No Time To Pick On Israel


WASHINGTON. — Explaining his view that it is almost, but not quite, time for a face-to-face meeting with Israel's leaders, Jordan's King Hussein told Le Point in late May: ''I have had the feeling that the Americans are truly determined to resolve the problem of the region.''

In the days before his unmistakable tilt toward Saddam Hussein, the Jordanian king was regularly described as a personal friend of George Bush. He knows the U.S. president well and believes there is now an opportunity to not only restore his personal relationship, but to settle what is called the Palestinian problem on terms advantageous to Jordan.

King Hussein has observed, as we all have, the extraordinary effort and diplomatic capital the U.S. president and his secretary of state have invested in launching what is called ''the Mideast peace process.''

This American investment seems all the more significant because the Arab-Israeli conflict is not the most pressing problem in this region where Kurdish refugees still seek security from Saddam Hussein and Syria is still consolidating power in Lebanon. It is not the top priority of the Persian Gulf states, which are preoccupied with reconstruction, nor of Israel, which is absorbed with the needs of Soviet and Ethiopian immigrants, or of the Soviet Union or Iran, both mainly engaged with economic problems.

The lack of external pressure on George Bush to take action on the Arab-Israeli issue testifies to its importance to Mr. Bush himself. Even as he rejected Saddam Hussein's efforts to ''link'' Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait to Israel's withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza, Mr. Bush offered assurances to Arab allies that, once Iraq was defeated, he would turn his attention to the Palestinian problem.

As Peter Rodman, who was then inside the Bush administration, writes in the spring issue of Foreign Affairs, ''The United States entered the war committed to sequential linkage, promising to address the issue after the crisis was over.''

The U.S. president had barely disengaged from Kuwait before he began the effort to achieve a negotiated settlement based -- as he has said more than once -- on the principle of land for peace. Under this principle, Israel relinquishes control of ''occupied territories'' to ''Palestinians'' -- whose aspirations, it is said, will never be satisfied until they have gained ''a homeland'' or ''a Palestinian state'' -- and Arabs recognize Israel's right to exist in peace within secure borders.

Justice is served. Peace is achieved.

Or is it? In fact, there are many problems with this scenario.

To describe Palestinians as a people without a country is a misstatement at best, a fraud at worst. Palestinians are already at home in Jordan, where they constitute about 70 percent of the total population. The West Bank was Jordanian before it was seized by Israel after the 1967 war to prevent its being used once again to launch attacks against the Jewish state. It will be Jordanian again if Israel abandons control.

Almost everyone understands this. Jordan's Foreign Minister, Taher Masri, has recently commented, ''If there is a solution for Palestine, it will be with Jordan, whether that solution turns out to be a confederation or a unitary state. No one doubts it, not even the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization].''

King Hussein told Le Point, ''In the '70s we proposed three options to the Palestinians: A confederation, an independent state, or a union. That last solution does not seem possible to me, even if our two people are close. Each of them is attached to his identity, his nationality. Confederation, more realistic, ought to be the result of a vote of Palestinians and Jordanians.''

But Palestinians already live with Jordanians in a unitary state. They are already a majority in that state. Should Jordan ever become fully democratic, it would undoubtedly choose mostly Palestinian officials.

These facts have been obscured in recent years because it has been convenient for various groups to obscure them.

It has been convenient for the PLO, which after 1970 found it easier to conduct a propaganda war against Israel than to combat the Jordanian government. It has been convenient for the king of Jordan, who would rather not call attention to Jordan's Palestinian majority. It has been convenient for Arab nationalists because in our times the demand for self-determination is more attractive than a demand for restoration of every inch of ''Arab'' land. It has been convenient for the Soviet Union because it could bring a reliable ally -- the PLO -- to power in a strategic territory near an American ally.

But it is not convenient, or safe, for Israel to confront the myth of Palestinian homelessness at a conference stacked against it. Israel is not only being asked to attend this conference, it is being asked to make concessions to bring it into being.

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