At the crossroads, again

Opportunities squandered, opportunities ahead.

In the speech of his lifetime at the UN Assembly, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon made a commitment to work for peace with the Palestinians. He is not the first Israeli leader to have vowed to bring peace to our two peoples. Peace has been an elusive element that we invoke in our prayers, which we place at the top of our policy postulates. Has it escaped us only because of Palestinian intransigence, or must we also share the blame? There are many among us who refuse to accept that we are anything but lily-white in all our dealings with our neighbors, certainly in our efforts to make peace. Sadly, this is not the case. Time and time again we have failed to think creatively to advance the cause of peace. Time and again we missed opportunities at crucial crossroads. If ever there was a need to learn from past mistakes it is now. If ever we found ourselves at crucial crossroads it is now. Sure, the Palestinians have to deliver, to show good governance in Gaza and prevent violence and terror. That, however, does not release us from the need to do our part. We must make sure that, with disengagement behind us, no stone will be left unturned in order to gain political mileage on the road to peace. Let's examine just a few of the woefully many past mistakes so that we can learn for the future. ON FEBRUARY 14, 1971, history was made in our country, or rather, it could have been made. For the first time ever one of our neighbors, Egypt no less, used the magic word of "peace" in an official note to Israel. Thunderstruck Foreign Ministry officials could hardly believe their eyes when UN Special Representative Gunnar Jarring delivered the note. It declared that "Egypt will be ready to enter into a peace agreement with Israel " under certain conditions, the principal one being the return of Israel to the international boundary with Egypt. There was no mention of Palestinians. The Foreign Ministry wanted to send a positive reply, welcoming Egypt's willingness to enter into a peace agreement and proposing immediate negotiations. The hawks in the cabinet, foremost among them prime minister Golda Meir, were skeptical. They distrusted the Egyptian intentions. Golda took upon herself the final wording of Israel's reply, which contained the following key sentence: "Israel will not withdraw to the pre-5 June 1967 lines." No to the return of Sinai. Two years later the Yom Kippur War broke out with its thousands of casualties. That war would never have occurred if the Foreign Ministry had been allowed to send its reply. The attitude of "nothing good can come from talking to the Arabs" had vanquished the professionals of the Foreign Ministry. The result? A war that should never have happened, thousands of dead, and, despite our hawks, Sinai returned to Egypt to the last grain of sand. DISTRUST almost struck again. When president Anwar Sadat announced his intention to come to Jerusalem military intelligence had this to say: "We do not believe that Egypt is willing to disengage from the Arab collective. Although we can identify certain basic semantic changes, we do not believe that there is more than semantics and PR tactics." A deputy prime minister was so convinced that Sadat's declaration was a trick that he proposed that Israel immediately mobilize two reserve divisions. My next example is more controversial: It's 1967 and the West Bank and Gaza have fallen to our advancing troops. A team of reserve officers is given the task of discovering who among the Palestinians belong to the political elite, and what are their opinions. The officers reach the conclusion that a peace deal is possible. At that time Fatah was still weak it was only two years old Hamas was non-existent, there were no settlements to complicate the issue, and the Palestinians were hugely dissatisfied with the previous Jordanian rule. Leading Palestinians were willing to organize an assembly in Jericho in which they would declare their desire for peace with Israel, in return for some form of independent entity bound in alliance with Israel. The officers delivered their findings. They were rejected on the grounds that "Jordan made war against us and we must make peace with Jordan, not with the Palestinians." "Jordan First" was the prescribed policy. Disillusioned, the Palestinians flocked to the open arms of Fatah, and the inevitable spiral of violence took root, with the helping hand of Yasser Arafat and his cronies. Creative thinking at that particular crucial crossroad could have engendered very different results, a very different history. WE ARE back there now, on one of those crossroads. The right or the wrong turning will determine our future history. The same is true for the Palestinians, perhaps even more so. We, however, have to look on our side of the divide. We are the stronger of the two. The return of Gaza to the Palestinians was a courageous and necessary act. We must not endanger our security; we must not allow terrorism to flourish yet again. One of the ways to do this is to instill hope, by confidence-building measures and by a willingness to negotiate an end to the conflict. Will we take this path? Will Ariel Sharon's commitment be realized, just as he fulfilled his promise to disengage? We, Israelis and Palestinians, are now at the most critical junction in our history. We must not take the wrong turning. The writer is a former director general of the Foreign Ministry.