JERUSALEM - Since 1948, when Israel was founded on one-sixth of 1 percent of the land carelessly called "the Arab world," the conflict has been not about what land Israel should occupy but whether it should occupy any land.
The conflict has been constantly violent but now, in today's world climate of appeasement, the Palestinians' violence is self-legitimizing: The assumption always is that they must have been provoked.
Today, and as usual, the problem is not that Israel is being provocative, but that Israel's being is provocative. And now the potentially lethal asymmetry in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is this: Israel's government desperately wants to end the conflict, the Palestinian Authority fiercely wants to win it.
Israel has more dimensions of interlocking and overlapping divisions -religious, political, ethnic, social - than any other democracy. However, right now it is more united than it has been in years. United, but not enjoying it. The left's peace movement is morose, feeling refuted by events. The right is gloomy, as conservatives everywhere usually are when their bleak realism is confirmed by events.
At Camp David in July, Ehud Barak offered Yasser Arafat concessions (regarding land, Jerusalem, and the "right of return" of Palestinian refugees) so sweeping they shattered public support for his government, which means he must now have early elections or cobble together a "national emergency" government. But Mr. Barak says, "I made it possible for our people ... at least to be united by the sense of no choice." That counts as the bright side here.
Mr. Barak's discovery, if indeed he has made it, that Mr. Arafat wants nothing less than the liquidation of Israel, is akin to Jimmy Carter's discovery, rather late in the 20th century (the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan), of Moscow's evil. Never mind Mr. Arafat's decades-long career of terrorism and genocidal rhetoric.
Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, warns that as the rejection of Israel has taken on a less secular and more Islamic complexion, it has also gained a deeper resonance among ordinary Arabs, with Israel's existence now cast as an affront to Gods will.
Even Egypt's government, which is formally at peace with Israel, not only permits but, Mr. Pipes says, sponsors the crudest forms of anti-Semitism which in effect communicates this to Egyptians: "We have to be in contact with Israelis and sign certain pieces of paper, but we still hate them, and you should, too."
Unlike Egypt's Anwar Sadat or Jordan's King Hussein, who prepared their publics for acceptance of Israel, the Palestinian Authority is tutoring another generation in rejectionism.
But, then, Palestinians have long been execrably led. In the First World War their leaders sided with Turkey, which ruled Palestine and was on the wars losing side. Palestinian leaders sided with Hitler in the Second World War, with the Soviet Union during the Cold War and with Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War.
Today, sad to say but necessary to say, there are no Palestinian leaders who can be Israel's partners for peace.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.