Almost as regrettable as the loss of life during the recent violence in the Gaza Strip and West Bank has been the Israeli government's failure to acknowledge the nature of its predicament. Instead of confronting its fundamental dilemma, Israel is merely asserting, in tones of bluster, that resistance will disappear if the outside world just keeps quiet while Israel's army applies the iron fist even more harshly.
But no one should expect the Palestinians to sit by as their military overlords progressively preempt their remaining lands with Israeli settlements. Since 1967, Israel has, in violation of the Geneva Convention, seized more than 53% of West Bank land from 800,000 Palestinian inhabitants for the benefit of 50,000 Jewish settlers--6% of the population.
In the Gaza Strip it has seized one-third of the land for 1,300 Jewish settlers--compressing the 400,000 Palestinian inhabitants into a fetid slum with a population density approaching that of Calcutta. At the same time, Israel has prevented Palestinian residents from efficiently cultivating their dwindling remnants of agricultural acreage, while making them dependent on Israel to do low-wage menial jobs shunned by Israelis.
Since the West Bank and Gaza Strip were first overrun by Israel's army in 1967, a Palestinian generation has grown up under the domination of occupation troops. Because three out of four Gazans are under the age of 25, they have never tasted self-rule and increasingly despair of doing so. It was inevitable that their bitterness would ultimately take the form of reckless resistance. In this new outbreak, the nearly 800,000 Palestinians in Israel proper have for the first time joined in by calling a paralyzing strike--signaling the Israeli government they are tired of being treated as second-class citizens.
Were any nation other than Israel behaving in such a harsh manner, the United States would threaten to curtail aid and impose sanctions. But even while Congress and the Administration painfully cut domestic programs to reduce the budget deficit, the United States continues its annual subsidy to Israel--a rate now equivalent to $1,400 for every Jewish man, woman and child in the country.
Like it or not, the United States has major responsibility for this distorted state of affairs. By failing to act incisively we are undercutting those farsighted and deeply worried Israelis who see their nation's current course leading dangerously toward disaster.
Meanwhile, the United States disregards principles of international law it has long enjoined on others. It dismisses the right of Palestinians to exercise self-determination guaranteed by the U.N. Charter. Although we piously deny the right of nations to acquire territory by force, we hypocritically block any U.N. resolution compelling Israel to bargain in good faith to exchange territory for peace as provided in Security Council resolutions 242 and 338.
Why does the United States betray its basic principles so cavalierly? The sad answer is that U.S. politicians have become so programmed to respond to the pressure of Israel's American friends that they uncritically accept the myths hard-line Israelis have devised to evade facing their country's problems.
The first myth is that Israel should not negotiate with the Palestine Liberation Organization until it renounces terrorism and key elements of its charter. But Israel is no more entitled to demand such preconditions for peace talks than the Palestinians are to insist in advance on an Israeli assurance that negotiations will provide them with lands to build their own state. Who can expect the Palestinians to come to the table when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir repeatedly proclaims that Israel will never give up a single acre of the West Bank?
To appease Israel's friends, U.S. officials seek to dodge the issue in a charade of arranging conversations between Israel and Jordan. This tactic reflects a curious delusion, for the Palestinian people vehemently disavow Jordan's right to speak for them. The Palestinians fiercely oppose any deal in which Israel would trade Jordan part of its occupied territory for a peace settlement. They made that clear in West Bank polls that show only 3%-6% of resident Palestinians favor a return to Jordanian rule, while 90%-94% declare the PLO to be their only legitimate spokesman. Thus for the United States to impose the "Jordanian solution" on unwilling Palestinians would almost certainly recreate the chronic disorder that characterized the West Bank when Jordan ruled it prior to 1967. The addition of 800,000 West Bank Palestinians (possibly combined with 400,000 more from Gaza) to the 80% of Jordanians of Palestinian origin could probably overwhelm the pacifically inclined Hashemite regime, resulting in the creation of a radical, militant Palestinian state. Such a state, with the fanatical backing of its Palestinian majority who cherish deeply felt irredentist claims to all the Holy Land, would pose a far greater menace to Israel than a rump Palestinian state in the West Bank.
A second Israeli myth is that an independent state in the occupied areas poses an unacceptable danger to Israel's security. In view of its powerful armed forces, Israel's security worries could be largely met by writing stringent, enforceable safeguards into a formal treaty, denying the new state any armed force of its own and limiting the numbers and kinds of weapons available to its police. As a further safeguard, the settlement could require installation of surveillance posts larger, more numerous and more effective than those now functioning in the Sinai under Israel's peace agreement with Egypt.
The current outbreak brings into relief the problems Israel acquired with the occupied areas in the 1967 Six-Day War. The acquisition of territories that now contain about 1.5 million Palestinians confronted Israel with a colonialist dilemma it has never resolved. It must decide whether to continue insisting on being an exclusively Jewish state or abandon its pretension to democracy: Those two positions cannot be reconciled.
Israel can make that choice by selecting one of four options. The first is to try maintaining its military occupation by suppressing the people with increasing brutality, even though such apartheid practices would contradict the idealistic element in Zionism. The second is to expel Palestinians into neighboring states--a course of action advocated by Gen. Ariel Sharon, for one.
The third option is formal annexation of the occupied territories, which would convert Israel into a binational state, 40% Palestinian and 60% Jewish--a situation Zionists rejected from the start.
The reasonable option is to apply the principles set forth in U.N. Resolution 242: Accord the Palestinians the right of self-determination and make peace with the Arab world by agreeing to a Palestinian state in the West Bank.
Since the last option is the only proper course for a self-respecting Israel true to its traditions, what can the United States do to help expedite that choice? The U.S. government must demonstrate will and leadership, while recognizing that our country can only act effectively if it adopts a posture of objectivity essential to a mediator. Today the hatreds, suspicions and political chaos are such that, left to their own devices, the Israelis and Palestinians (reinforced by Arab allies), will never settle affairs by themselves.
This is a matter of urgency, for if the United States does not seriously seek to bring the parties together, the communal warfare in the Holy Land will spread and intensify; sooner or later, the neighboring Arab states--even Egypt--will be dragged into the maelstrom.