The Real Danger for Israel Would Be No PLO State

WILLIAM PFAFF

September 16, 1993|By WILLIAM PFAFF

Paris. -- The fear of most conservative Israelis, and of those American Jews who are hostile to the agreement signed Monday in Washington, is that the agreement will produce ''a PLO state.'' They say that autonomy for Gaza and Jericho will provide a military and political salient from which a new assault will be mounted on Israel.

jTC They do not understand that the real danger will come if there is no PLO state. Israel needs the PLO to make this agreement succeed. If Gaza and Jericho are not effectively governed, chaotic conditions persist, the PLO's authority is lost, and Hamas, Fatah and the other fundamentalist and radical factions flourish, then Israel will well and truly be threatened.

The PLO made this agreement with Israel because Yasser Arafat is weak and his authority over his own movement badly eroded. The PLO leadership split over signing the agreement. In and out of the PLO, an important part of the Palestinian community thinks the Palestinian cause betrayed.

Can the people who believe this be marginalized, neutralized or converted to support of the new autonomous Palestine? Events and action do manufacture realities. The existence of the agreement, the experience of autonomy, the withdrawal of Israeli troops, all will contribute to a change in outlook that already has begun. One young Fatah activist in Gaza, a stone-thrower and enemy of Yasser Arafat before the Washington agreement, told the French press afterward that he would join a new Palestinian police force to enforce the agreement.

He said, ''the Hamas people . . . are no longer in the real world. To demand all of Israel is unrealistic. When they see that our experiment is working, they'll throw down their arms -- they really will.''

But will the experiment work? A stable Gaza and Jericho, successfully negotiating a larger Palestinian autonomy/sovereignty, means a secure Israel. Justice for the Palestinians means peace for the Israelis. It also means a larger pacification of the Middle East, whose history since the 1920s has been driven by the struggle between Zionism and the Palestinians. This is why the United States and the West European governments are prepared to put serious money into development of the new Palestine.

But inside this new autonomous Palestine the essential struggle of contemporary Arab society will continue, with international significance and an uncertain outcome. This is the struggle of secular nationalism against a politicized religious fundamentalism.

Modern Arab nationalism began in the effort of Arab notables to break away from the Ottoman Empire before and during the First World War. The outcome of that war produced several ostensibly independent Arab states under dynastic leaders, which actually were still British and French protectorates.

This situation inspired the secular Arab nationalism of the 1920s and 1930s, which flourished in intellectual and university circles. It produced the Ba'ath movement in the Eastern Mediterranean and, later, the so-called Arab socialism taken up by military intellectuals and insurrectionists after the Second World War. Palestinian nationalism began in the 1930s as resistance to Jewish settlement.

But the Ba'ath movement today has ended in squalid tribal dictatorships in Syria and Iraq. Nasser's socialism failed as a pan-Arab movement, although its record in Egypt was mixed. In the western Mediterranean, Algerian nationalism successfully expelled French colonialism but then installed military dictatorship.

The prominent ''Arab nationalists'' of the present day are the dictators Hafez el Assad in Syria, Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar el Kadafi in Libya -- all of them scandalously self-serving betrayers of serious reform.

This failure of secular nationalism is responsible for the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. The secular nationalists had originally meant to apply to their own societies the liberal and democratic ideas of the West, or those of an avowedly progressive socialism. These efforts failed or were betrayed. Ordinary life was not greatly improved, and the Arab masses -- and Islamic intellectuals -- continued to believe they were victimized by the Western powers, and by their own leaders as well.

The result of this was religious revival, which became a powerful political force by promising that a return to virtue and strict Islamic law would bring restoration of the glories of the Persian Empire and Arab Caliphate, and recreate the power Islamic civilization had exercised from the 8th century to the late Middle Ages.

Islamic fundamentalism thus is the successor and challenger to an Arab nationalism originally based on Western ideas, which is still committed to the secular state and is opposed to theocracy. Fundamentalism's current strength is proportionate to secular nationalism's weakness.

The PLO is entirely secular, ''socialist,'' connected in spirit to the nationalist movements of the 1950s. (Even its terrorism was learned from Europe. Europe's anarchists, Serbian and Irish nationalists, and even some Zionists led the way in that respect.) Because the PLO's nationalism is based on Western ideas of the state and economy it is, in principle, capable of collaboration or integration with the Israeli state. This would not be true of an autonomous or sovereign Palestine ruled by fundamentalism.

Thus Israelis have every cause to want a PLO Palestine to succeed. The country's present leaders understand this. The enemies of Israel have now become the enemies of Yasser Arafat. The PLO is Israel's unwelcome but inevitable ally.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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