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Mideast peace not totally impossible

I've been having more than a few tense conversations lately with friends and acquaintances who want to talk about the Middle East.

They've seen the television news film about fighting between Israelis and Palestinians outside Jerusalem; they don't like what they've seen, and they pose a question that goes something like this:

"Why are those Israelis causing so much trouble over there and how come they keep taking Palestinian land to build houses for Jews? What gives them the right?"

Roughly halfway through my long-winded answer about how things in the Middle East are generally a lot more complicated than what we see on the evening TV news, I get interrupted with a second question:

"Okay, so what's the answer? All this fighting between Israelis and Palestinians has been going on long enough. How do we get them to make peace with each other so America can spend its money and time on other things closer to home?"

I've been thinking about this last question for about 25 years now, ever since I started covering the Arab-Israeli dispute as a young reporter. And during those years, I've settled on a few favorite ideas _ none of them especially original _ about how to at least approach the problem.

The first scenario is what I like to call the "Ideal World, Pie-in-the-Sky Solution." It's a variation on a proposal the Vatican was pushing in the 1960s to settle the region's most difficult issue _ who gets Jerusalem.

Basically, this idea calls for sovereign Israeli and Palestinian nations side-by-side with roughly the common border that existed between Israel and Jordan from 1948 to 1967. That means the Palestinian state would be made up of just about all of what we now call the West Bank.

The interesting part is that the Old City of Jerusalem _ the walled section of the city that contains the holy places of Judaism, Islam and Christianity _ would be under the sovereign jurisdiction of the United Nations.

The United Nations would put together a multinational police force to maintain security and make sure the holy places were accessible to all who came in peace. The holy places themselves would be run almost as sovereign entities within the Old City by the religious authorities already in place.

Such an internationalized holy city would be financed by dues collected through the United Nations as well as the considerable spending of millions of tourists and pilgrims who would visit such a place of peace and spirituality.

This isn't a perfect or even totally fair solution, to be sure. Nobody would be completely pleased with it. But the real problem with it is that it can't possibly be implemented. Too much blood has been spilled since 1967, too much has changed. None of the players in the region would accept such a deal.

Another proposal for peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors is something I call the "Pragmatic Real World Solution." It's even less perfect and certainly less fair than the first idea. Its only possible virtue is that it just might be feasible because each side could plausibly claim to have gotten its way _ sort of.

As in the first proposal, there would be sovereign Israeli and Palestinian nations side-by-side. And again, "Palestine" would be made up mainly of what we call the West Bank.

Israel would retain effective control over most of what we now know of as East and West Jerusalem, including the Old City and its holy places. There would, however, be very clear U.N. and U.S. guarantees on access to those holy places for all who come in peace. And even though Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority wouldn't get any significant part of what used to be mainly Arab East Jerusalem, it would get a piece of the city to proclaim as capital of the new nation of Palestine.

Very few Israelis I know _ not even the most liberal ones _ would like this. Israelis simply consider Jerusalem too sacred to divide up and give away _ even a small part of it in exchange for peace.

One way of getting around this might be to give Arafat's Palestinian Authority a tiny sliver of East Jerusalem as well as a larger piece of land known as Har Homa. Now if that name sounds familiar, it's because Har Homa is the stretch of barren hillside that Israelis and Palestinians are fighting over right now. It's the place where the Israelis want to build apartments for 30,000 new Jewish residents, the place that's been causing all the trouble the past few weeks.

The kicker here is that Har Homa wasn't even considered part of Jerusalem until Israel unilaterally declared it such after capturing it in the 1967 Middle East war. What's to stop Israel from unilaterally reversing that declaration?

It doesn't take a lot of imagination to figure out that Arafat could then claim to have won part of Jerusalem for his Palestinian capital and that Israel could claim at the same time that it hadn't really divided "the real" Jerusalem and given it away.

Getting the Palestinians, much less Israel's current right-wing Likud Party government, to go along with such a scheme would be tricky, maybe even impossible. A strong Labor Party government in Israel just might be able to pull it off.

Stranger things have happened in the Middle East. Who would have ever imagined 10 or 15 years ago that Yasser Arafat would be going to the White House to talk peace with the president of the United States?

As I said, none of this is especially original. It's the kind of stuff diplomats and journalists who cover the region bat around over dinner or drinks.

The only thing certain here is that two things will have to happen for any peace plan to get serious consideration. The Israelis and Palestinians are going to have to stop building obstacles to peace around Jerusalem and stop bombing innocent civilians in sidewalk cafes.