The Middle East seems to move closer to the brink of chaos every year. Political leaders in the area, from Amman and Cairo to Riyadh and Jerusalem, look at the ruins of Lebanon and wonder who is next. Proliferating weapons of mass destruction, coupled with proliferating non-state militaries, threaten them all. Meanwhile, the prospects for a “just and lasting peace” in the region grow more difficult to imagine.
This is why a lasting peace between Israel and her neighbors will have to come without a textbook definition of “justice.” A deal needs to be made that unfortunately will not right every wrong, heal every wound, wipe away every sin, or compensate every injury. There are too many, too contradictory yet equally valid claims to justice on all sides.
A possible key to escape this locked room of chaos was used successfully by the man whom most Westerners see as the father of contemporary religious radicalism: Iran’s Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. In 1989, after years of waging a “holy war” against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Khomeini sensed his nation was at the point of collapse and was bleeding young men and resources too deeply. He told his politicians and his people that it was time to “swallow poison” and make peace. The peace lasted until the present day.
“Swallowing poison” has other precedents. As one of the present writers witnessed first-hand during the final negotiations leading up to the Good Friday Accords that ended the violence in Northern Ireland-another seemingly interminable ethnic-religious conflict-the final hurdle was passed when both sides accepted that the murderers of each others’ soldiers, militiamen, and innocents would have to be set free from prison. This was a bitter pill, especially for the widows and orphans of those killed, but it was not fatal. The region has been largely free of terrorist violence for the past ten years.
Closer to the Middle East, one of us recalls a grandfather who, as an officer in the Royal Greek Army in 1921, participated in a war with Turkey in Western Anatolia. The peace brought gigantic, unjust and heart-wrenching population transfers and expulsions. Neither government, however, kept its displaced brothers and sisters in refugee camps, fueling despair and rage for generations to come. Instead, all were absorbed as citizens. Memories and anger may have remained, but violence has not. The result has been a not-quite-friendship (although both are NATO allies) and one near-war over Cyprus, but also some 90 years of peace on the border between Turkey and Greece.
In the Middle East of today, the only way to sign a final deal will be for the responsible parties on both sides–underwritten by willing powers, both Arab and Western–to accept less than the 100 percent perfect solutions they now demand. For Israelis, the poison is to retreat from any and all land defined by United Nations resolutions as “occupied,” from the Shaba farms to the Golan Heights and, yes, even back to pre-1967 Jerusalem. For the Arabs, the poison will be (a) surrendering claims for a “right of return” for those displaced in 1947-48 and their heirs (although they should receive financial compensation); (b) policing their own media to reduce the hate propaganda that would incite future wars; and (c) settling refugees in the countries they now inhabit or in the new Palestine. Both sides need to release all prisoners, even the killers of the innocents.
In response to these proposals, there will be many to decry the “betrayal of the cause,” to bemoan the patent unfairness of it all, and to recite the litany of past crimes. The only reasonable reply is to counter with another question: Is it preferable that the misery and deaths go on forever, always escalating? We face a choice not between peace and justice, but between peace and rubble.