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Experts Discuss Mideast Conflict and Possible Resolution - 2002-06-07

U.S. President George Bush is stepping up his effort to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Those efforts have been undermined by more than a year of violence that has hardened attitudes on both sides. Experts in conflict resolution say the violence is hard to eliminate without offering something better to the Palestinians but even that is complicated by the threat of more violence.

Professor John Darby of the University of Notre Dame says the biggest threat to any peace process is uncontrolled violence. But the expert in ethnic conflict says halting the violence temporarily is also risky.

"If a cease-fire begins a peace process, the biggest threat to the peace process is that the cease-fire will end, the people in the negotiations will change their minds," he said. "There are always elements within the parties, within the militant groups either large or small which believe that to go into negotiations is to risk betrayal, or to be seen handing over to the enemy. So there is a kind of pendulum effect going on during negotiations, ranging from those who have decided to go into talks to those who are very skeptical of the process. And the measures of where the pendulum swings is the answer to questions like 'what are we getting from this?'"

In the case of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, former journalist John Wallach says both sides need an incentive to return to the negotiating table. Mr. Wallach now runs the Seeds of Peace exchange program that brings together Israeli and Palestinian youngsters.

For Israelis, he says, the incentive is security. For Palestinians, it is an end to Israeli occupation.

"What incentive did the United States and the Bush administration provide in its first year for Arafat to control the terrorists?," he asked. "Simply to say, as the Israeli government said, we won't negotiate until there is no terrorism was a slap in the face to many Palestinians who had believed that they were on the road towards gaining independence, gaining self determination, gaining a capital and a contiguous state."

Mr. Wallach says a U.S. peace plan that provides some tangible steps toward that goal could give Palestinian militants a reason to end their attacks against Israelis. He says that recent surveys of Israelis and Palestinians show that both sides are exhausted by more than a year and a half of bloodshed.

But, ethnic conflict expert John Darby warns the window of opportunity can close as quickly as it opens unless both sides are committed to the peace process.

"Fatigue is not enough," he said. "People can be fatigued for a long time. It doesn't necessarily translate into talks."

Joseph Klaits of the Washington-based U.S. Institute of Peace, who organized the recent discussion on conflict resolution, says advancing a peace process also has a lot to do with overcoming fear.

"Each party is so consumed by its own fear and hurt that it is blind to the fear and hurt of the other side," he said. "Each party typically sees itself as a righteous victim and views the enemy as guilty of immoral acts of violence."

Notre Dame University Professor John Darby says civil society can help prepare the way for negotiations by putting pressure on their leaders to open a dialogue. But he acknowledges there are radical groups on both sides that will always try to sabotage any peace talks.

The challenge, he says, is to reduce their influence on the majority of Israelis and Palestinians who still do favor peaceful coexistence.