Watching U.S. special envoy to the Mideast Anthony Zinni again go through the motions of drafting a cease-fire this week has only made it more apparent that the conflict in Israel has no end in sight. The attacks and counterattacks on both sides are multiplying, as is the number of victims. How many more will there be?

However inhuman it sounds, the conflict will have to run its course, until both sides have suffered up to and past their breaking point. Only then will there be a willingness to compromise. At the moment, any outside attempt to stop the fighting will not succeed, or will do so only for a very short time.

This is not to say that the conflict will spread. There are many parties interested in seeing it contained. Moderate Arab regimes fear a generalized conflict would undermine their governments. Rejectionists such as Iraq and Iran have a vested interest in continued conflict, but are unlikely to intervene on a massive scale.

The Wheel of History

The two domestic players have both made plenty of errors. The Palestinians’ fatal mistake was to reject the state they would have received under the U.N. resolution of November 1947. The agony of the past half-century has been over something that was once within their grasp. Now the attempt to turn back the wheel of history is bound to fail. Hundreds of thousands had to flee their homes, finding themselves first under Jordanian or Egyptian rule, then under Israeli occupation.

The Arab countries did not resettle the Palestinian refugees — their solidarity was rhetorical. The absorption, they reasoned, would have been difficult and by keeping the refugees in camps near the border they gained a powerful weapon against Israel. The U.N. had to step in places like Gaza to provide such necessities as food, housing, education and medical services. Although it was done in the finest humanitarian spirit, it prolonged the agony. Gaza’s high birth rate has made the political problem more intractable. The camps have become the main breeding ground for terrorism and suicide bombers.

The Israelis have not been without fault. Their fatal mistake was to not return all the occupied territories, or almost all of them, soon after the Six Day War in 1967. Before that there was no basis for negotiations with the Palestinians because they rejected the very existence of Israel and hoped that if they waited long enough and fought hard enough the Jewish state would disappear. After 1967 fewer Arab governments continued to harbor the illusion that Israel would simply wither away. While they continued to declare that they would not negotiate, they began to understand that they could not destroy Israel in the foreseeable future.

This was bound to be a lengthy learning process and the different Israeli governments should have helped to shorten it by returning the West Bank and Gaza, unilaterally if need be. Instead, they permitted the building of Israeli settlements in the territories which were bound to become a permanent economic liability.

Advocates of settlements argued that these Jewish townships surrounded by Arabs would defend Israel. But in fact they became an intolerable burden for the Israeli armed forces that were tied down defending isolated settlements. Politically, Israeli rule over so many hostile citizens was a disaster: It endangered the democratic character of the state and caused great harm to its image abroad.

A significant number of Israelis opposed the settlement policy, but with the religious- nationalist mystique spreading after the Six Day War, the idea of giving up the territories became more and more politically difficult. Had Israel been a superpower, such behavior would have elicited ritual protests and little else. But Israel is not a great power, a fact that the governments of Yitzhak Shamir, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon seem never to have quite understood.

Among the territorial squabbles, the handling of the Jerusalem issue has perhaps been the most damaging to Israel. The idea that Jerusalem should be undivided under Israeli rule has turned a territorial conflict with the Palestinians into a religious confrontation with the Muslim world. The belief that the state of Israel could not exist without territorial sovereignty over all of Jerusalem was alien to Zionism prior to 1967. Only recently has it become part of the official nationalist-religious ideology.

The conflation of the mistakes made by both sides has been deadly. Palestinians have been indoctrinated by their leaders for decades that there will be no settlement without a “right of return” to Israel. But there can be no return to houses and villages that no longer exist, to a country that is overpopulated anyway. Muslims who fled after partition in 1947 cannot return to India. Germans cannot return to pre-World War II ancestral dwellings in Poland, the Czech Republic or Slovakia. The list is long. But the Palestinian leadership has failed to accept this reality.

The majority of Palestinians still hope that Israel can be somehow made to disappear, leaving the whole of Palestine as an Arab state. Radical Islamism teaches them that there can be no peace with the infidels, only jihad to the very end. That the idea of jihad was conceived in an age before weapons of mass destruction existed has little resonance. Nor does the fact that Mohammed was willing to accept a truce with his enemies.

Significant numbers of Israelis, meanwhile, still believe they can hang on to the occupied territories. It isn’t just settlers who refuse to accept that most of them will have to leave their present abodes.

Given these realities, the question turns on how much suffering will be necessary to create a psychological climate in which there will be willingness to compromise, if not out of conviction, out of weakness. At present, daily life still continues more or less as before for both sides, public services function most of the time, salaries are still paid. History teaches that it will be only in the face of a massive breakdown that the two sides will resume talks.

Good people reading this are likely to react by asking, is there no shortcut, no way to impose a settlement? There are signs of growing irritation in Washington and there’s been indignation in European capitals for some time — though mostly aimed at the Israelis. But the irritation and indignation are not sufficiently strong to induce those concerned to accept the practical implications.

Inconvenient Facts

To supervise a truce the U.S. and Europe would have to station a force of between 50,000 and 80,000 soldiers for an indefinite period. This would mean an investment of billions of dollars. Despite the daily horrors, the danger out of the Middle East is not imminent enough to force Washington or Europe to accept such involvement. There isn’t yet a direct threat that the war will spread and endanger vital American and European interests.

In other words, with all the moaning in Europe and America there is no readiness yet to become involved. But without such intervention, any truce reached before the threshold of pain has been crossed will not last a single week.

Mr. Laqueur, chairman of the International Research Council of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, is the author, among other books, of “A History of Zionism,” “The Israeli-Arab Reader” and “The New Terrorism.”

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