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The Middle East: Peace in Jeopardy?

March 1996

Peace in the Middle East has long been elusive. But recently the leaders and peoples of this beleaguered region seemed to be edging toward compromise and accomodation. Even the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin by a fanatic Jewish law student did not succeed in derailing the peace process, which was carried forward by Rabin's successor, Shimon Peres. Now, however, a series of Islamic terrorist attacks against Israel is rapidly dispelling the atmosphere of conciliation.

Can Peres collaborate with Arab leaders to prevent an extreme fringe from destroying the peace process? Do the bombings signal the inevitable hopelessness of compromise in the region? Is "peace in the Middle East" an oxymoron?

This question has been addressed by a number of Atlantic contributors over the years. In "Israel and the Arabs: the Myths that Block Peace" (January, 1969) political scientist Charles Yost argued for the feasibility of Arab-Israeli peace. He suggested that if each side could only be persuaded to relinquish its cherished myths-- the sense each had, for example, of its own innate superiority and divine right to control the Holy Land--then the conflict could be approached as a purely political, logistical matter, and a workable compromise could be devised. Should the two sides stubbornly refuse to listen to reason, he argued, then outside intervention on the part of the United Nations would be required to work out a compromise.

In "Why Israel Can't Take 'Bold Steps' for Peace" (October, 1985) Irish statesman Conor Cruise O'Brien argued that hopes for rational solutions to the Middle Eastern conflict are unfounded. He suggested that the modern Western world's rationalism has led many to believe, wrongly, that a logical settlement is all that is required for the attainment of peace. "The Jewish claim to Jerusalem is not a matter of rational argument; nor is the Moslem claim; nor will the two claims be reconciled, or either side appeased, by arbitration."

More recently, however, in "Lions in Winter" (January, 1993), Ze'ev Schiff and Ehud Ya'ari, reported on peace negotiations among Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, and the chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, Yasser Arafat, and suggested that peace might at last be near. The three leaders, they argued, would be especially eager to achieve a workable accomodation because "all three sense that their peoples cannot bear another war" and because "all three are at the end of their political careers and know that they have little time left to make an indelible mark not just on the history of the Middle East but, more to the point, on its future."

Since then, one of those leaders has been assassinated and terrorism has escalated. Are these tragic but not insurmountable setbacks in a progression toward peace? Are they evidence of the ultimate intractability of the Middle Eastern conflict? How close is peace?

For more on Israel and its spiritual-national mission, see our Flashback on the State of Israel.

Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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