Now it's up to the Arabs

A. M. Rosenthal

September 15, 1993|By A. M. Rosenthal

SO NOW it is up to the Arabs, Arabs in the new Palestine being created, and Arabs far beyond.

On Feb. 15, 1993, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel said that the more the Palestine Liberation Organization lost its authority, the better it would be for progress toward peace.

Two weeks later he said Yasser Arafat himself was a big obstacle to peace. And on May 3, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres wrote a letter to the American Zionist Organization: "Supported by hard evidence, we believe the PLO is engaged in terrorist activities and is therefore no partner for any negotiations or dialogue."

But six months later, in a day that would move a stone to hope, the two Israelis stood with Arafat at the White House. They had opened its doors to him by recognizing him and his organization as the representatives of the Palestinian people. And they had agreed to a peace plan that is bound to lead to an independent Palestine, sooner than later.

For Mr. Arafat it was sudden pinnacle -- recognition, world applause, immediate control over Gaza and Jericho and the clear road to Palestine.

In exchange, he had only to repeat earlier commitments -- to kindly recognize Israel's right to exist, and to end terrorism and violence. He forgot to say that last part at the White House.

As the Jerusalem Post has asked, what happened in the past six months to make the Israeli leaders change their minds about the worthiness of Mr. Arafat and the PLO as partners in creating peace?

Labor gives no clear reply I can find. But in the logical answer lie the clues as to whether the hopes will live or die.

The PLO was staggering, bankrupt, abandoned by most of its Arab allies because of Mr. Arafat's adoration of Saddam Hussein during the gulf war as the true hope of the Palestinian cause.

The fundamentalists were growing in power on the West Bank. Recognition of the PLO by Israel can cut either way -- reduce fundamentalists' influence or put them in position to take over an independent Palestine, perhaps by ballot. Israel will not be able to send in the army when it does not like a change in the new Palestine's government.

It was not a sudden burst of confidence in Yasser Arafat that was the key to the Labor government's decision. It was the belief that the Arab nations, bereft of Soviet support and fearful of the fundamentalists they helped create, were ready for peace with Israel and that a deal with the Palestinians would speed the day.

So now it is up to the Arabs in and beyond Palestine. If they will it, peace can happen. But they will have to reach for it, stretch for it, accept risks -- as has the current government of Israel in its own desire for an end to fear and killing.

As Mr. Rabin said about his decision on the PLO, it will not be easy. For a half-century, officials, intellectuals, journalists, teachers and clergymen have supported and sustained the war against Israel.

In their press, preaching and in broadcasts beamed to the world they vilified Israel not just as their own enemy but as the agent of imperialism, the enemy of all peoples newly come to freedom.

In countries in Africa and Asia where Jews had never lived, they came to be seen as evil. The line between Arab anti-Israeli propaganda and anti-Semitism is often impossible to find because often it does not exist.

Foreigners who have an Israeli visa in their passports are barred at Arab borders. For a half-century, Israel has been boycotted politically and economically without protest from most of the world.

A declared end to boycotts, to ceaseless hate propaganda, not as the price of treaties but now simply as acceptable international conduct -- is that asking too much too early, as I am often told? No -- it is a half-century overdue.

Geography has not changed for Israel. Mr. Rabin, like his predecessors, once believed that the West Bank was essential to give Israel the needed mobilization hours if war came. Now he believes security lies more in peace arrangements than in time and space.

Many Israelis and foreign friends of Israel, including me, are nervous about that.

Having committed itself, as is its right, the Labor government can say or do little to assuage those fears. From now on, it is up to the Arabs to do that, Arabs everywhere.

A.M. Rosenthal is a columnist for the New York Times.

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