Feeding the Extremists on Both Sides : Likud Expresses an Ideology, and Fear of Catastrophe Grows

<i> Yehoshafat Harkabi, a visiting professor at Princeton University, is the author of "Israel's Fateful Hour" (Harper & Row, 1988). </i>

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s peace plan for the occupied territories consisted of two parts: To the Americans, he brandished the election proposal; to the Israelis, he reiterated that there would never be a Palestinian state or negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization, that Palestinians in East Jerusalem would not participate in the elections, that the intifada must first be suppressed, and that Jewish settlements would continue to be built in the territories.

The first part of his plan was diplomacy. The second was policy and ideology, to which he and his party are deeply committed.

For the sake of diplomacy, Shamir has tried to keep these two parts loosely connected. The U.S. Administration was thus led to believe that the process of elections would elegantly relegate the second part to irrelevance. What Trade Minister Ariel Sharon did last week at the Likud Party’s Central Committee meeting was no more than to fasten the two parts together into one package. Shamir was absolutely correct when he stated that the resolution adopted by the Central Committee required no change of position. “What is new in this?” asked Shamir’s spokesman after the vote. “We’ve said all these things before.” The difference between Shamir and Sharon is only one of style and tactics, not of substance.

The expectation that, with his election proposal, Shamir had turned his back on the Likud basic position was absurd. Apparently, he hoped that ugly bickering within the PLO would bring to naught his proposal. However, a policy based on the expectation that the adversary will save one from his contradictions is not viable. The claims that nothing is changed and that the elections proposal is still on the agenda are dishonest. Can one expect the Palestinians to start negotiations on the basis of the Likud resolution? It will also become impossible to soothe over the incompatibility between the Likud position of no withdrawal from most of the territories and the Labor Party’s position of land for peace.


The PLO’s acceptance of United Nations Resolution 242 and its recognition of the existence of Israel constitutes adoption of the two-state solution. The Palestinians will never resign themselves to the notion that they are inferior to the Israelis, who deserve to have a state, while they should be content with autonomy under Israeli aegis or under the Jordanian crown. Incipient American recognition that there is no escape from a two-state solution, predicated on the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, was perhaps implied by Secretary of State James A. Baker III in his May 22 speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, stating the need for the Palestinians “to achieve their full political rights.” This was the main novelty of the speech. “Full political rights” cannot mean the right to be subservient to Israel or to Jordan.

The main argument of PLO extremists within is that PLO moderates are mistaken in their belief that a compromise solution with Israel is possible. They claim that the Israeli government will never agree to grant the Palestinians their minimum demands for a state, small as it may be. Palestinian concessions will be in vain. They argue that Israeli ethnocentric insistence that only Israelis will have a state does not only manifest condemnable behavior but a depraved entity with which coexistence is impossible. Thus, they contend that the moderates’ position is not viable and that eventually they will be compelled to join the extremists. This explains the extremists’ present political quiescence. At the 19th session of the Palestine National Congress, extremist leaders expressed their readiness to allow Yasser Arafat to pursue his pragmatic line until history proves him wrong.

No one can predict how long Palestinian moderates can maintain the upper hand in the absence of visible progress toward a settlement. Once overrun by their extremists, symmetry will be achieved--on both sides extremists will be at the helm. Extremists are not overly concerned by the radicalization of the conflict. They regard the conflict as a process of competitive attrition in which their own side will prevail and the rival will come to grief.

Both sides grapple with the demographic problem of being stuck with a large number of Jews in the greater Arab state and a large Arab population in the greater Israel. For both, the solution is transfer, if not as a forceful event then as a process. Jews will be loathe to live in an Arab state and Arabs will hate living in a Jewish state. Thus one or the other will prefer to emigrate. Euphemistically, this is referred to as “voluntary transfer.”


But both are mistaken in not realizing how calamitous the future will be for Israelis and Palestinians if a settlement to the conflict is not achieved. Catastrophe will not bring salvation to one side, but ruin to both.

Perhaps the superpowers are in a better position to evaluate the dangers that lurk when the situation is left to fester. As conflicts all around the world are being solved, the Arab-Israeli conflict will stick out as an abnormality. Considering the potential for violence, the superpowers may decide to collaborate in goading the parties toward negotiations.

Wisdom lies in nipping trends in the bud. It was needed in the past but was not available. The need is greater now to forestall the catastrophic visions of the extremists from coming true.