A LOT OF people were appalled last week when Israel's Likud party declared there should never be a Palestinian state.
Likud, which is the largest coalition of Israel's right-wing, ultranationalist factions, made this declaration following the exhortations of Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu, a former prime minister and one of the slipperiest characters ever to occupy that office. The party acted against the stated wishes of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who has said he accepts the inevitability of a Palestinian state. The action also was a slap in the face to the Bush administration and most other parties that see the promise of Palestinian statehood as necessary to induce Palestinians to make peace with Israel.
No question exists among sensible people that Palestinian statehood is necessary and inevitable if there is ever to be peace between Israel and the Arabs living next to them. Whether Yasser Arafat, the present leader of the Palestinians, deserves to be the head of such a state is less important than the proposition that without the hope of self-rule and independence, the Palestinians have little incentive to work toward peace. The brutal forces that accompany hopelessness have made their mark all over Israel as suicide bombers.
But while the Likud party's declaration against Palestinian statehood, urged on by Netanyahu, is appalling, it may not be a bad thing.
What the declaration accomplished was to deliver a crystal-clear reminder of what the Likudniks represent in the abiding division between the militant "revisionist" Zionism of the Likud and the moderate side of Zionist politics, represented by the Labor Party.
The revisionists, disciples of a Polish Jewish militant named Ze'ev Jabotinsky, have never wavered from the conviction that all of Palestine belonged to the Jews, by rights enshrined in religious inheritance. Prime Minister Menachem Begin learned his stuff as Jabotinsky's acolyte. He could give up the Sinai peninsula for the sake of peace with Egypt in 1979, but never the West Bank and Gaza. Eretz Israel - the Land of Israel - included all the territory from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River, including all of the West Bank, which he vigorously filled with Jewish settlers.
The moderate side, embodied in David Ben Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, felt that part of Palestine was better than nothing. He declared the State of Israel within the boundaries drawn by the United Nations when it partitioned Palestine in 1947. Neither he nor his successors - such as Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres - were fully satisfied with those boundaries, but they recognized the need to come to terms with the Palestinian Arabs.
Now that the Likud party has reminded everyone of the fundamental difference between the two sides, Israelis themselves will have a clear choice.
Netanyahu has done everything he can to undermine Ariel Sharon and may head the Likud party list when Israelis next go to the polls. The Labor Party is led by Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, now serving as defense minister in Sharon's coalition government. Peres, the former Labor leader, is foreign minister in the same arrangement. Others stand impatiently in the wings, like Haim Ramon, a disillusioned former confidante of Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
Peres, in a recent television interview, said that he believed Israel had made a mistake in the 1993 Oslo accords with the Palestinians by not stating explicitly that the peace process would lead to a Palestinian state.
Whatever the Likud party may say, most Israelis agree with the Peres proposition.
A survey of Israelis conducted last month by Wilson Research Strategies indicated the majority support the idea of a Palestinian state. Specifically, the question was whether Sharon should issue a statement acknowledging the right of the Palestinians to have their own homeland.
Fifty-five percent said yes; 34 percent said no. The majority for statehood was spread over most geographic areas, reaching as high as 65 percent in some regions. Typically, Israel's dominant political party now looks as if it is out of sync with the majority of Israelis.
Meanwhile, a somewhat chastened Yasser Arafat has been making sounds about acting against Palestinian militants and reforming his own government structure in response to charges of corruption and the concentration of power in his hands. Israelis and even some Palestinians expressed doubts that Arafat was serious. "It's not important what he says, but the important thing is what he does on the ground," said Hatem Abdul Qader, a member of Arafat's own Fatah movement in the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Maybe Arafat will be able to stop the people who are directing the suicide bombing campaigns against Israelis. Maybe he will reform the Palestinian Authority so it is more representative and less corrupt, more inclined to work on peace with Israel. The followers of Bibi Netanyahu assert that Arafat will never change. They say Arafat is a terrorist whose PLO has never given up on the hope of possessing all of Palestine, and destroying the Jewish state.
Here's the question: If Netanyahu's Likud wants all of Palestine for the Israelis, how can they expect the Palestinians to want anything less for themselves?