Tel Aviv. -- Palmerston once said of the 19th-century conflict over Schleswig-Holstein that only three people had ever understood it. One was dead, the second had gone mad, and the third was himself, but he had forgotten.
It is increasingly hard not to see the Middle East's peace negotiations in such terms. Israel's struggle with the Arabs has gone on too long, the proposed solutions have become too complex, the motivations and political inhibitions on both sides are now too Byzantine, for practical comprehension.
The issue itself is simple. Israelis and Palestinians claim the same land. But the Schleswig-Holstein issue was simple, too: Denmark and Prussia both wanted the two duchies, and Prussia finally took them. Understanding the ramifications was another matter. In the Middle East today neither side has open to it the Prussian solution. There is no single brutal blow that can settle matters.
The passionate partisans of one or another impossible victory nonetheless dominate the debate, unwillingly collaborating in the suppression of possible compromises and solutions. The Palestine Liberation Organization and the Islamic fundamentalists of Hamas struggle over leadership of the Palestinian camp. This blocks compromise by the PLO, the party willing to negotiate, and threatens the Arabs' capacity to deliver a settlement, even if one were agreed.
Israel's right-wing Likud opposition profits from the intransigence Hamas, and it challenges the Labor government's right to make territorial concessions either to the PLO or, in the Golan Heights, to Syria.
Labor's critics claim that the Labor-led government was elected a year ago only because its leader, Yitzhak Rabin, promised not to surrender Golan territory and to accept no final agreement on the occupied territories. It challenges the legitimacy of territorial concessions made by a government which depends for its narrow majority on a non-Zionist Jewish party and Arab parties sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.
Yet the war-weariness of Israel's population -- whether Labor or Likud voters, or the rest -- is manifest. Suppression of the intifada is militarily grueling and morally degrading, has invited international obloquy and is a severe handicap to an Israeli economy heavily dependent upon Arab labor from the occupied territories, currently cut off. Acts of Arab terrorism are intermittent, but demoralizing, and Israelis are now going about armed.
Polls show strong Israeli opposition to territorial concessions. Yet the despairing idea of a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza is widely discussed. Last Sunday Prime Minister Rabin alluded to the possibility of Gaza's being given separate autonomy, before a West Bank agreement, an idea he has resisted until now.
The 800,000 inhabitants of Gaza, living in squalor, proselytized with growing success by the Islamic fundamentalists, are a ticking time bomb for Israel, whose own population is less than 5 million. There also are only 4,000 Jewish colonists in Gaza, compared with the more than 100,000 on the West Bank.
But Likud's former prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, speaks for many (most, according to some polls) when he says that "Israel is a minuscule state. What would remain if such important regions as Golan, Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] and Gaza were amputated?" Earlier this month the army confiscated weapons from Jewish West Bank settlers, threatening armed struggle against any territorial concessions to the Palestinians.
Israel's unwanted but inevitable interlocutor, the PLO, is not only weakened in Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem by the fundamentalists, but has minimal international credit. Terrorism and complicity with Saddam Hussein and Muammar el Kadafi have in the long run had ruinous effects. Its rival, Hamas, linked to Iran and financed by the conservative oil monarchies, is omnipresent among the Palestinians of the occupied territories, not only a political force but organizing social assistance, schooling and community mobilization.
The Bush administration forced Israel to deal with the PLO, which in the past it had refused. But the peace talks begun in Madrid in 1991 and resumed in Washington after a five-month halt ended their latest session in mid-May with nothing further accomplished. The Clinton administration is said to be more sympathetic to Israel than was its predecessor but in fact seems only perfunctorily interested in the Middle East.
The region does not have the strategic interest it possessed during the Cold War. Mr. Clinton's America is inwardly focused. By early in the new century there will be more Islamic than Jewish voters in the United States. Even Middle Eastern oil seems of declining importance, as new trade agreements in the Americas offer U.S. business the prospect of enhanced access to Mexican and Venezuelan reserves, and new oil exploration opportunities there.
Without pressure from the United States it is hard to believe that the peace talks have a real chance of success. Settlement with Syria and Jordan depends on progress between the Israelis and Palestinians. Both of them are blocked by their internal contradictions and rivalries. Neither seems to possess the capacity for a radical peace initiative, such as Anwar Sadat's in 1977.
Yet the confrontation's present terms are worsening, certainly for Israel, needing to occupy and control a hostile population a quarter the size of its own, amid unremitting regional hostility. Probably only Washington can force the two sides to the settlement they both need. There is an old American responsibility in this affair, as well. But Washington's mind -- and that of most Americans -- is on other subjects.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.