The Choice Before Israel

July 23, 1991

For 43 years, Israel has wanted face-to-face discussions with Arab neighbors. Only Egypt has reciprocated. Now Syria, Jordan and Lebanon tell the United States they would take part in a peace conference, implying direct talks with Israel afterward.

For 43 years, Israel has wanted trade with the Arab states. Only Egypt obliges. The 21 Arab League members maintain a boycott of all businesses that trade with Israel, devoting their military intelligence to it. Now the wealthiest Arab promoter of the boycott, Saudi Arabia, tells the United States it would suspend the boycott if Israel suspended settling the West Bank and Gaza.

The question for Israel is not whether it can afford U.S. disapproval, or even whether the overtures are genuine. The question is far more fundamental. It is whether Israel can spurn out-of-hand the chance to obtain what every Israeli leader has earnestly sought for 43 years: permanent acceptance by neighbors in peace. It is not whether the cabinet colleagues of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir can face President Bush if they refuse, but whether they can face their grandchildren.

As every Israeli knows, the quarrel with the Arab world is not over the West Bank and Gaza or settlements or the Golan Heights. Syria has been at war with Israel since 1948, which was 19 years before the first Israeli tank ascended the Golan Heights. The Arab boycott, which should be intolerable to the world, has been maintained since Israel's birth, without reference to the enlargement of Jewish Jerusalem that took place after a war for territory that Arabs launched.

So if the preponderant weight of Arab power is prepared to renounce intransigence and limit the bargaining to conditions that arose only in 1967, that is too precious an opportunity to pass up. This does not mean that Israel's suspicions are unworthy. They are what talks should be about. Mr. Baker cannot deliver 100 percent of Arabs, particularly the PLO which he is cutting out of the process at the start. Israel would certainly make sacrifices of aspiration in any peace. The problems of Jerusalem, of water rights and of Palestinian identification with land now in Israel defy the imagination.

No one suggests that Israel should let down its guard or give away land or security unconditionally. None of that is required to start the process. But if what Israel has craved most for 43 years is within reach, can any Israeli government -- even a Likud government led by a man whose entire career has been devoted to the impossibility of such an eventuality -- reject the offer unseen?

Israel should accept no deal without intense scrutiny. Equally it must reject none unexamined. That exploration of possibility is what Israel's leaders owe to all Israelis, past, present and future.

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