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Will Separation Work in Middle East Conflict?


Given the continuing violence between Israelis and Palestinians, there is increasing talk of separating the two communities until a more satisfactory arrangement can be found.

Peace between Israelis and Palestinians is not at hand; perhaps it has never been more remote.

So let's be realistic, advises Shlomo Avineri, professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and now a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington. Let the two communities go their separate ways until they can achieve a more enduring settlement.

There is an example of this kind of separation, or disengagement, says Professor Avineri. It is Cyprus, the Mediterranean island divided between Greeks and Turks since 1974.

"It is not exactly ideal, but it is better than the present mess. It is not a solution," he said. "We do not know how the Cyprus issue will be solved, but there is no violence. People are not being killed. There is no terrorism. There are no counter-measures from the other side. I hope we can achieve something like this."

Professor Avineri concedes people prefer solutions to non-solutions, but we must lower our sights to end the violence. That is the most urgent need. Harmony and good feelings can come later. With reservations, Fawaz Gerges, agrees. A professor of Middle East and international relations at Columbia University and Sarah Lawrence College, he says peaceful integration of the two communities is the long-range goal.

"At this stage, however, at this historical juncture, I think both sides would like separation. Both sides would like a divorce, but a divorce built on solid foundations rather than shaky ones," he said. "What I mean by that is, Israel cannot get rid of the Palestinian problem by forcing the Palestinians to live in a state of siege."

Professor Gerges says separation must have international legitimacy, based on U.N. resolutions. A unilateral move by Israel could make things worse.

Separation could be especially hard on the Palestinian economy, which has already suffered as a result of Israel's blockade of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But Professor Avineri argues that, left to themselves, Palestinians could make rapid economic progress, with outside help.

"The Palestinians as a nation, compared to other Arab countries, are highly literate, highly educated people," he said. "With some assistance and investment from Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, they could become the Hong Kong of the Middle East. They could become a power-house, because they have the know-how."

Separation has its limitations, contends Steve Yetiv, professor of political science at Old Dominion University. It might work for a while, but not for long. He thinks there is no substitute for the peace process.

"The time right now may not be propitious to move ahead with the peace process, but at one point, it will be," he said. "Someone said it is much better to have a good neighbor than to have a good gun. There will be no way around eventually getting the two sides to come to a negotiated agreement. So, the question is, how many people do you want to die before both sides realize what they have to do?"

They know what they have to do, says Professor Yetiv. Israel has to deal with its settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has to replace the armed activist with the determined diplomat.

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