The Arab riots in the West Bank and Gaza are, for now, over. Though the circumstances that spawned them have existed for decades, and though the dilemma of what to do about those circumstances have challenged Israelis, Arabs and many other parties for just as long, the startling ferocity of the riots serve as a reminder that passions of the highest and lowest kind are at work in the region.
Those passions derive from the dreams that have occupied both sides for a long time. For anyone who cares about the fate of the parties to the conflict, those dreams, and particularly the nightmares they have become, are worth an empathic look.
Israelis dream in political colors, and the colors of the left and right make for different nightmares of different hues.
For the Labor alignment, and those further to its left, the greatest nightmare is a loss of the achievement attained in 1948 by the Zionist endeavor. That achievement consisted of the creation of a Jewish state in the Jews' ancestral homeland, a geographic space in which to gather the dazed remnants of their decimated people after two millennia of exile, persecution and powerlessness.
The Jews were able to rule, and to rule democratically, because they were the majority in that small space. And they were the majority because the partition of the Palestine Mandate into a Jewish state and an Arab one, the war that followed and the exodus of a large number of Arabs resulted in an Israel whose population was, in June of 1948, 81% Jewish. With Israel's victory in the Six-Day War of 1967, a large number of Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza, many of them refugees from the 1948 fighting, came under Israeli administration. Those Arabs, together with Israel's own Arab citizens, now constitute about 38% of the total population within the borders ruled by Israel. It is this percentage--and the great likelihood, due to the high Arab birthrate, that it will exceed 50% within 25 years years--that lies at the heart of Labor's nightmare.
For if Israel annexes the occupied territories, and in so doing makes the Arabs living there Israeli citizens, it will soon cease to be the Jewish state its founders struggled to establish. And if it doesn't annex the territories but continues to rule their people without giving them the rights its own Jewish and Arab citizens enjoy, then it will become a chronic occupying power accustomed to oppressing an angry population, thus damaging the democratic and humane principles on which it was founded.
As a result of this nightmare, Labor and its political allies have sought since the Six-Day War to relinquish control over most of the occupied territories. Their greatest hope has been that Jordan's King Hussein, who lost the West Bank during that war, would take it back, together with Gaza but without East Jerusalem and certain strategically sensitive areas; and that he would then make sure that those areas would not be used as a springboard for attacks against the Jewish state.
For Labor's chief political opponents, the Likud and its allies on the right, such a plan is a self-deluding fantasy. They don't believe that Hussein would ever accept Labor's terms and are convinced that, even if he somehow did, the result would be catastrophic.
Hussein, in their view, would be toppled quickly if he took charge of the occupied territories--his kingdom, now about two-thirds Palestinian, would be overwhelmingly so--and the result would be a state run by the Palestine Liberation Organization composed of Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza alongside and flanking a geographically vulnerable Israel. Alternatively, or perhaps first, Hussein, sensing the danger of being toppled, would cut loose the West Bank and Gaza, which would then declare statehood under PLO governance and attempt to liberate the rest of Palestine, which is to say Israel.
Many of these Israelis fear, in addition, that the new and radical Palestinian state, whatever political form it might take, would be supported not only by other Arab states but also by Israel's own Arab citizens, now 17% of Israel's population and growing, who have drawn ever closer to their brethren in the West Bank and Gaza during the past two decades and who demonstrated that closeness by organizing a general strike during the recent riots. Those Arabs, who already constitute the majority of the population in the western Galilee--a part of the Palestine Mandate not originally assigned to the Jewish state by the 1947 U.N. partition plan but won by Israel during the subsequent war--would demand self-determination and union with the Palestinian state. It would be a demand that would attract enormous and automatic support in the Third World and the Soviet bloc.
The result of all this would be the Likud's nightmare: An Israel under constant attack; exquisitely vulnerable, as it had been before 1967, to being cut in two at its narrow waist; unable to re-occupy the West Bank and Gaza because they constitute an entire state or recognized parts of a state; facing internal insurrection and terrorism from its own Arab minority; receiving repeated worldwide condemnations for responding to the external attacks and for attempting to control its internal rebellion; losing the support of its main ally, Washington, and ultimately, losing large portions of its Jewish population, who would emigrate in fear and disgust.
