PARIS — Paris. - The attempt that now has begun in Madrid, to end the war between the Palestinians and the Israelis, was made possible by the ending of the war between the Soviet Union and the United States.
The difference between these two wars is that the one has been and remains serious, dealing with the life or death of peoples, and the other, in a fundamental respect, was never serious.
The war in the Middle East will decide which people rules Palestine, incorporating what the Israelis call Biblical Judea and Samaria, and the city of Jerusalem -- holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians alike. It is a war conducted between a resolute people who until now have seen no alternative, driven into their return to the Holy Land by a genocidal persecution that profited from the complicity or indifference of gentile Europe and America, and a second people which, although it had nothing to do with that persecution, paid for it by losing its land to the persecuted.
The war between the Soviet Union and the United States was an ideologically inspired struggle ''for the world.'' Directly or indirectly it also produced much bloodshed, yet it was fundamentally unserious because the world was not available to win. The historical interpretations and forecasts of Marxism, which both sides took with deadly seriousness, were untrue, and proved entirely irrelevant to the forces which truly did transform the world of 1945-1990.
Those forces were economic, scientific and technological -- and national. The influential Chinese and Vietnamese revolutions, and the Cuban, were essentially nationalist reaffirmations by societies that had been colonized or quasi-colonized, their values assaulted by foreign powers. The successful resistance in Eastern and Balkan Europe to Soviet domination and colonization was also motivated by nationalism. And of course ,, the war in the Middle East is a war of nationalisms.
Since the war in the Middle East was made into a satellite war of the superpowers, the collapse of the Soviet-American war has drained the Middle Eastern war of the principal global significance it previously possessed. It has been turned from an affair of perceived potential superpower advantage and gain into one of net superpower loss and potential risk. Hence the cooperation the Soviet Union has given to George Bush and James Baker's successful campaign to bring the Middle Eastern combatants to these negotiations.
The geopolitical interest of the present and past military-ideological superpowers, as well as of the new economic superpowers, Western Europe and Japan, lies in Middle Eastern peace. They already feel themselves victims of the Middle Eastern struggle, since its fanaticisms regularly disturb their peace, and take hostages and make casualties among their citizens.
The struggle spreads unrest in the Muslim countries from which most of Europe's immigrants come, and in the oil-producing Gulf states, thereby unsettling the economic security of the Western industrial nations.
All of those want this war to end. If it is not ended by this series of conferences, launched in Madrid, those who are responsible for the negotiations' failure will have to continue the war without the complicity and support each side in the past has been given by outside powers. That is the message delivered by the meetings' joint sponsorship by the U.S. and U.S.S.R.
And if peace does come? The argument has been made -- light-heartedly, certainly, but provocatively -- that ''history'' has come to an end since the liberal-democratic and market-economy model of society has prevailed over all its rivals. The Cold War's end confirms the victory. What the argument really proves is that ideas have consequences, and these eventually run their course.
The effects of the three great ideas which changed Western society during the past century, Marxism, Darwinism (including Social Darwinism -- the political and social version of survival of the fittest), and modernism in the arts, all now are running out.
There currently are no new mobilizing ideas in Western society, or at least they have not yet found general expression. No doubt in physics or astrophysics, or perhaps in paleontology, anthropology, or biology or theology, and in the permanent and necessary speculation which goes on about the nature of the good society and how to achieve it, we will come to new mobilizing ideas. In any case history, product of ideas, has moved on. That is what brought the Israelis, Palestinians and Arabs to Madrid.
One should not draw too optimistic a conclusion from the end of the Cold War and the beginning of peace talks in the Middle Eastern war, even though it is indeed the ''end'' of a certain history. The character of humans remains unchanged, and the obvious social and international problems being produced today demography, economic dislocations, poverty and exploitation, and national and communal passions, all are gathering new collective form and political expression.
Yet Madrid demonstrates that we have passed from a particularly sinister period of contemporary history, that of the totalitarianisms and the two world wars, into another period that we have the right to hope will be better; we cannot know. However, the war in the Middle East now is irrelevant to the interests and the concerns of everyone except the Israelis and the Palestinians themselves.
One might then say: too bad for them. But I think it more likely to be good for both of them. Their fundamental interests have never been advanced by having extraneous issues and external forces burden and fuel their own conflict, which is quite bad enough in itself. The two sides have had 43 years of war now to explore exactly where they stand with respect to one another, and what the limits are to what continued war could accomplish for either. It is time to stop, and get on with life.
8, William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.