Are Arabs ready for peace?

May 05, 1994|By A. M. Rosenthal

ISRAELI Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has something important in common with Iraq's Saddam Hussein and Bill Clinton.

Saddam Hussein did not tell the Iraqi people when he invaded Kuwait that there was a chance they would be pounded into military defeat.

When Bill Clinton ordered American bombers to take part in the Bosnian war, he did not say there was a chance that bombing could spread the war further.

And Yitzhak Rabin, making concessions to bring peace with Palestinians and Syria, does not tell Israelis of the evidence that Arab public opinion is not ready for that peace, and favors immediate military confrontation as the alternative.

An old story -- when national leaders, democratic or dictatorial, take a major step that involves big risk and big opportunity they emphasize the opportunities and slide over or just skip talk about risk.

In a recent column I wrote that Arab governments were still spewing out anti-Israeli propaganda and that Arab nations had taken none of the obvious steps to show their people that the unholy war was over. Coincidentally the day the column was printed I received a study that provided startling supporting statistics.

The study was carried out not by an Israeli but by Hilal Khashan, associate professor of political science at the American University of Beirut. The article, printed by the new Middle East Quarterly is called "Are the Arabs Ready for Peace With Israel?"

His answer is a sad "no" -- the result of a poll he carried out among 1,000 Muslim Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians in Beirut on the eve of the first Israeli-PLO agreement on Sept. 13, 1993.

"What are the alternatives to peace talks?" was one question. Of the two-thirds who replied to the question, 75 percent favored "immediate military confrontation with Israel."

The remaining one-fourth wanted to maintain the present situation -- no peace, no war. The conclusion in the analysis is that those who did support negotiations saw them merely as a truce before another military confrontation.

The study blames Arab leadership for the fact that Arab people show little understanding of peace with Israel or its benefits.

Since the early 1920s, Mr. Khashan writes, the Arab elite has conditioned Arab populations to suspect Jews, hate Zionists and seek the destruction of Israel.

And when Arab leaders chose to seek peace, he says, they did not prepare their people for what it meant, but followed a policy of "peace by stealth" -- one step forward, two steps back, underestimating the implications of peace.

The Rabin government is so convinced that a formal peace is in the best interest of Israel that it has changed the military strategy that for decades rested on control of the West Bank and the Golan Heights.

As part of its negotiating tactics Israel is playing down the refusal of Arab governments to revoke the very actions that helped create and sustain hatred and war against Israel.

Among them are: the global hate sewer, the world boycott, untermenschen barriers against Jewish travelers and the Arab conventions calling for the death of Israel.

When many members of Congress wanted to push for an end of the embargo now, the Israelis touted them off. Then Israel docilely accepted a U.N. resolution condemning murders committed by one private person -- the Hebron killer. This had never been done at the U.N. They did not urge the U.S. to veto a paragraph treating Jerusalem as occupied territory.

When Palestinians refused to revoke their death oaths, Israel acted unconcerned. When the Arab League refuses to end the embargo, Israel talks about the exceptions Arabs graciously grant from time to time.

The Rabin government will probably achieve the agreements it seeks. Land on credit and the coming Palestinian independence are a good starting point for the Arabs. But in the process his government is making the error of other Israeli governments -- deluding itself about what Arab people think, and the consequences.

If Israel now does not seem to care much about how the Arab people are fed with hatred, or that so many see peace with Israel as a prelude to war with Israel, why should any other government bother itself -- now or after the papers are signed?

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

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