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June 4, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 42




Tom Roberts Maybe this time hope trumps ancient enmities

Tom Roberts NCR editor

A dozen years ago, I was briefly in Guatemala and El Salvador, interviewing church and civic leaders who had been active in bringing those two countries to the peace processes that ended vicious civil wars in both places.

The particulars were fascinating at the time, but what struck me beyond the nuts and bolts of the process was an undercurrent that ran through almost all the conversations: People on both sides had grown weary of the futility. I don't know if the massive killing would have ended as it did if the wider global community had not been pressing in all manner of ways for peace. What was clear, however, is that each side in each of the conflicts had reached a kind of exhaustion with the killing and had reached the conclusion that they were engaged in a futile, endless exercise.

I remember thinking then that hope is as much a function of patience and persistence as it is of action and will.

I recalled those old encounters in Central America when speaking with Jewish friends about recent developments in the Middle East. When asked what he thought of the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan, one rabbi responded, "What time of day is it?"

Similarly, a young Arab woman living in East Jerusalem early on would not say she had no hope for the process, but wondered if Israel would actually remove settlers this time, as well as tanks and troops.

During dinner another evening with Jewish friends, the talk inevitably turned to the current peace negotiations, and the consensus was that everyone wants to hope that this is the time, but that the many disappointments of the past push optimism to the background.

"We've been there, done that," said the host of the dinner. They had seen the pictures of Jew and Arab holding hands and promising peace before.

NCR's Rome correspondent John L. Allen Jr. told me this morning that James Nicholson, U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, expressed "guarded hope" for success of the current peace initiative.

Officials in the Vatican's Secretariat of State expressed a "desire to believe" and see "limited evidence to believe" that this effort might bring about lasting peace.

There further is a prevailing attitude, some say, among Israeli government officials and diplomats that the "road map" presents a kind of last chance, that if this doesn't work, it will be a long time until this kind of chance comes around again.

Some note that Israel realizes the financial cost of trying to support the occupation indefinitely would be devastating; at the same time, the Palestinians may be forced to acknowledge they will have to place limits on their expectations for the return of millions of Palestinians from other parts of the world.

Maybe both sides have reached the point of exhaustion, the point of realizing the futility of continuing to send suicide bombers on their ghastly missions and the futility of trying to occupy and control the Palestinian territories.

And just maybe, this time, hope trumps ancient enmities.

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