Last Chance


September 02, 1993|By WILLIAM PFAFF

Paris. -- It is dangerous to attempt to make peace from weakness, because of weakness. That is the risk in the Israel-PLO peace program made known this week. Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres in Israel and Yasser Arafat in Tunis all are threatened by the radicals in their constituencies. Each acts against a political clock; each's time has implacably been ticking away.

''Gaza-Jericho First'' is a shrewd plan because it skips the hardest problems. It is meant to create ''a reality,'' an ''irreversible'' one, that will then manufacture subsequent realities: a form of Palestinian sovereignty/autonomy acceptable to both sides; an extension of Palestinian sovereignty/autonomy the other Occupied Territories; security for the populations there and for Israel itself; an acceptable form of dual or shared sovereignty in Jerusalem; eventually a larger Arab-Israeli reconciliation.

With this, Mr. Arafat probably is playing his last card. The PLO delegation to the Madrid-Washington peace talks has been close to splitting because of the hostility of the delegates from the Occupied Territories to the concessions being negotiated by the Arafat leadership.

The PLO itself is cracking because of conflict between the compromisers and the unconditionals, the movement under heavy pressure from Muslim extremists who argue that the PLO has nothing to show for its decades of leadership of the Palestinians. Mr. Arafat also made a fateful mistake in 1990 by backing Saddam Hussein against Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Arabs, until then the PLO's principal financiers.

It is not, perhaps, the last card Prime Minister Rabin and Foreign Minister Peres have to play, Israeli politicians being near-immortals under Israel's proportional voting system; but it is certainly this Israeli government's decisive gamble. Mr. Rabin's government was narrowly elected to make peace, and public-opinion surveys indicate that it has the public's mandate for a peace plan that cedes territory to the Palestinians.

But the Israeli opposition to any territorial concession to the Palestinians is nonetheless strong, and if this plan fails, there will be no new Israeli attempt to make a compromise peace for a very long time, if ever. Those in Israel -- and among Israel's backers in the United States -- who oppose the Rabin-Peres compromises believe Israel should (and can) impose peace by repression of the Palestinians, not make peace by compromising with them.

It thus would appear that this is the last chance for a settlement permitting Israel a future in which democratic and pluralist values prevail against the sectarianism inside the Israeli body politic. The alternative is a politically corrupting program of repression, exclusion or expulsion of the Arab minority.

If the present settlement plan fails, the militant Islamic fundamentalists also will be vastly strengthened in the Palestinian community. The PLO will be finished. The world will see a return to the sterile Mid-Eastern terrorism of the past.

There is an aspect to all this of which few seem aware. This struggle is not one that originally had anything to do with the Middle East, the Arabs, or with Islam. The Arab-Israeli conflict is a product of 19th-century European romantic nationalism -- just like today's struggle of the Serbs with the Croats, and of Serbs and Croats against the one ex-Yugoslav society that wants to be a modern pluralist and secular state, the Bosnians.

Zionism was the last of the romantic European nationalisms. Its founder, Theodor Herzl, a Hungarian journalist, was reacting against the European anti-Semitism revealed by the Dreyfus affair when he founded the Zionist movement, but he was also acting within the context of a general European movement, especially powerful in Austria- Hungary, of national affirmations and demands for national self-determination.

If Hungarians, Czechs, Romanians, South Slavs, Albanians, all were to have their own states -- Herzl argued -- so should the Jews. Zionism was not a religious movement, although there was in it an important element of secularized religious millenarianism. Herzl suggested that the Jewish state be set up in Argentina. A sizable minority of the movement's members in 1905 was ready to go to Uganda, which Britain had informally offered.

Golda Meir, one of Israel's founders, once denied that the Palestinian people exist. This was taken by her critics as an act of intellectual aggression. In context, what Mrs. Meir was actually saying was that Palestine had never existed as a nation in the modern sense, which is true. There had always been a ''Palestine'' of uncertain frontiers, including, but not limited to, the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, and there was a Palestinian people who lived in it. But there was not a Palestinian ''nation.'' Palestine became a modern political entity only as a British mandated territory between the first world war and 1948.

Because of the implantation of a Jewish state in Palestine in 1948, a Palestinian nation did come into existence, composed primarily of the Palestinians who fled or were expelled during and after the 1948 war. Thus it was a new nation in search of a territory -- just as the Zionists had been before 1948.

There was, and is, a symmetrical tragedy here, of two landless and oppressed peoples in collision, both of them victims of events that began in the racialist and nationalist ideologies of mid-19th century Europe.

It is time today for this tragedy to be closed, the horrors ended, catharsis at last achieved. It is a matter for gratitude that we seem closer to that ending this week than ever before. But uncertainty remains because what could have been done when leaders were strong was not done; and now the leaders are weakened.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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