However Unlikely, Middle East Peace Is Too Good to Pass Up


WASHINGTON — Washington. -- From the founding of Israel, that country's leaders have underestimated the difficulty of making peace with their Arab neighbors.

Israel's first president, Chaim Weizmann, could not seriously conceive that Arab neighbors would refuse cooperation with the new state. As he wrote to the gifted leader Emir Feisal, Sherif of Mecca, later king of Iraq, ''Our movements complement one another. The Jewish movement is national and not imperialist. There is room for us both.''

With science, technology and modern education, Israel could help the region. But the region did not choose to be helped.

Weizmann, Ben Gurion and Golda Meir could not conceive how hostile Israel's neighbors would be -- and remain -- to the ''Zionist entity.'' They could not conceive that it would be necessary to fight and win three wars, develop the region's most powerful military forces and live on perpetual alert to ensure survival of the Jewish state.

Read their biographies. These reasonable, modern, secular, pragmatic, Western leaders did not believe that Arab states would impose a boycott on trade, or bankroll terrorists, or launch a diplomatic campaign to isolate Israel in the United Nations and the world, or refuse even to consider trading land for peace within secure borders -- as called for in Security Council resolutions 242 and 338.

Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin did not suppose that when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat had the pragmatic good sense to trade peace for the Sinai Desert in 1979, Egypt would be ostracized in the Arab world and Sadat would be murdered.

All Israel's leaders -- with the possible exception of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir -- have under-estimated the obstacles to peace, doubtless because they are moderns who value peace as a necessary condition to democracy, development and prosperity. They expect others will share these values, because they are people of reasonably good will more committed to progress than to hate.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres' recent book, ''The New Middle East,'' is wholly consistent with this tradition. It offers a regional plan in which violence, poverty and political rivalry can be replaced by stability, economic development, security and democracy -- providing there is peace. It is the deal Israelis have offered since the founding of their state. Who could resist such a deal?

* Baruch Goldstein, perpetrator of the Hebron massacre, for one.

* The extremists of the Kach and Kahane Chai groups. They believe the identity of the Jewish people is threatened by peace that relinquishes even an inch of the Biblical homeland. ''We will never accept the possibility of a transfer of Jews from the city of Abraham,'' they reiterate.

* Hamas. ''The basic problem is . . . the Zionist occupation and the Zionist settlers on Palestinian territory,'' say leaders of the stone-throwing Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, meaning the whole of Israel. No deals for them on anything.

* Muhammed Abbas, leader of the Palestine Liberation Front. To Abbas the ''peace process'' is a "blind and erroneous political course." He thinks Hamas is more useful than Arafat to the Palestinian cause.

* George Habash, leader of Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. In his eyes, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin is ''personally responsible'' for the Hebron massacre, and the ''spineless Palestinian leadership'' shares responsibility. There is nothing to negotiate.

And what of Yasser Arafat? For many years Arafat seemed the prototype of the man who would never negotiate the PLO's claim to exclusive power in the ''State of Palestine.''

But after the PLO's generous support from Moscow and the Gulf states ended, Arafat reconsidered, negotiated an interim agreement with Shimon Peres and has been living ever since with criticism from within the Palestinian movement, especially for his failure to consult before making a deal with Israel.

It is still not clear that Arafat is capable of living at peace, and he has shown little evidence that he has the temperament of a democratic leader. He has harshly insulted his ''negotiating partners.''

Utterly rejecting Israeli assurances that the Hebron massacre was the work of one man, Arafat charged that the massacre resulted from conspiracy in the Israeli army and complicity of the government.

He broke off negotiations on the peace process, and as a price for returning demanded immediate attention to the status of Jerusalem and the issue of settlements, although the interim agreement had specified that these issues be left for the transitional period.

Without quite saying so, the Israeli government acquiesced. It posed no serious objections to the U.N. resolution that describes Jerusalem as occupied territory and called for an armed international presence to safeguard Palestinian civilians.

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