Twisting the wrong arm

INSIDE Israel's Cabinet, some of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's most important ministers are talking to him about trying a kind of do-it-yourself distancing plan for Israelis and Palestinian Arabs.

They suggest that what the Israelis could do themselves is to pull out their troops from several key towns in the West Bank to the outskirts -- perhaps Nablus, Hebron and Jericho. It would not be a withdrawal or surrender of territory.


But it would be a step toward ending killings of Arabs and Jews by putting room between the Israeli Army and the Palestinians, giving both more breathing space.

And these Cabinet members are proposing that the Palestinians then be permitted to take over most of the functions of administering civil life on the West Bank, under an agreed Palestinian board.


Of course, this would not satisfy passions for an independent Palestinian state. That is, a second Palestinian state in addition to the one Britain sliced off from the Palestine mandate in 1920 and now goes under the alias of Jordan.

Unfortunately the second state Palestinians have in mind would require Israel to go drown in the sea. It is as much a fantasy as Saddam Hussein's dream of ruling the Middle East, and based on the same fatal self-delusion.

But if the talking becomes reality, Palestinians would have a chance to show whether they can run most of their affairs without making every day a carnival of anti-Israel hate and stabbing.

Shamir also will not be easy to convince. He is a subtle and sophisticated man, which his friends know and his enemies still are learning. But he does not believe in gambling on Israeli security. Suppose Israel pulls back some troops and the Palestinians take flexibility for weakness and bring out more knives?

Who will the world blame for the blood that will flow in putting them down -- who but Yitzhak Shamir and the Israeli government? We can imagine the U.S. television specials.

The talk in the Cabinet is a variation on a unilateral theme that has popped up over the years. But Shamir hears his colleagues out. Some of the interested Likudniks are among the most important in the party, among them Defense Minister Moshe Arens, Health Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister David Levy and Justice Minister Dan Meridor. All of them are considered potential successors to Shamir. They are not acting as a cabal but they do have influence, no question of that.

They have an audience in mind that goes beyond the Palestinians, and its name is George Bush.

They are totally aware that Bush is eager for movement in the Israeli-Palestinian situation. They are weary of Israel constantly being the sole target of American pressure.


Secretary of State James A. Baker III goes to a meeting of Arab coalition partners. They refuse to end the Arab state of war against Israel, now almost a half-century steeped in blood and bitterness.

But in Jerusalem, his next stop, Baker talks about the interesting new ideas he is hearing from the Arabs. That plunks the ball in Israel's political court. But what ideas? He doesn't say and the Israelis insist they still do not know.

The Likud unilateralists hope that if Israel takes the initiative the president will then press the Arabs for a demonstration of the will for peace -- deeds, not words, as American presidents like to say.

Such as: the end of the state of belligerency and of the boycott of Israel and companies doing business with Israel. The boycott has been more of an economic problem than Israel has liked to admit.

Just a few days ago, Kuwaiti representatives in Argentina

officially informed a local company that "Jewish firms" would not be eligible for reconstruction contracts -- raising the nastiness level. Let's see how that sits with the 90 senators who earlier asked the emir to end the boycott.


So it can be expected that before he agrees to any unilateral move, Shamir would want some clear word from Washington that the U.S. will indeed drop the Israeli arm and start twisting the Arab, and how hard.

The chances are against any unilateral move but it has become thinkable.

And the chances of the Palestinians getting a better offer if they again show their talent for picking wrong? Why, none.

As for a Palestinian state, it exists already, just across the narrow River Jordan, and one day will be known by its real name.