Now Comes the Hard Part

PARIS — Paris. -- Israel is supposed to retire its army from the Gaza strip and from Jericho today. Despite intensified violence in Gaza and in Israel, the Israeli government seems determined that its army will indeed go -- whether or not it will all go, or go precisely on schedule.

Its departure inspires the fear and anger of the Jewish colonists in the occupied territories, seized by Israel in the 1967 war. There are to be military arrangements to protect them, but they see it in their interest to provoke conflict with the Palestinians, a sentiment reciprocated by the Palestinians opposed to the Arafat-Peres peace agreement.


The colonists' position clearly is untenable in the long run. Yet they and their supporters inside Israel make up a powerful minority that could again become a parliamentary majority -- as it was during the years of Likud Party power and the prime ministerships of Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir. Labor Party Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin operates on a very narrow political margin.

The past determination of Likud and of certain religious parties to install these colonies in territories legally under military occupation reflected their determination eventually to annex the territories in order to make (or in their minds, restore) a Greater Israel.


The actual consequence is that Israel now has its own version of Britain's Northern Ireland problem. The government is committed leave these predominantly Arab territories, but it is politically impossible for it to abandon the Jewish colonists. The problem is much smaller in scale and narrower in time than the problem of Northern Ireland. The colonists are a few thousand in number and have been in the territories a decade or two rather than the three centuries the Scottish and English Protestants have been in Ulster. But it is the same problem.

The other problem, yet more emotional, is Jerusalem, a city of crucial religious and historical significance for both Jews and Palestinians. It is the one place claimed both by Israel and by the Palestinians. The latter otherwise claim sovereign rights only over the lands conquered by Israel in 1967, and of those territories, the state of Israel asserts sovereignty only over expanded East Jerusalem.

A solution is possible here. It is joint, undivided Israeli and Palestinian sovereignty over the city. This solution was proposed in the mid-1970s by John V. Whitbeck, an international lawyer. Mr. Whitbeck has indefatigably campaigned ever since to persuade both the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Israeli government to consider his plan, and eventually he has succeeded in winning sympathetic attention from both sides.

His conception is of an undivided Jerusalem as capital both of Israel and of a sovereign Palestinian state, administered by an autonomous, elected municipal council. Its residents would carry the passport either of Israel or of Palestine, as they chose, and would vote in the national elections of the state to which they had opted to belong. They would also vote in the municipal elections of Jerusalem.

He envisages both Israeli and Palestinian government offices in the city. The plan is part of a larger proposal for the coexistence and cooperation of two sovereign states in the Holy Land, the Palestinian state demilitarized but internationally guaranteed, making up a single economic community with Israel (and undoubtedly with Jordan).

Mr. Whitbeck says that he has "never had any illusion that this framework for peace would be the first choice of either side. However, I believe that it could well be the second choice of both sides." If one assumes that no Israeli government could ever accept a redivision of Jerusalem, and that Palestinians and indeed the Islamic world could never acknowledge permanent and total Israeli sovereignty over the Holy City, "then only one solution is conceivable: joint sovereignty over an undivided city."

The immediate issue for both Mr. Rabin and the PLO's leadership is Israel's upcoming military withdrawal from the territories and the transfer of Gaza and Jericho to secure Palestinian control. This has to be accomplished against the bitter and murderous resistance of the Palestinian groups that reject any compromise with Israel, as well as against the will of the Jewish colonists in the territories and their allies. Only if this can be done successfully will the larger issues of sovereignty and cooperation be addressed. What happens today and after is thus crucial.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.