WAR PLAYS ITS CRUEL tricks not only on the soldiers who fight, but also on the pundits who predict. What seems obvious, certain and inevitable often turns out to be a mirage. Once the fighting ends and the implications of battle filter into reality, the apparent gains and losses frequently prove ephemeral.
This is especially true in the Middle East, and particularly with respect to Israel, whose wars' immediate military consequences have produced unexpected -- and opposite -- political results in the longer term.
What seemed a stunning Israeli victory in the Six-Day War of 1967 ended up transforming Israel into an occupier of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, corroding Israeli democratic values and fostering a seething brutality between Palestinian children and Israeli troops.
What seemed a near-defeat for Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur War ended up giving President Anwar el-Sadat of Egypt the stature and confidence he needed, just four years later, to embark on his historic visit to Jerusalem to make peace with the Jewish state.
Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which was designed to install a pro-Western government in Beirut and destroy the Palestine Liberation Organization, actually drove Lebanon more solidly into Syrian hands, helped embolden Palestinians in their subsequent uprising in the West Bank and Gaza and left the PLO as a major factor.
Now, conventional wisdom holds that war in the Persian Gulf ha damaged the Palestinian cause to the point where the Israeli government will face less pressure, domestically and internationally, to relinquish the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, hence reducing the prospects for settling the Palestinian problem and resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict.
This may well be, but it would be wise to remember that i Middle Eastern politics, every indisputable fact contains its own contradiction. The current case is no exception, as an examination of each recent development demonstrates.
By siding with Saddam Hussein, the PLO has alienated not onl its sympathizers in Western Europe but also its main sources of money in the Arab world, most notably Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. This has plunged the PLO into diplomatic oblivion. The organization's brief emergence into the "peace process" -- after its chairman, Yasser Arafat, agreed in 1988 that a Palestinian state would exist peacefully alongside Israel -- now seems like an aberration. The PLO is practically a pariah.
But alignments and antipathies in that part of the world ar anything but durable. It was not long ago that Iraq invaded Iran and fought a grinding, eight-year war. Today, Iran is giving sanctuary to Iraqi warplanes. During that war, Kuwait helped Iraq with funds and port facilities. Today, Kuwait lies battered beneath an Iraqi onslaught. Egypt, ostracized by the Arab world after making peace with Israel, is now back in the fold. The PLO, expelled by King Hussein in 1970, is now back in Jordan. Nothing is forever.
Inside Israel, the Palestinians have done themselves grave harm By applauding the Iraqi Scud missiles that have fallen indiscriminately on Tel Aviv and Haifa, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have deeply antagonized even the Israeli left, which supported a dialogue, a territorial compromise and a belief in the possibility of peaceful coexistence. Adding the threat of gas attack, and Saddam Hussein's promise to turn Tel Aviv into a "crematorium," revives all the nightmares of Jewish decimation in the Holocaust and reinforces profound hatred.
But Palestinians, who have their own history of suffering, hav always cheered Arab attacks against Israel, whether by armies or terrorists. This is nothing new. Furthermore, the Israeli left has not had, and is unlikely to have, the political muscle to shape an Arab-Israeli settlement. So, while the current disillusionment of the Israeli peace movement may affect the tone of national debate, real political power remains in the center-right of the spectrum.
And if those more conservative Israelis ultimately decide t compromise, they will do so not as a favor to the Palestinians, but as a favor to themselves. Altruism is not a player in this game. You do not have to like your enemy to make a practical peace with him.
By stoically absorbing Scud attacks without retaliating, Israe may have gained worldwide sympathy and a respite from pressure to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza. In the short term, the restraint has improved Israel's relations with the United States, which urged non-response to avoid cracking the anti-Iraq coalition. But in the longer run, the effects of this experience are subject to various calculations.
Many Israelis have a powerful aversion to winning support b satisfying the world's expectation that Jews should be victims. At some point, perhaps after the war, Israel may feel a need to conduct a graphic demonstration of its ability to defend itself. The government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir may also feel confident enough to crack down ruthlessly on the West Bank and Gaza Palestinians, which would refocus international attention on Israeli transgressions.
The war may also fuel both sides of the security debate in Israe over the military importance of the West Bank. Some can point to the uselessness of such a narrow strip of land that cannot prevent missiles from striking Tel Aviv. Others can counter that if the West Bank were a Palestinian state, just down the road, civilian neighborhoods would be within range of more easily-concealed weapons, such as mortars and rocket launchers, which could sow constant terror.
More broadly, the gulf war raises geopolitical questions. I attacking Israel, Iraq has provided a useful reminder that the Israeli-Arab dispute exists in two dimensions -- a conflict not only between Palestinian nationalism and Jewish nationalism, but also between Israel and the Arab countries. Although neither can be solved without addressing the other, Israel has always been more comfortable dealing with the Arab states, whether in war or negotiation.
Consequently, a return to a preoccupation with the secon dimension -- Israel's confrontation with the Arab states -- may blend better with Israel's security concerns. Not that the fate of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza can be set aside, but an Israel that feels more secure would probably be more willing to compromise on the Palestinian problem.
Paradoxically, this possibility may even be enhanced if the PLO does remain in eclipse and plays less of a role in the psychology and diplomacy of the conflict. And it may be strengthened by the fact that Israel, after accepting American crews and Patriot missiles, is now enmeshed in an American security system.
If the gulf war creates a Pax Americana in the region, the Bus administration could have substantial leverage with both the Arab and Israeli sides. Washington and the moderate Arab governments will owe each other a great deal, and the United States may feel obligated to push for an Arab-Israeli peace settlement. Or, war in its aftermath could play its cruel tricks again.
David K. Shipler is former Jerusalem bureau chief for The NeYork Times and author of "Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land," which won a 1987 Pulitzer Prize.