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Bring talks down to daily life

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JERUSALEM — When you drive east from Jerusalem today and cross the border from Israel into Palestinian-controlled Jericho, the only armed policeman you are likely to see is an Israeli cop with a radar gun, trying to catch Israelis speeding to the Palestinian casino in Jericho — where Israelis gamble away about $1 million a day at Yasser Arafat's blackjack tables.

Contrast that with another traffic story that happened here Sunday. Four Israeli Egged buses were heading to the Israeli Jewish settlement of Beit-El, near the Palestinian town of Nablus — where there has been two decades of tension between Jewish settlers and Palestinians and the boundaries are still ambiguous. The Israeli buses, picking up settlers to attend a protest rally against Camp David, missed the turn for Beit-El by 50 meters and ended up inside the Kalandia Palestinian refugee camp. The Israeli buses were pelted with stones by the Palestinian refugees, three of the buses were set on fire and the drivers fled into the fourth bus and sped away.

What's the point? Simple: When there's a clear border between rival peoples, when each is secure in its own space, no wrong turn is dangerous and the border can be erased by the opportunities and demands of daily life. When there's no clear border between people, that border is everywhere and any wrong turn can cost you your life.

That's why it is no accident that Israeli civilians today are much more comfortable visiting the Palestinian areas under Arafat's control than they are visiting the Palestinian areas that Israel controls. Many Israelis will tell you that they never go to the Arab districts of Jerusalem — even though the Israeli army today controls them all — because they are afraid. Yet so many Israelis drive each weekend to buy furniture in the Palestinian-controlled West Bank village of Biddya that the traffic flow to Biddya always makes the Israel radio traffic-jam report.

That's what's happening in real life, and everyone here knows it. And what the peace talks at Camp David are really about is how to get the negotiations down from the mythic Jerusalem, and the mythic Palestine — where no one really lives and where no sharing is possible — into the real world, where everyone knows Jerusalem is a multiethnic city and where both sides know they won't be able to take their shoes off and relax until the other is secure in its own space.

Bringing the talks down to daily life is obviously hard. Israelis will tell you that when the Arabs controlled all of east Jerusalem, they did not share the Jewish holy sites with them, so why should Israelis share now? Palestinians will tell you that even if they get all of the West Bank back, they would still control only about 22 percent of Mandatory Palestine and the Jews would have all the rest, so how can they be expected to give up still more territory? And they will both tell you that this is a land where if you come home from negotiations with 98 percent of what you set out for, someone will kill you for the 2 percent you gave away.

Moreover, neither side has prepared its public for concessions. While it may seem as if they have been talking about Jerusalem and a Palestinian state for decades, they have just been talking to themselves, repeating mantras. This is the first time they are really talking concessions to the other.

But talking to both Israelis and Palestinians, it's clear that the kids have an inkling of what's coming, and a majority are ready. Deep down, both leaders sense that, which is why they don't want to come home empty-handed.

These are the enduring truths of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The only question is not if, but when, they will prevail.


New York Times News Service