PARIS -- What has now happened in Israel could be called tragedy, since it arises with fearful logic from the flaws of men, but ''tragedy'' is also a formula which can serve to exculpate men, and women, from responsibility.
It was Golda Meir, Israel's prime minister from 1969 to 1974, who first claimed that a Palestinian people did not exist. There was a historical rationale for her remark, since Palestine only acquired a modern geographical and political definition when Britain acquired it from the defeated Ottoman Empire in 1920 (as a mandated territory, subsequently acknowledged by the League of Nations; Britain renounced the mandate in 1947).
Vacuum of history
However, the comment was taken by those so disposed as a claim that what now is Israel had no population before 1948 to be overcome, or expelled, or to flee, in order for the new state of Israel to come into existence. If that were true, Israel had no responsibility to its history; indeed it had no history, other than its history of pioneers and heroes.
In fact both Britain in 1937, and the U.N. in 1947, tried to partition Palestine between the Arab Palestinians and Jewish settlers, but the Arabs refused, wanting no Israel at all. In 1948 they went to war when Israel was proclaimed. That made it inevitable that the Israel which won the war was their enemy.
Israel nonetheless, prompted by Egypt's Anwar el Sadat, eventually made peace or an armed truce with its most important neighbors. With the Palestinian diaspora, and such shifting and self-interested allies as the Palestinians could command, there was never peace. The Palestinians adopted the strategy of the weak -- terrorism -- and found Communist-bloc support until 1989, motivated by the Cold War.
Next to the Cold War itself, the Israeli-Palestinian struggle has been the most poisonous influence upon international relations of the past half-century. Palestinian terrorism laid down an example which a score of other national-liberation and urban-revolutionary groups took up. The Palestinians succeeded in attaching their cause not only to the Cold War and the struggles of decolonization, but to allegedly Maoist ''revolutionary'' movements in Western Europe and America. The PLO destroyed Lebanon, provoking Israel to collaborate in the destruction.
The Palestinians' enemy, other than Israel, has been the United States, Israel's sponsor since 1948. There is irony in this, since the United States before 1948 was interested in the Middle East chiefly for the access it provided to Arab oil. After Franklin Roosevelt conferred with Saudi Arabia's King Ibn Saud, following the Yalta Conference in 1945, he told the press ''that he had learned more from Ibn Saud about Palestine in five minutes than he had learned in a lifetime.''
The conflict is also Hitler's legacy. Zionism was the last and weakest of the romantic 19th-century European movements calling for national self-determination for a particular people. It was predominantly secular and socialist in inspiration, not religious.
The Zionist ambition to create a Jewish homeland in Palestine was still a controversial minority cause in 1932, when Hitler came to power. Hitler's genocidal assault upon Europe's Jews caused the survivors to turn Israel into a reality.
In 1993 all this terrible history suddenly seemed to have an end in sight. The Oslo talks took place, and Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin, with Norwegian and then American help, declared peace, and agreed to the creation of a Palestinian political entity in Gaza and on the West Bank.
One now must confront the probability that peace was declared too late. It was declared from mutual weakness, not strength.
It was proposed with too many reservations on both sides, by men who could no longer deliver what they promised. As a result, the struggle since 1993 has been between the peacemakers of both camps on the one hand, and the warmakers on the other.
Israel's political left and right have been at war with one another, the West Bank colonists and believers in a Greater Israel fighting their government -- culminating in Mr. Rabin's assassination. On the Palestinian side, the struggle has set an increasingly hapless PLO leadership against its dissidents and against Hamas' religiously inspired suicide bombers.
Israel's Labor leadership, afraid of the Likud opposition, was provocatively slow in delivering territory and power to the PLO, and deliberately undermined Yasser Arafat's authority. Mr. Arafat could no longer dominate the Palestinians, despite his lack of democratic scruples. He was undermined by past failures, past murders and present compromises. He had to appease both Israelis and his own camp. He succeeded at neither.
The reasonable expectation now must be that Prime Minister Shimon Peres and the Labor Party will be defeated in the forthcoming national election, while Mr. Arafat will have been terminally discredited by his reluctant collaboration with the Israeli effort to destroy Hamas.
What is the future? Fortress Israel, probably, with a wall around it. In that case, which side could be described as having won? The sure thing to be said will be that the victory is ruinous.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 3/07/96