Now Is the Time To Talk about It

William Pfaff

October 18, 1990|By William Pfaff

PARIS — Paris. WARS VIRTUALLY never produce the advertised outcome. War in the Persian Gulf may end Saddam Hussein's rule of Kuwait but no ''new world order'' is going to follow so long as the fundamental problems of the region remain unsettled. President George Bush recognized this when he said he is willing to consider a Middle East peace conference after Kuwait is freed.

DTC That could be too late. The time to hold that conference is now. It should be called to complete the isolation of Saddam Hussein and preempt the Palestinian issue that provides his claim to wider Arab support.

There are four principal causes of instability in the Middle East. The first is the fact that frontiers and political structures in the region all are provisional and have been so since the end of the Ottoman Empire in 1918. They lack authenticity and permanence because they are the direct or indirect products of the European colonial period that lasted from 1918 to World War II.

A second is the discrepancy of wealth between the oil countries and the rest. A third is the conflict between religious fundamentalism and secular political forces. All these, which in their effects are related, are problems internal to the Arab world. They do not -- or should not -- directly concern the United States or the Western powers.

The overriding problem during the last 40 years, however, has been the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, in which the U.S. is deeply implicated as Israel's sponsor and protector. It is a permanent source of violence, and is also an alibi for the Arabs' failure to deal with their other problems, for which they, not we, are accountable.

The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians -- and with the Arab world generally -- is a recent affair, if a profoundly rooted one. By now it is loaded with hatreds, exaggerations, distortions and violence of every kind. But it is potentially soluble -- soluble to mutual dissatisfaction, certainly, but soluble.

The general terms of a solution are internationally recognized. Israel yields the occupied territories to a Palestinian state; the Palestinians yield their claim on the totality of Israel; some accommodation of joint claims on Jerusalem is found.

Lebanon is a linked issue. Last Saturday morning Syria completed its annexation of northern Lebanon by crushing the resistance of the last leader in Lebanon to defy its power, Gen. Michel Aoun. The United States and France, Lebanon's past protector, averted their eyes; Syria's President Hafez al-Assad -- yesterday's Saddam Hussein -- is now in our camp.

The Syrian president has created the ''Greater Syria'' that Syrians believe France robbed them of by establishing an independent Lebanon after World War I. He has been able to do so because of the Palestinian-Israel conflict.

Expelled from Jordan in 1970, where it had become a state-within-a-state, the Palestine Liberation Organization subsequently installed itself in Lebanon, provoking civil disorder and communal struggle there. Syrian forces intervened in 1976 to check the power of the Palestinians, and have never left. Israel invaded Lebanon in 1978 and again in 1982 to accomplish the same end. That destroyed what was left of an independent Lebanon. The Palestinians transferred their struggle to Israel's occupied territories.

There will be no lasting settlement anywhere in the region until the Palestinian affair is settled. The time has arrived when this might be done. The Soviet Union now is ready to play a constructive rather than destructive role. The Europeans have every reason to want peace on the Mediterranean's southern littoral.

Israel will furiously resist any international conference, just as it resists U.N. interference in its handling of Palestinian violence inside Israel. It is time to do Israel a favor. Israel is incapable of making peace on its own. The division of opinion within the country, combined with an electoral system of extreme proportional representation, blocks Israel from constructive action of any kind.

It can't make peace. It is caught in an irresolvable internal conflict while its international isolation mounts. Support even from the U.S. now is seriously compromised. Yet without the United States Israel cannot expect to survive the hostility of the enemies it defies.

If there is going to be peace the international community will have to set the terms. If the Israelis can have peace forced upon them, the Palestinians given meager satisfaction, an end might be put to this terrible era of international terrorism, recurrent Mid-East war and destruction of national communities.

The mere effort to do so would deprive Saddam Hussein of his principal source of political and moral sustenance in the Islamic world, completing the material blockade already in place. People object that a peace conference would reward Saddam Hussein. Put aggression against Kuwait on the agenda and he becomes a defendant. We might thereby escape that war of unforeseeable consequences that now awaits us in the sands. We might even discover ourselves nearer that ''new world order'' which Mr. Bush is anxious to establish.

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