LONDON -- A short 2 1/2 years ago, then foreign minister of Israel Shimon Peres observed: "I don't think we have in the Middle East a process of peace. We have a war for peace, because it calls unfortunately for victims and casualties."
Probably, not even in the most pessimistic moments of this melancholic man, did he foresee that soon after he spoke he'd witness the triple whammy of the murder of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the subsequent victory at the polls of Likud's dTC party leader Binyamin Netanyahu and the effective pacing of negotiations under the Oslo accords by terrorist elements on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides.
While Mr. Netanyahu may not have wanted the tide of events to move in his direction by such a route he and his Likud philosophy is the clear beneficiary.
The political cul de sac that Yasser Arafat and the Palestinians now find themselves in is where the grand strategists of the Likud right wanted them to be all along.
In recent months the tables have been so turned on Mr. Arafat that the Israel he faces now demands from him its security agenda or nothing -- and all that is left as bait on the Oslo hook is unrecognizable to the Palestinian eye.
Israel has offered the Palestinians a dependent territory carved up by Israeli roads. It could never be a Palestinian state. It would not even be a viable Palestinian economic entity. It would be a sort of refugee camp squeezed into the interstices of Greater Israel.
Doubtless, Israel has the military muscle to impose its interpretation of peace, at least in the short run. (In the long run, the Arab world will find a way to subvert it.)
But that would mean totally forsaking the Fourth Geneva Convention. Drafted in 1949 in the wake of Hitler's ethnic cleansing, Paragraph 6 of Article 49 reads, "The occupying power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies."
Israel, however, has been establishing settlements on the conquered West Bank since 1967 and recently has been accelerating the process in the most provocative manner possible. How can there be "land-for-peace," the essence of UN Resolution 242 and the heart of the Oslo accords, when Israel is manifestly determined to torpedo away the last constraints of the Geneva Convention?
Only one power in the world at the moment can say "stop" or "no" to Israel and it mean anything and that is America. But since the dying days of the Bush Administration Washington has veered from inactivity to passivity. So passive has been the Clinton administration that on occasion it has put aside its self-described "neutrality" to get Israel out of a jam -- as when the U.S. used its veto in the UN Security Council to halt what would otherwise have been a universal condemnation of Likud's aggressive settlement policy.
The new secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, seems intent on re-galvanizing Washington's role. But is Mrs. Albright prepared if necessary to make public a profound philosophical difference with Likud, or will it be more of fudge and smudge?
Mrs. Albright should pay heed to the observation of James Noyes, a Hoover Institution research fellow, who argues that "Some of Washington's most useful contributions have come when the U.S. strongly disagreed with a particular Israeli action." Not surprisingly there have only been a handful of occasions when this happened.
President Eisenhower memorably went so far as to insist on the abortion of the ill-conceived French, British and Israeli invasion of Egypt, following Nasser's nationalization of the Suez Canal.
President Bush took a telling stand when he refused to permit Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's Likud government to use American loan guarantees to expand Jewish settlements on the West Bank. He suffered a torrent of abuse for this, but it changed the climate and made the Israelis more flexible in negotiation.
Although there have been some vicissitudes in the Clinton presidency, defending settlements one year, criticizing them the next, the basic stance remains supportive of Mr. Netanyahu's uncompromising rigor. That has to change and must do quickly if a de facto Greater Israel is not going to be locked in place.
Washington must stop looking over its shoulder at the American Jewish lobbies who represent only a minority of the Jews in the diaspora.
It should not feel in hock to the apparent mandate of the Israeli voter when the election was won by a mere 29,500 votes in an atmosphere that was anything but normal, following Yitzhak Rabin's assassination.
Mr. Clinton and Mrs. Albright have to realize -- and very quickly, too -- that in this "war for peace" America cannot afford to give any more hostages to fortune. The time for getting singularly tough with the Likud philosophy has now arrived and can no longer be avoided.
Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.
Pub Date: 8/29/97