U.S. cannot rescue Israel from internal problems

PARIS — PARIS -- Israel's great mistake has been to think that its only really important relationship is with the United States. Israeli leaders have believed that if they kept Washington and American public opinion satisfied, Israel's essential security was assured.

What the Palestinians and the Arab governments thought was believed a secondary issue. The United States was expected to defend Israel should Israel ever find itself in difficulties it could not handle itself.


So long as support from the Jewish community in the United States was solid, and American opinion in general remained sympathetic to Israel, the Israeli government believed Israel secure. What Jewish communities in Europe thought about Israeli policies, or what the governments of the European Union had to say, was also considered unimportant.

More than due deliberation


The Labor party as well as Likud has been guilty of this misapprehension. Although Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin, leaders of the last Labor governments, began peace negotiations with the Palestinians, they carried on this "peace process" with more than due deliberation.

The Rabin and Peres governments were agonizingly slow in negotiating Palestinian autonomy, as if the process itself guaranteed peace by satisfying Washington. It clearly was easier, politically, for them to prolong the affair than to make concessions that would satisfy the Palestinians but enrage many Israelis.

This belief that American support was enough to guarantee Israel's security was justified so long as the threat to Israel was external rather than internal. Alas, it now is overwhelmingly internal.

It comes from the Palestinians in East Jerusalem (which Israel now has declared irrevocably Israeli territory), and from those who have been, or remain, under Israel's military occupation in Gaza and the West Bank.

Dreams of greater Israel

Another internal threat comes from rightist groups determined to achieve a Greater Israel. The murderer of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin last spring came from their ranks.

The United States is unable to do anything about Israel's internal dangers. Washington has tried to make this plain to Mr. Netanyahu and his followers, by urging them to renew negotiations with Yasser Arafat, keep the previous Israeli governments' promises to evacuate Hebron, and honor the principle of exchanging occupied territory for peace.

Mr. Netanyahu has explicitly rejected the latter principle, offering in exchange "peace for peace." This is a seductive slogan for Israelis, but in practice means that Israel would keep the territory it still occupies, while the Palestinians (and Syrians) give up their claims on those territories, and tolerate the extension of Jewish settlement in Jerusalem, on the West Bank, and in the Golan Heights.


Mr. Netanyahu offered another seductive slogan to Israeli voters during the election campaigns in May, "peace with security." After fighting broke out between Israeli forces and Palestinian crowds and police last Wednesday, Mr. Netanyahu dined with Likud supporters in Paris and told them he "would be back with you in 18 months, and deliver to you what I have promised, peace with security for Israel." The next day, in Germany, he cut short his European visit and returned to an Israel in quasi-insurrectionary condition.

American opposition

If he does deliver what he has promised to his supporters, he will do so through his own and Israel's efforts, since the United States can do little or nothing to stop the Palestinians' uprising. The American public would ferociously oppose any American engagement in the affair.

The United States has been able to use its political and economic weight to persuade the Palestinian authorities, Egypt and the Arab governments to make peace with Israel. But Washington's authority with the Palestinians and the Egyptians and Arabs has rested on their belief that the United States would guarantee Israeli negotiations in good faith, and would assure that Israel stood by the agreements it made.

Mr. Netanyahu and his government have repudiated agreements made with the Palestinian authority by rejecting statehood for Palestine, promoting colonization and repudiating the principle of land for peace. There has been little that the United States government would -- or in this political season, could -- do about it.

Mr. Netanyahu perhaps does not fully understand what he has achieved. Peace negotiations have depended upon Palestinian and Arab confidence that the United States would assure fair negotiations and an outcome that respected their essential interests. By repudiating concessions already made or promised by his Labor predecessors, Mr. Netanyahu has undermined the credibility of the United States among his opponents.


In doing so, he has undermined the ability of the United States to protect Israel. Internal insurrection, or even a civil war between Israelis and Palestinians -- which is not out of the question -- is beyond the power of the United States to do anything about. Israel, by Mr. Netanyahu's choice, is now, for practical purposes, on its own.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 9/30/96