Can peace survive?

October 19, 1994|By Anthony Lewis

Boston -- I DON'T remember an incident when we were all so deeply involved," an Israeli friend said. "People felt that something happened in their own family."

She was talking about the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier, Cpl. Nahshon Waxman, by Hamas terrorists -- and his murder by them as an Israeli force unsuccessfully stormed the West Bank house where he was being held. All of Israel had seen the videotape made by Hamas, with the young man pleading for his life, and all mourned his death.

The trauma of the kidnapping raised hard questions for the future of the effort to construct an Israeli-Palestinian peace. Despite the emotions in Israel, the problems are far harder on the Palestinian side.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin handled the tensions of the kidnapping with extraordinary political skill. He made mistakes, but understandable ones that should not be second-guessed. Most significantly, he acted in a way that left the peace process intact in terms of Israeli politics and public opinion.

Hamas smuggled the Waxman videotape into Gaza and gave it to the press there. Mr. Rabin therefore reached the wrong conclusion that Waxman was being held somewhere in the Gaza Strip. He insisted that Yasser Arafat, who has authority in Gaza under the first phase of the peace process, was responsible for finding the prisoner.

In the turmoil of those few days hardly anyone noticed what Mr. Rabin did not do. He did not send the Israeli army back into Gaza in force to search for Waxman. In putting the responsibility on Mr. Arafat, he effectively confirmed Palestinian authority in Gaza.

The episode, and Mr. Rabin's handling of it, had another, psychological effect. It reinforced the shift in Israeli thinking about the PLO that began when Mr. Rabin shook Mr. Arafat's hand at the White House a year ago: the shift toward seeing the PLO as the best hope of peace with the Palestinians, with Hamas as the enemy.

Mr. Arafat acted in a way that furthered that shift in Israeli opinion. He did not bristle at Mr. Rabin's rough (and, as it turned out, misplaced) demand to find the prisoner in Gaza. He arrested 200 Hamas members and tried to help in an abortive attempt to negotiate with Hamas political leaders.

But those very gestures show why the kidnapping left worse political problems for Mr. Arafat. For what he did led to his being reviled by Hamas as a tool of Israel.

In Palestinian political terms, Hamas won. Its supporters marched in Gaza demanding that Mr. Arafat release those arrested. In some sections of the West Bank, too, some felt Hamas gained support.

Israel is pressing Mr. Arafat to suppress Hamas and disarm its military members, who still drive around Gaza waving guns. The demand echoes what happened in Israel soon after the birth of the state in 1948, when David Ben-Gurion's government seized weapons from a ship, the Altalena, that was bringing them to the Irgun movement -- and thereby made clear that there could be no private army inside Israel.

But Mr. Arafat's Palestinian Authority is far weaker than the Ben-Gurion government was. It is not clear that he has the power to disarm Hamas, much less to make the movement illegal.

"One shouldn't envy Yasser Arafat," an Israeli said. "It's not a job you would want."

It is worse because Mr. Arafat's headquarters is in Gaza, a Hamas stronghold. To rebuild that desperately impoverished place and thereby gain political legitimacy, he needs the promised aid from outside. That requires cooperation from Israel, which demands suppression of Hamas. But if he moves in that direction, he loses legitimacy with many Palestinians.

"It's almost a no-win situation for him," Yaron Ezrahi, an Israeli political analyst now in this country, said.

"The best we can expect is wavering progress."

But then Mr. Ezrahi echoed what other Israelis said when I asked about the effects of the kidnapping: "I am convinced that the peace process will not be stopped."

Perhaps there is an element of wishful thinking in that conclusion. But with all the setbacks -- the Hebron massacre by an Israeli extremist, Palestinian terror -- it remains a fact that there is no way to security and a normal life for either Israelis or Palestinians but peace between them.

Anthony Lewis is a New York Times columnist.

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