The Middle East has always been a place where illusion paves the road to disaster. In 1095, Pope Urban’s religious mania launched the crusades. In 1915, Winston Churchill’s arrogance led to the WWI bloodbath at Gallipoli. Illusion tends to be a deadly business in those parts. And once again, illusions are about to plunge the Middle East into catastrophe.

The first of these is George W. Bush’s “vision” for peace between Israelis and Palestinians–a “vision” consistent with the president’s uncomplicated “See Spot run” world of good guys and bad guys.

Since the Palestinians are “bad guys,” the message is simple: Develop democracy (but only elect people we approve of), create free market capitalism, halt any resistance to the 35-year occupation, and stop causing trouble. If the Palestinians somehow manage all this while under occupation, then in three years they might get an “interim” state with “provisional” borders–if Israel agrees.

The Sharon government, on the other hand, has the “good guys,” so it gets to keep building settlements and occupying territory until the Palestinians complete all the above tasks. Does anyone take this seriously?

Ariel Sharon is obsessed with illusions. He has always fantasized that by combining violence with appointing leaders he can manipulate he will get his way. He was a supporter of the secret Israeli operation that, according to Tony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic Studies, funneled funds to Hamas in the late 1970s as a way to undermine the secular Palestine Liberation Organization. We know how that one turned out.

Then he invaded Lebanon in 1982 to destroy “terrorism,” killed 17,500 Lebanese and Palestinians, and appointed Bashir Jumayil President. Jumayil was promptly assassinated, and Israel found itself in the middle of an 18-year war. And once again he is using massive force in the West Bank and Gaza and trying to pick who leads the Palestinians.

Sharon’s latest illusion is to fill the occupied territories with Jewish immigrants from France, Argentina, the U.S., and Russia, so that he will not have to remove a single settlement. According to Sharon, “Netzarim in Gaza is the same as Tel Aviv.” Netzarim is a tiny settlement of 50 families in the Occupied Territories. Tel Aviv is the largest city in Israel.

That millions of Jews will immigrate to Israel and live on the West Bank is sheer fantasy. Indeed, according to surveys by the Israeli group Peace Now, 60% of the settlers would move back to Israel if the government would offer the same incentives it does for them to live in the West Bank: reduction in income taxes, low mortgage rates, and subsidized education. Peace Now projects that this “re-transplant” would cost $700 million. It now costs $1.4 billion a year to subsidize settlers and occupy the West Bank.

There are illusions on the Palestinian side as well, the most glaring being that suicide bombers will drive the Israelis out of the Occupied Territories. In fact, the bombers only succeed in yielding the moral high ground to Sharon and strengthening the annexationists in Tel Aviv.

These illusions are ruining life for both Palestinians and Israelis. The former live in what is virtually a national prison, their economy destroyed, and a death toll approaching 2,000 since September 2000. The Israelis may not be imprisoned, but the burden of empire has drained their treasury, forced huge social service cutbacks, and driven up inflation and unemployment. More than 550 have died.

But sometimes illusion produces clarity. While Americans tend to think of Israel as Sharon and the Palestinians as suicide bombers, the reality is far more complex. Sharon has called up the reserves, but he will have to do without the 466 reservists who refuse to serve in the Occupied Territories. Hamas has pledged a new round of suicide bombers, but it will have to do so in the face of a call by 55 leading Palestinians to stop the bombings in Israel.

There are people of good will on both sides, people not blinded by the illusion that violence solves everything. For the moment they are marginal, but their numbers are greater than they were last month, and they will be greater yet next month. They grow in numbers because their “vision” is the only way out of the illusion.

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