December 22, 1990|By Martin F. Nolan | Martin F. Nolan,Boston Globe


IN A RAMBLING conversation on the Mideast, glib solutions were plentiful. Israel was the cynosure of much criticism until a question arose: In this region we are talking about, which country would you choose to live in? This is a conversation-stopper.

When Daniel Patrick Moynihan defended Israel in the United Nations against the lie of Zionism-as-racism, he charged that Israel's democracy infuriated its critics as much as its occupation of land once called Palestine. That was in 1976. Democracy has yet to flower in the Mideast save for one country. Israel, for all its troubles, is a modern, livable democracy surrounded by monarchs and dictators.

Few Americans or Russians emigrate to Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iraq or Iran. Egypt and Jordan are moving to a democratic ideal, but the most successful democracy in the Mideast is Israel. Where would we like to live? This simple question requires reiteration for Americans who condemn Israel and even those of us who admire Israel but hope for more risks for peace and hold Israel to, yes, a double standard, the higher standard of the Old Testament, a light unto the nations.

The entire life of the state of Israel has been lived in the shadow of the Cold War. Americans have focused on the Mideast not just because of oil, but because for decades the Mideast was a potential tinderbox for World War III. Since 1948, Israel has been the American superpower's surrogate, and a series of others -- Egypt, Iraq, Syria, even Yemen -- have been the Russian superpower's surrogate.

Iraq's invasion of Kuwait has obscured the central reality of the Mideast: no more surrogates, no more client states. In U.S. public opinion, Israel has prospered because the right loved its anti-communist stance. Now the right is reverting to its isolationist roots after a 50-year nap, viz. Pat Buchanan.

For the entire life of Israel, Yitzak Shamir, now prime minister, has been a fierce, go-it-alone no-compromiser. His former career as an anti-colonialist guerrilla/freedom-fighter/terrorist has made him the least lovable of political leaders. Soon he will be the least viable. In a post-Cold War world, peace with the Palestinians may soon become less risky for Israel and more a matter of Realpolitik. Peace may be the way to avert the psalmist's vision: ''By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.''

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