Israel: the threat within


PARIS -- Yitzhak Rabin was a victim of Israel's divisions, but also of its indecision.

Some Israelis are determined to create a greater Israel, incorporating the lands seized in the 1967 war. Some are content with a smaller Israel, if yielding land to the dispossessed Palestinians will give Israel peace.

The Oslo agreements, ceding Gaza and parts of the West Bank to the PLO, have been applied by Israel's government at a dilatory pace and in a tortured manner that has reinforced Israeli and Arab opponents of compromise.

The murdered Prime Minister Rabin and his foreign minister, and now successor, Shimon Peres, could not bring themselves to confront the extremist colonists implanted in territories claimed by the Palestinians. They balked at accepting the logic of the course to which they had committed themselves. They did not accept the Shakespearean counsel that if the deed -- peace -- were to be done, it had to be done quickly.

Their approach to the problem of the colonies has been dilatory and irresolute. The colonists and their allies possess quite the opposite qualities: They believe with all their hearts that God has given them a mission to occupy and hold forever all the Biblical Holy Land. They regard Israel's conquest of Jerusalem, and of Biblical Judaea and Samaria, during the 1967 Six-Day War, as of messianic significance. To yield any of this land is, for them, not simply a political betrayal but a crime against God's will.

American extremists

In the 1960s the ultra-Orthodox movement was allied with Labor and was politically moderate. In the years that followed the 1967 war, power passed to a younger generation increasingly intolerant, intransigent in its views, reinforced in this by an emigration of extremist American Jews, some of them preaching indiscriminate violence against all Arabs.

Subsequent Likud governments were determined to keep the West Bank territories for political and security reasons. They were politically inhibited by economic and military dependence on the U.S., but settlement of the West Bank steadily continued with official backing. This deliberately "created facts" on the ground in the occupied territories (and in Jerusalem) which Likud's successor-governments were expected to be unable to reverse.

Until now they have not tried. Under the present agreements expanding PLO autonomy in the West Bank, Israel is recalling its army from certain areas, but leaving behind the colonists, who live in fortified settlements with Israeli troops permanently on dTC guard. This is not only a provocative situation, tending to subvert the fragile PLO-Israeli agreements which already exist, but is also one which a realistic judgment says cannot last.

As John Whitbeck has observed in the journal Middle East International the fundamental issues between Israel and PLO still have not been addressed: Jerusalem's status, borders, the return of refugees, the fate of the colonists. There is a "peace process," but as Mr. Whitbeck says, it "does not appear to be leading anywhere they [the Palestinians] want to go."

The Rabin government has delayed the process in part for electoral motives. Already trailing in voter polls in the lead-up to Knesset elections a year from now, Labor has been afraid to do anything that would further upset an uneasy electorate. But Mr. Rabin's murder now has dramatically changed that situation.

In the last few days much has been said about the political as well as emotional impact of the prime minister's assassination by a fellow-Jew, and about the outpouring of grief in Israel and the support for Arab-Israeli peace demonstrated by the entire democratic world.

The argument is made that Mr. Peres has a fleeting moment now in which he could take radical and decisive action to get a full agreement with the Palestinians, doing so before next year's elections, so as to present voters with peace as a fait accompli -- so that voters will know that if they reject Labor they are rejecting peace itself.

But the problem no longer is simply political. A significant minority in Israel opposes peace on any attainable terms. It has demonstrated that it is capable of killing Israeli leaders who attempt to make peace with the PLO.

These extremists now potentially represent an Israeli version of the Irish Republican Army, or the Secret Army Organization that waged war against Gen. Charles DeGaulle after he gave French Algeria its freedom. Armed struggle within Israel, between Israelis, is entirely possible.

During four decades and a half Israelis lived with the permanent threat and recurrent reality of war with their Arab neighbors. That threat now has lifted. The presence at Mr. Rabin's funeral of King Hussein, Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, and other officials from Arab countries, as well as six members of the Palestinian autonomy government, attests to that.

The threat now lies within Israel. Can Israel reconcile its citizens who want peace with those other citizens who believe that God forbids Israel to compromise with its enemies? This is what Mr. Peres must confront. The extremists will say to him and his Labor government what they said to Yitzhak Rabin, that peace is treachery, and that traitors must die. Will he respond as DeGaulle responded, saying that the nation's common interest must prevail? That now is the question.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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