Amidst the rage, grief and despair over the killing of 57 Israelis in a quick-fire series of Hamas bombings, it is understandable that many find it hard to see how the Middle East peace process can possibly continue. Israeli troops are back in the West Bank in force. Palestinian towns once more have been sealed off, and hundreds of Palestinian activists, suspected of being Islamic extremists, have been arrested. It's as if that famous handshake between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin on the White House lawn never happened.
But the images of torn bodies and twisted steel obscure the enormous changes that have taken root in Israel, the Palestinian territories and the larger Arab world since the 1993 Israel-PLO accord. The tangible dividends such changes have wrought have resulted in a new, forward-looking Middle East -- and ensure that the quest for peace will not easily be abandoned.
Israelis have dramatically broadened their diplomatic and economic horizons, producing a warm peace with neighboring Jordan and commercial relations with a half-dozen other Arab states. Last year, the Jewish state racked up more than $100 million in trade with Arab countries, a figure that will double this year, according to World Bank economists. Since the accord, foreign investment has poured into Israel, fueling a growth rate averaging seven percent -- which, for the average Israeli, means jobs.
For the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the peace process may not yet have produced their long-sought independent state, but it has given them a cherished measure of political autonomy and personal dignity that they have never before experienced. For the first time in their tortured history, Palestinians held democratic elections on their own soil in January, ignoring Hamas' calls to boycott the vote. In the immediate wake of the bombings, tens of thousands of Palestinians demonstrated in the streets of Gaza against Hamas violence. Until then, Gaza had been the organization's main base of support.
In yet another sign of how far the process has come, Israeli and Palestinian security forces have become almost brothers-in-arms, conducting separate but coordinated sweeps in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to crush the Hamas fanatics.
The United States also has a vested interest in the process -- the accords represent one of the Clinton Administration's most notable foreign policy achievements. In addition to providing Israel with bomb-detecting equipment, the U.S. will soon begin training both Israeli and P.L.O security personnel. Meanwhile, Washington is pressuring Western allies to send the Palestinians more aid while it works with Arab states to isolate Hamas diplomatically.
The upcoming Middle East summit is a perfect symbol of the changes that have occurred. That the leaders of Israel and much of the Arab world (with the unfortunate exception of Syria), along with the presidents of the United States, Russia and several European countries would be gathering in an Egyptian resort town to forge common policies on combating Islamic terror would have been unthinkable even six months ago.
To be sure, the urgency of this diplomatic activity underscores how seriously the bombings have jolted the peace process. But it also demonstrates how heavily Israel, the PLO and the West are invested in its survival. Beneath the carnage, the roots of peace have begun to take hold. They will not easily be uprooted.
Terrorism's chief sponsor, we are told by the Clinton Administration, is Iran. To combat the plague, the administration is expending considerable diplomatic efforts to further isolate the pariah state, cajoling countries not to do business with it.
One American ally that appears to be evading this full-court press is Bosnia. Despite some Western eyebrow-raising, the government says it fully intends to continue sending Bosnian soldiers to Iran for "training." Neither does it see any problem with the 200 Revolutionary Guards, and various fundamentalist Iranian "charities," who have set up shop inside its borders. Only after a NATO raid on a guerilla training center outside Sarajevo did President Alija Izetbegovic agree to eject Iranian militants who had been conducting bomb-making and kidnapping classes there.
Such manifestations are part of a broader trend in Bosnia that would seem to go against the democratic principles contained in the Dayton accords. Rather than a multi-ethnic, pluralistic state, growing numbers of observers warn, Bosnia is in danger of becoming an authoritarian, fundamentalist Muslim one. "We're seeing a struggle for the soul of Bosnia," a foreign diplomat told the New York Times.
Among those raising red flags is former Bosnian Prime Minister Haris Silajdzic, who is running on an ethnic harmony platform in presidential elections to be held later this year. He has accused President Izetbegovic of trying to establish a one-party state. For his troubles, Silajdzic has been shut out of the state-controlled media, and warned, ominously, that he is "betraying Islam."
To be fair, neither neighboring Serbia nor Croatia appear to be any more democratically inclined these days. But one somehow hoped for more from Bosnia -- which has escaped extinction largely thanks to the presence in the region of 60,000 NATO troops, including 20,000 Americans. It might be time to remind the Bosnian government about what so many people fought and died for. A far stronger message about footsie-playing with a country whose official news agency pronounced the Hamas bombings in Israel "divine retribution" is long overdue.
Should the U.S. do more to sever the Bosnia/Iran connection? Will the recent bombings stop the peace process? Sound off in the "Bosnia" and "Middle East" discussions in Table Talk.