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PERSPECTIVE ON THE MIDDLE EAST : Challenge to Israel Comes Too Late : For years it built its case for a Greater Israel with U.S. tolerance; now America must share the pain of the penalty.

<i> Yehoshafat Harkabi is professor emeritus of international relations and Middle East studies at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. </i>

The question is frequently asked these days: Have Syria and the Arabs in general changed their position toward acceptance of Israel and living in peace with Israel? This is unanswerable, since it depends on the kind of Israel envisaged, namely, in what border configurations. The Arabs’ acceptance is limited to Israel’s pre-1967 boundaries and its withdrawal to them. The Arabs will not forgo such a demand; it is based on the interpretation of U.N. Resolution 242 that the entire international community, including the United States, supports, and Arabs will not be more forthcoming than the rest of the world. Israel is alone in maintaining that its withdrawal in Sinai absolves it from further withdrawals.

Strange as it may seem, for the Likud and the other Israeli hard-liners the litmus test for the Arabs’ peaceful intentions is their acceptance of Greater Israel. Arabs’ efforts to induce Israel to return to the previous borders are seen by the Israeli hard-liners as proof that the Arabs still harbor a design to destroy Israel. The Likud leaders’ frequent declarations emphasizing their determination to keep the occupied territories to the last inch are not a bargaining position. This position has become the core value and the raison d’etre of the Likud. The West Bank is not Sinai. On this basic goal there is no divergence of opinion between Yitzhak Shamir, Ariel Sharon and the parties to their right.

Thus the antithesis implicated in the Arab and Israeli positions will come into the open forcefully once a peace conference is convened and cause its immediate deadlocking. These differences are qualitative. No compromises on secondary issues may substitute for the need to come to grips with the main substantive territorial issue, or even facilitate the tackling of it. There comes a moment in which one has to confront the problem.

Conventional wisdom maintains that the negotiations will usher in a moment of truth for Israel and the Palestinians. It will also be a moment of truth for the United States. The American mediator will find that in order to move the stalemated negotiations, the United States must abandon its position of neutrality and of keeping silent on its interpretation of Resolution 242. He must prescribe the U.S. stand concerning the conditions of a settlement, notwithstanding a promise to Israel to refrain from doing so and the storm of protest it will raise at home.

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The United States has always interpreted Resolution 242 as calling for Israeli withdrawal on all fronts, and has opposed implanting settlements in the occupied territories. However, such positions have been theoretical, obligating no action. Reluctantly, the United States will discover that to overcome the deadlock it has to transform its theoretical positions to become political, even if it requires challenging the Israeli position and, to a lesser degree, that of the Arabs. Currently, there is greater proximity and intimacy between the Americans and the Arabs than between the Americans and the Israeli leadership. However, such challenging could have been done many years ago to the benefit of Israel. There was no need to stall so long. Israel’s pain in withdrawing from the territories when the Jewish population there amounted to a few thousands or less would have been incomparably smaller than now, when the number is more than 100,000.

Israel will pay heavily for American squeamishness. People will say that Israel brought the suffering on itself by misreading reality and disobeying international norms. Nevertheless, the United States will be taken to task on grounds of moral irresponsibility, not only for allowing Israel to sink in the quagmire of a wrong policy, but even more for countenancing all these years an Israeli policy flouting international norms. American Jews will probably be found to bear a large share of the blame.


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