The irony of Israel's intrusion into Arab lands

March 06, 1997|By William Pfaff

PARIS -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's decision to build the first 2,500 of more than 6,000 new apartments planned for East Jerusalem, so as to complete Arab Jerusalem's encirclement by Jewish settlements, is a reaction to his current political problems, but also has a long-term logic.

U.S. President Bill Clinton criticized the project recently, and a Palestinian official has called it "a form of declaration of war," but what either Mr. Clinton or the Paltestinians think will not alter Mr. Netanyahu's ideas about Palestinian political sovereignty.

He has discussed his views quite frankly with the Israeli press, and he repeated them informally in early February to the international press, gathered at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

He starts with a general reflection on the significance of national sovereignty at the end of the 20th century. He observes that sovereignty has increasingly become limited not only by international law and convention and international institutions, but also by technological developments and economics. No state is fully sovereign in the way that it might have been even 50 years ago.

He argues that the Palestinians' belief that they should possess a fully sovereign state at the end of the so-called peace process is therefore an illusion. They can and must accept less. To do so is consistent with general political, social and economic trends in the world today. (Mr. Netanyahu does not suggest an equivalent future diminution of Israeli sovereignty, imposed by these same forces).

He says that the Palestinians must also accept constraints that come out of the way Israeli-Palestinian relations have evolved during the 49 years since an Israeli nation was first proclaimed in what then was the British-mandated territory of Palestine, and the Palestinians declared war on it. They must give peace to have peace, he says, and this means accepting limitations on their sovereignty that guarantee Israel's security.

He says the Palestinians can have self-government with limited sovereignty in Gaza and the Palestinian population centers of the West Bank, but within overall limits imposed by Israel's security needs and by the presence of the Jewish settlements that have already been established.

Thus the Palestinians would govern themselves, but Israeli forces would protect existing Jewish colonies in Arab territories, and these would be linked to one another by new roads controlled by Israeli forces. These roads would make a patchwork of the Palestinians' territory, an obvious further obstacle to Palestinian nationhood.

The Palestinians would police themselves but would not have an army. They would not have fully sovereign relations with other states, or security links abroad. Israel's security interests would prevail in matters of Palestinian foreign relations. Jerusalem would be united under Israel's sovereignty.

Critics of this plan say it amounts to conceding the Palestinians a Bantustan (the self-governing but limited-sovereignty black "homelands" of South Africa in the era of apartheid). On the other hand, whatever critics may say, such a plan is logically coherent, and would certainly be acceptable to all but a fraction of Israel's voters. Could it work?

The real question is whether it is realistic to think that the Palestinians would accept such an outcome to the peace process. Yet does the Palestinian leadership have a real alternative to accepting it?

Even if Yasser Arafat and the current Palestinian leadership should accept this settlement, could they impose it on not only their own followers, but on the rest of the Palestinians, and particularly on the groups which oppose the concessions already made by the Arafat leadership? Would terrorism resume?

These are more important questions than whether the Netanyahu program pleases Israeli voters, or whether it pleases or displeases the international community. If the mass of Palestinians will put up with such an outcome to their years of struggle, Mr. Netanyahu is on solid ground (assuming that he remains prime minister). If they won't accept it, then the peace process will end in something worse than a renewed Intifada. That is not what Israeli voters wanted when Mr. Netanyahu told them he would bring peace combined with security.

Superficially, the Israelis would seem to possess the power to impose whatever solution they want, but this is misleading. The Palestinians actually are in the stronger position, simply because they have little to gain from what Mr. Netanyahu offers, and therefore little to lose, while the Israelis have much to lose from a renewed struggle.

The Palestinians today present the same problem to Israel as the quasi-occupation of southern Lebanon. Controlling both makes Israel less secure rather than more secure. Democratic Israel is corrupted by the effort to go on controlling territories and peoples who resist it. The ultimate obstacle to Mr. Netanyahu's plan is Israel's own national interest.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 3/06/97

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