more "even-handed" approach in the dispute. Certainly the Europeans favor this "even-handed" approach for their own selfish reasons. But what does "even-handed" mean? Even if you believe that the Bush administration has tilted too far toward the Israeli right (and I would blame Arafat for that), for the vaunted "Arab street" the only acceptable outcome of the Mideast dispute would be Israel's demise. A compromise, the only possible way of settling the dispute, is unlikely to satisfy popular Arab opinion, especially given years of virulent propaganda against Israel.
The Europeans might be ready to sell Israel out to curry favor with the Muslims. It is far less likely that any administration in Washington would or could favor such a settlement. And besides, Israel would never agree to any plan that compromised its long-term viability no matter how hard the United States pushed it.
The reason to favor a resumption of the Mideast peace process is that it would be good for both the Palestinian people, who want their own state, and the Israeli people, who want to live in peace. Yes, it would also add a modicum of stability to a region that has been unstable and maybe, just maybe, lead to a marginal improvement in Muslim opinion about Washington. But the magic elixir to the problems of the entire region? No way.
X Klurfeld is editor of Newsday's editorial pages. Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service.