The nightmare of the Likud, then, is not a loss of the Jewish identity of the state, or of its democratic principles, but of the state itself. As a result, the Likud and its allies advocate holding on to the occupied territories, feeling that the damage that is being caused by the continued occupation is far less than the damage that is likely to be caused by abandoning it. To be sure, the political right, and especially its religious allies, also see the occupied territories as belonging historically--and, in the eyes of some of them, also religiously--to Israel, and therefore as areas whose abandonment would constitute a betrayal of history and of the Jewish people. But it is the nightmare of national dissolution, rather than the nightmare of such a betrayal, that plays the primary role in generating the opposition to Labor's hopes for territorial compromise.
Can anything be done to break this deadlock of nightmares and the paralysis of action it has caused? By the Israelis, for the foreseeable future, probably not. Opinion polls suggest that the riots have provoked a hardening on the part of the electorate against any attempt at compromise, at least in the short run. Pressures from the United States are likely to harden this resolve even further, and in any case are not likely to be exerted in an election year. For most Israelis, the nightmares seem more stuck and more frightening than ever.
For the PLO, any movement toward peace is bound to require a formal recognition of Israel's right to exit within defensible borders--a recognition that ends the dream of the return for the Palestinians who are refugees or the descendants of refugees of the 1948 fighting.
To be sure, such a recognition ends the dream in an absolute way, only on paper--the dream could be revived, and militarily pursued, after Jordanian or Palestinian sovereignty were achieved in the West Bank and Gaza. But even a strategic compromise, hedged with a long-term plan to resume the battle once geographic space is secured, is anathema to the hard line factions in the PLO as well as to their teeming constituencies in the refugee camps who grew up dreaming of the return to Haifa, Jaffa and Lydda. And the moment such a step toward compromise were about to be taken, the PLO would be split, as it has been split before, by fratricidal conflict. The PLO's nightmare, then, is a loss of the unity that has given the Palestinians the only independent political and military strength they have had.
For the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, the nightmare is more palpable and immediate. They live on the land itself, and those of them who aren't refugees from the part of Palestine that became Israel are seeing that land ever more filled with Jewish settlers who believe that it's rightfully theirs. The nightmare of those Palestinians, then, is a loss of the land as they wait for the PLO to act.
That the PLO will, in fact, act in any effective way is highly unlikely--the paralysis of unity has taken far too powerful a hold. And independent action by the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza is also unlikely--local leaders who in the past have attempted to take matters into their own hands have been assassinated or intimidated by the PLO if their positions have been inconsistent with the organization's, or have been expelled by the Israelis if they have managed to achieve the kind of standing that could galvanize local opposition against Israeli rule.
The Israeli response to the emergence of local leaders seems especially unfortunate, since it removes the possibility not only of a leadership that does the bidding of the PLO, but also one whose primary constituency is the indigenous population of the occupied territories--a population that, in still living on the land, still has something in Palestine to lose, certainly more than the Palestinians who have been in Syria or other countries for their entire lives, and a population that is, therefore, more likely than they to seek an accommodation with Israel.
In fact, it's worth wondering, in the wake of December's riots, whether the fearlessness shown by the young rioters might be reflected, someday, in a greater willingness among their elders to take independent positions despite the danger of PLO reprisals against them--and whether that same fearlessness and its accompanying rage might yet affect the Israelis' perspective sufficiently that they would welcome West Bankers and Gazans who are prepared to talk, rather than throw stones.
Clearly, the nightmares of both sides, and of the factions within each side, make the possibilities for a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict remote. It would be wonderful if the shouting dreamers could be shaken from their agitated slumbers by caring hands; but hands that have attempted such shaking in the past have been bitten for their efforts, and no hands are now available for that tender but thankless act.
Some nightmares end with the dawn, some last for generations. In the case of these nightmares it will have to be the sleepers themselves who devise their own, and each other's, awakening.