A Victory for Zionist Dreams

BEN WATTENBERG

September 09, 1993|By BEN WATTENBERG

Washington. -- After so much agony, and so much war, the Israelis and the Palestinians seem to be moving quickly toward a deal involving mutual recognition. Many Arab states are joining in. But who won? And why now? Some of the answers are clouded, some purposefully. Some answers will come only as the remarkable century-long story of Zionism reveals itself further. Remember, it began from a base of almost no land and almost no people.

Most of the indicators of victory are in Israel's favor. When the Soviet Union collapsed, many Arab nations lost their military superpower sponsor. That also allowed Russian Jews to emigrate to Israel, adding almost a half-million people to Israel, starkly changing an already extraordinary demographic history. America's victory in the Gulf War was pivotal. Iraq is now a crippled player and so is the PLO, because it backed Iraq. Low oil prices have discounted Arab power. Saudi Arabia is running a deficit!

Other changes are harder to 6p,15l score. The surge of Islamic fundamentalism has scared Arabs and Israelis alike. Maybe a deal must be made while there are still some mildly rational players around the table. For some Israelis, the long-range Scud attacks from Iraq discounted the value of territory as a defensive asset.

There is another reason for likely Israeli victory. The strategy of the Israeli hard-liners worked pretty well. Israel's governing left-of-center Labor Party doesn't want to stress that. It opposed the policy. The right-of-center Likud Party doesn't want to talk it about either. It is now opposing the new deal.

Two summers ago I met for several hours with Gen. Ariel Sharon, Israel's super-hawk, then the Housing Minister of the Likud-run government. General Sharon laid out a succession of maps showing where new Israeli housing had been built in the recent past, and (he hoped) would be built in the future. Most of the building was on land that he called ''Judea'' and ''Samaria,'' biblical names favored by Likudniks rather than ''the West Bank.'' Under any nomenclature, it was territory that Israel occupied following the 1967 attack by the Arabs.

General Sharon's maps expressed the so-called ''create-new-facts-on- the-ground'' strategy. The Likud has always maintained that the land of the West Bank rightfully belonged to Israel. Their idea after 1967 was to encourage

Israelis to live there. That happened. And today, more than 100,000 Israelis reside on more than 100 West Bank settlements. That does not count the approximately 150,000 people in the ring of annexed Jewish suburbs now circling Jerusalem.

The expansionist Likud strategy caused consternation in Israel and around the world. But, regardless of how one assesses the competing land claims, the New Facts strategy gave peace a chance.

It helped force recalcitrant Palestinians to negotiate, lest they have nothing left to negotiate.

The way the Israelis and the PLO have temporarily resolved the issue of the settlements gives a further flavor of who won what. Although Labor opposed much of the original policy, Israel will not return the settlements during the five-year interim period of Palestinian autonomy.

What happens after that remains to be seen. Likud leader Benyamin Netanyahu says Israel will end up with only 5 percent of the West Bank. But there are high-placed Israeli officials who believe it will be 30 percent to 40 percent. Whatever happens, Israel is not going back to being a target with a vulnerable waist only 9 miles wide.

It has been an astonishing century for the Zionist dream, aimed at re-creating a modern Jewish homeland from a biblical past. When my late mother's family emigrated from Odessa to Palestine in 1903, there were about 100,000 Jews in the area. When my father (now 93) went there as a pioneer in 1920, there were about 125,000. In 1948, when the new Israeli state was formed, the Jewish population was 650,000. Today it is 4.2 million.

Of the world's 222 nations, ranked by population, Israel is now in 106th place -- bigger than the median. That, too, is an indicator of triumph, certainly for a country that started out so recently with almost no land and almost no people.

Ben Wattenberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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