DEEP problems exist in the faltering Arab-Israeli "peace process." An Israeli government supposedly committed to negotiations has escalated the violence and repression against Palestinians. The Palestinian leadership, with nothing to show its people in return for its commitment to the talks, is unable to stop violence against Israelis by bands of Palestinians.
The two seem locked in a cycle of violence and recrimination. Adding to fears on the Arab side is a perception that the Clinton administration, now sole effective sponsor of the talks, is deeply biased toward Israel - even when Israel engages in major acts of escalation on the ground. Prospects for progress when or if the talks resume this month look slim.
But sometimes, when diplomats and officials fail to communicate across national frontiers, other groups do have a common language. Human rights activists, for example, already have a strong adherence to basic universal principles. In tough parts of the world, activists have often suffered to uphold such principles against all the force of their various "national security" states.
This is true for the Middle East activists and advocates. In March, 12 of them from Israel, Turkey, Egypt, Kuwait, Tunisia, and the West Bank and Gaza, met in Spain to formulate joint plans. The task was enormous. Unlike Europe and the Americas, the Middle East has no instruments to set or enforce common human rights standards. At this time, relations between Israelis and Arabs were in a deep crisis. Still, these pioneers came together. Conversations were deep, illuminating, and focused on what could be done to make the world a better place.
An Egyptian participant wondered whether concepts of human rights were viewed by some Muslims as constructed by pro-Western secularists. Absolutely not, shot back an Arab colleague: "There are deeply religious Muslims active at all levels of the human rights movement," he said. ("And the same with religious Jews," said a nearby Israeli.)
Relations between human rights and politics were repeatedly discussed. Some participants worked long with staffers of international human rights groups, devising plans to establish human rights organizations in Middle Eastern countries where none are allowed. Participants from Turkey spoke of more rights violations in that NATO country. Palestinian and Israeli participants spoke of the challenge of holding Israel to its obligations under the Geneva Conventions in the occupied territories.
Torture in most countries in the region was another common theme. What can be done about it? Well, all the states of the region except Saudi Arabia have signed the Universal Declaration in Human Rights, which specifically forbids torture. Holding these countries up to their word - and securing Saudi support for the Declaration - could be helpful first steps.
The group meeting in Spain endorsed a strong appeal that leaders of the major governments and inter-governmental organizations insert human rights concerns into all dealings with governments and other parties in the Middle East.
Meanwhile, the survivors of torture multiply. In the past, there has been discussion between Middle East rights activists over how much of their meager resources to put into treating these survivors - with a clear preference expressed for "prevention." A Danish parliamentarian, who heads a respected center in his country that rehabilitates torture survivors from around the globe, made an eloquent case for establishing such centers in the Middle East. "The intention of the torturer is not so much to get i nformation, as to break the independent personality and thus prevent democracy," he said. "As much as we can help heal the personality, we deny the torturer his victory."
Small steps? Perhaps. But steps informed by a compelling vision. Maybe Middle East diplomats also will be successful in finding a common language and a problem-solving approach. So many of our earlier dreams for a new world order are turning into a nightmare of disorder. I don't put much hope in the diplomats. At least the human rights folks have a clear vision of a better future - and the determination needed to get there.