The new Palestine

JERUSALEM — Jerusalem -- IN A Jerusalem apartment earlier this winter, two men sat watching their children light Hanukkah candles. Then they talked of another winter night when they themselves had lighted Hanukkah candles.

They remembered how hard it had been to keep the flame burning in Chistopol prison, in one of the cold cells set aside for men like them who had challenged the Soviet Union with their minds.


The candles were small pieces of wax paper that they had squirreled away for months. The hope of the two cellmates was that the paper would burn long enough for them to say their prayers. Some scraps did.

In time, year after year of gulag time, they were able to immigrate to Israel. They came for principles -- and to give their children safety and stability in a Jewish nation.


Arkady Tsurkov, one of those men, lives with his wife, Irina, also a gulag survivor, in a development on the West Bank near Jerusalem, a "settlement." The settlement committee gave them the housing that they could find and afford nowhere else.

The other man in the cell was Natan Sharansky, who became a symbol of intellectual resistance to communism and all other tyranny.

This past Hanukkah in Jerusalem their two families talked more of their future than their past. Their mood was heavy. Mr. Sharansky talks now of a sense of foreboding among the Russian immigrants that Israel may be approaching chaos. The fear comes in large part from a growing belief that Israel is taking a negotiation road that will lead to an independent Palestine.

It is not simply the idea of another Arab state on Israel's borders that troubles people like Mr. Sharansky and his friends. It is the belief that the new state will be created in the mold of most Arab Middle Eastern nations -- a despotism.

Mr. Sharansky believes, as I do, that democracies are safe neighbors because they rarely if ever attack each other. And people from the gulags know that despotic governments are in a constant state of war.

When they are not at war with their neighbors they are at war with their own citizens. They use police and prison power to control not just the dissidents but to drill submission into their own supporters.

I thought of trying to soothe Mr. Sharansky's worries by passing on a message I had received from some friends in Israel's Labor government. Among the Palestinian negotiators, they said, are some who yearn for political freedom and will try to build it.

But I decided not to pass it on. Somehow the words rang tinny in my head before they reached my mouth. I know there are such people among the Palestinian political elite who talk to the Israeli political elite. But I doubt they will be in power long, if ever. When independence comes, will Hamas be far behind?


For gulag survivors an anti-democratic Palestine is not simply a matter between Arabs or Jews or even only a security problem for Israel. They see it as a sorrow for all supporters of political democracy -- Jew, Christian and Islamic. Some Labor-minded officials do care about that, but not as many as I had hoped.

But maybe there is no point in talking about such things now. Maybe it is a done deal and nothing much can be changed.

After all, just about everybody in Jerusalem knows that the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has created the firm expectations of Palestinian independence among Palestinians and in most capitals of the world including Washington.

The Palestinians are negotiating on the basis of that expectation. Even many of Labor's political opponents in the Likud know that it cannot simply be withdrawn like candy from a child.

An independent Palestine will of course be a great historic triumph for the Palestinians' sense of purpose and identity. Will it also become a lasting defeat for Israel? In part, that depends on whether Israel can help shape the new Palestine into a democracy. I think that the odds of Israel having such influence hover just above zero.

What's left and essential is for Israel to demand specific important guarantees -- including control of security zones and the right of Jews to live in peace on the West Bank.


I hope Israel lists its demands soon and publicly. Otherwise the chances of getting them later will just flicker out like a wax-paper candle.

A.M. Rosenthal is a columnist for the New York Times.