A Miracle in Palestine?

GEORGE F. WILL

September 09, 1993|By GEORGE F. WILL

Washington. -- Ninety-nine years have passed since Theodor Herzl, appalled by anti-Semitism during the 1894 Dreyfus trial, energized the Zionist movement that produced the Jewish state. Now, it suddenly seems probable that there soon will be a second Palestinian state, of sorts.

What sort? On the answer to that question, the survival of the Jewish state depends.

Jordan is geographically, historically and ethnically a Palestinian state. Like the other 20 nations of the Arab world, Jordan never expressed even the slightest interest in the establishment of another Palestinian state on the West Bank -- until Jordan's 1967 aggression against Israel cost Jordan that land. The cynicism of the subsequent clamor for such a state is now irrelevant. Israel, by direct and public negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization, has played a card that cannot be unplayed. There shall be a PLO-dominated state carved into Israel's back.

Israel is attempting to trade land for peace. The trouble with such trades is this asymmetry: Israel yields something tangible and gets only promises that might prove as evanescent as Hitler's promise, after Munich, that he had made his last territorial demand.

Today, while watching the PLO's grudging disavowal of its rhetoric about the annihilation of Israel, recall 1988. Then, yielding to U.S. pressure to disavow terrorism, the PLO insisted that it had never done what it was disavowing -- that what some called terrorism was legitimate resistance to Israeli aggression.

The clever Shimon Peres, Israel's foreign minister, denies, now that Israel is doing what he has long favored -- trading strategically significant land for liars' promises of peace -- that Israel is really doing that. He asserts that the coming agreement concerns ''not how to arrange the distribution of land, but how really to arrange the relations of people.''

Such cleverness is not conducive to confidence among Israel's friends who know that Israel is ceding control of the West Bank. Before the 1967 war, Israel was 10 miles wide at its waist. Today it is 40 miles wide. Asked if Israel will again be 10 miles wide, Mr. Peres says:

''[It] will remain the same 40 miles wide strategically because all the land we may give back in the future must remain demilitarized. Let's distinguish between owning land, cultivating land, and having land for strategic purposes. . . . For the duration of the autonomy period there will be, shall I say, division of labor when it comes to defense. The Palestinians will police their own life, their own community; Israel will remain responsible for the security of Israel and for the security of the Israelis in the territories.''

What comes after the autonomy period? For how long will a Palestinian state fathered by the PLO accept restrictions on its sovereignty regarding its military assets and allies -- restrictions that would vitiate its statehood?

Israel lives in a bad neighborhood which has been inhospitable since Jewish immigration into sparsely populated Palestine accelerated after the Russian pogroms of 1881. Israel's government believes the neighborhood may become much worse unless something is done to slow the spread of Islamic fundamentalism. The government considers this a propitious moment for using the PLO to trigger peace agreements with Jordan and Syria that will dampen fundamentalist fires.

But will the 22nd Arab state be the first Arab democracy? It is more likely to become a caldron of fundamentalism next door to Tel Aviv.

During the Cold War wise people warned about an asymmetry: America wanted to end the game; the Soviet Union, to win it. America won it because the Soviet Union's resolve collapsed as its material strength crumbled. Perhaps something similar has happened to the PLO. Certainly the region has been improved by the disintegration of the Soviet Union which, in its role as the focus of evil in the modern world, was the arsenal of those for whom the Holocaust is a continuing aspiration.

Palestinians have had execrable leaders. They supported the Ottoman Empire during World War I, Hitler during World War II, the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The PLO's Yasser Arafat and Jordan's King Hussein supported Iraq during the Gulf War. Now Israel is betting its life on this: A Palestinian state established by the PLO will have leaders willing to live, for as long as Israel's security requires it, with restrictions on its sovereignty that no other nation accepts.

Some say this amounts to counting on a miracle. Others say there is precedent for miracles in Palestine. It is a risky reliance.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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