PARIS -- In little more than a year, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has changed from a secular combat to a religious war. A secular conflict is negotiable. A religious conflict is not, since the claims made by both sides have to do with eschatology and destiny. You cannot compromise when what you are struggling for is the expression of God's will.
The Clinton administration bears a serious part of the responsibility for this change. It abandoned the previous XTC American role of impartial arbitrator between Jews and Arabs. By doing that it undermined the Palestine Liberation Organization and made the terrorists of Hamas the key actors on the Palestinian side.
President Clinton seems to have thought this smart in terms of domestic politics. But if the Middle East peace process is destroyed, causing a new Arab- Israeli struggle, all on the Clinton administration's watch, his vice president, Al Gore, is not going to collect a big vote of thanks from Jewish voters, or from anyone else.
Before Benjamin Netanyahu was elected prime minister of Israel, the country was governed by secular forces. The Labor Party belongs to the old socialist wing of the Zionist movement which created Israel.
Zionism itself was originally a secular movement among assimilated West European Jews, and was condemned by some of the Orthodox devout as an interference with God's own plan for the Jewish people.
The Holocaust united most religious Jews with secular Zionists in the struggle to create an independent Israel in Britain's Palestine Mandate. Britain had promised a Jewish national home, but the Mandate was populated (in 1947) by a million and a quarter Arab Muslims and Christians, to whom Britain had also promised security and eventual nationhood.
What followed is well known. The Arabs rejected various British and U.N. partition proposals. In 1948 Britain renounced the Mandate and Israel was proclaimed, and effectively defended itself against attack by the surrounding Arab states, in support of the Palestinians.
Israel's first de facto recognition came from the United States, but the close alliance between the two countries came only in the 1960s. The Eisenhower administration in the 1950s held that "an emotional attachment should not interfere" with American national interest, and that "we cannot have our policies made in Jerusalem."
The PLO, formed in exile, was also a secular movement, in the style of the Arab national-liberation movements of the period, whose emblematic leader was Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt is Nasser's direct political descendant, and it is significant that Egypt was the first Islamic country willing to make peace with Israel.
The use of violence
Benjamin Netanyahu comes from a dissident secular Zionist tradition. He and his Likud party derive from the "Revisionist" movement created by Vladimir Jabotinsky, a Russian-born literary cosmopolitan, who broke with mainstream Zionism in the 1920s because he favored violence in the struggle against the British.
Unlike the mainstream Zionists who tried to convince themselves that the Palestinian Arabs would willingly allow the Jews to form their own state in their midst, Jabotinsky said the Arabs obviously would fight, and would have to be defeated, and expelled from Palestine. He said in 1937, "When the Arab claim is confronted with our Jewish demand to be saved, it is like the claim of appetite versus the claim of starvation."
The Revisionist Likud party in modern Israel has allied itself with religious parties for whom the Jewish return to Jerusalem and the Holy Land has signified the approach of the Messiah. Mr. Netanyahu's government would fall if it lost their support. He is in one sense their political prisoner, but his hostility to the peace process resembles theirs. They all, like the growing fundamentalist Islamic movements, including Hamas, reject compromise. The latter see no peace until Israel is destroyed and the Israelis expelled from the Holy Land -- it is their Holy Land, too.
An American-brokered peace dialogue was possible between a secular Israeli government, able to compromise, and a secular PLO which had to compromise. Since Mr. Netanyahu's election, the struggle has become one between Hamas and other Islamic militants and a Netanyahu government committed to the philosophy of Jabotinsky's Revisionism, politically dependent upon extremist religious forces.
In such circumstances it is futile for Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright to talk about "creating a serious climate for negotiation," while offering the odd implied and guarded criticism of Israeli policy.
Negotiation now is imaginable only if the United States were to present both sides with outline terms for a permanent settlement, and used the political and economic means at its disposal to impose those terms on both sides.
One can say that it is not for the United States to impose peace on the Israelis and Palestinians. But if it will not, honesty as well as honor would dictate that it acknowledge that it has nothing further to contribute to the relationship of Israelis to Palestinians, and withdraw. Its current conduct guarantees only that there will never be a settlement, or peace.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 9/15/97