After the signing . . .

Roger Harrison

September 14, 1993|By Roger Harrison

THOSE opposed to the historic peace agreement in the Middle East argue that it will lead within a few years to a Palestinian state and therefore to the fatal undermining of Israel's security.

How great is that risk? First, it may very well be that the outcome will not be an independent state.

Many Palestinians will privately admit that independence makes no sense, and that confederation with Jordan is by far the better choice. There are, for example, enormous economic benefits to be gained by removing artificial barriers to communication, travel and trade in the area.

But whether independent or not, any new Palestinian authority in the occupied territories will have to be far less concerned with Israel's destruction than with its own survival.

A new Palestinian administration on the West Bank would preside over an economy less than 2 percent the size of Israel's, with an output of about $1 billion a year. It would have no army worth the name and no means of acquiring one, since all the

money squeezed from reluctant gulf states will be required for more urgent problems. And these will be legion, including dire needs in nearly every sector of society -- basic services like education, health care and public transportation, to name just a few.

To solve these problems, the new leaders will have to build government institutions from the ground up. They will also have to keep the aid flowing, and assure continued income from Palestinian workers in Israel. But aid and income will only flow if the new government keeps the peace.

There will also be immediate security problems to contend with -- not from Israel but from radical Arabs. We have heard clear declarations of hostility from militant Palestinian leaders George Habash and Naif Hawatmeh, who now quite rightly see Mr. Arafat and his mainstream Fatah organization as the main threat to their livelihood.

Nor is it likely that the militant group Hamas will quietly concede Fatah's pre-eminence. Hamas-orchestrated killings continued even as yesterday's historic signing occurred at the White House.

Suppose the radicals win the battle for control and the new Palestinian government evolves into a center for terrorism. That would not be a happy outcome, but it is hard to see how this development would be a greater threat to Israel's existence than the situation now.

Among other things, a radical Palestinian state would be surrounded by nations with no interest in supporting it. Egypt, Jordan and even Syria (assuming an agreement is reached on the status of the Golan Heights) will all have a stake in peace.

None would welcome the increase in power of radical interests that a militant state would portend. They would all have potent means of influencing the new Palestinian leaders.

Nor would the gulf states look favorably on such a development. So any move in a radical direction would mean estranging the Palestinian leadership from its main sources of political and economic support.

But what if the fundamentalist fever spreads throughout the Mideast, toppling the moderate governments in Egypt and Jordan and the despotic but cautious leadership in Damascus?

BIt is a danger surely, but not one Israeli occupation helps deter. The fundamentalists and other radicals have used the occupation for decades as their chief rallying cry -- their "ladder to power," to use King Hussein's phrase. Removing that ladder will cripple them, which is why they are determined to scuttle any agreement.

And what, finally, if realpolitik doesn't work? What if hatred and bitterness blind Palestinians to their own best interests?

To believe that this will happen one has to accept a caricature of the Palestinians.

With Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization acknowledging each other as human beings -- even symbolically shaking hands -- the rest of us should recognize that the overwhelming majority of Palestinians are not radicals dreaming of Israel's destruction, but businessmen and workers and wives and mothers who are as sick of suffering under the occupation as their Israeli occupiers are sick of imposing it.

That majority sentiment has been submerged for years under a blanket of radical pressure and hopelessness. Now it can make itself felt -- another reason to be thankful for this new beginning.

Any peace settlement in the Middle East involves risks, as Israel's foreign minister, Shimon Peres, is the first to admit. But clearly the conditions for peace are better now than they have ever been, and very likely better than they will ever be again.

If the time is not right now, it will never be right, and who can happily contemplate that prospect?

Roger Harrison, who served as political counselor in Israel from 1985 to 1987, retired in July after three years as U.S. ambassador to Jordan.

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