After a century of hostility and wars that have taken thousands upon thousands of lives, the agreements reached Thursday by Israelis and Palestinians represent fundamental changes that address the central issue of how the two peoples see themselves and their futures.
They lay the foundation for a Palestinian state next to Israel, a sharing of the land and its natural resources that each has claimed as its own. More than that, they envision not just coexistence but cooperation. And they offer a pledge to live in peace with an enemy that each had seen as a threat to its very existence; with the PLO now promising to fight the terrorism it had long fostered, they renounce the use of force that has made violence endemic in the region.
Although the changes must be confirmed politically on both sides and put into effect, they effectively settle the core of the Middle East conflict: the Arabs’ refusal to accept Israel in their midst, which stemmed primarily from the dispossession of the Palestinians during the creation of the Jewish state.
Now, in recognizing the Palestine Liberation Organization as the representative of the Palestinian people, Israel also recognizes the Palestinians as a nation and acknowledges their right to self-determination.
The PLO similarly is accepting the legitimacy of the Jewish state that it had originally pledged to destroy, abandoning the armed struggle that Palestinians had waged for three decades as “the only way to liberate Palestine.”
“I thought in my heart not only about the great revolution that has occurred among us, but also about the great revolution that has taken place within the PLO,” Foreign Minister Shimon Peres told Labor Party members of the Israeli Parliament. “Don’t make little of that. We are not recognizing the PLO of yesterday but rather the PLO of today.”
The PLO of yesterday proclaimed in the Palestine National Covenant, adopted in 1964, an “armed struggle” and declared that “the liberation of Palestine will destroy the Zionist and imperialist presence and will contribute to the establishment of peace in the Middle East.”
But Prime Minister Golda Meir had countered with the classic Israeli position in 1969 denying the existence of Arab inhabitants of Palestine when it was under prolonged Turkish and British rule:
“There was no such thing as Palestinians. . . . It was not as though there was a Palestinian people in Palestine considering itself a Palestinian people, and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist.”
In their formal exchange of letters and in the other agreements reached in several months of secret diplomacy, Israel and the PLO have now resolutely rejected these past attitudes--dating back to the late 19th Century when Zionists stepped up their drive to create a Jewish state in the region--to acknowledge the national rights of the two peoples.
“Our problem is people,” Peres said. “If a land is peopled by another nation, there is no sense to talk about the land as though it were empty. Yet, that is what we did, and that is what we will no longer do. . . . They, of course, denied our right to exist, and that was futile.”
“Our hearts sing with hope today,” said Palestinian poet Sami Kilani, a proponent of dialogue with Israelis and a member of the Palestinian delegation to the Arab-Israeli talks. “Peace is close, very close. We are leaving so many decades, generations really, of war behind.
“We have finally come to recognize that neither side will have peace and tranquillity if it denies this to the other, that neither of us will establish our legitimacy by killing the other, that security comes from mutual acceptance.”
Yet minorities of ardent nationalists on both sides are already rejecting the compromises required to reach the accord and are threatening those who made them.
Radical Palestinians object to the acceptance of Israel in its current borders without matching concessions; they object to abandonment of their “armed popular revolution.”
Muslim fundamentalists continue to see the Jewish state as a foreign body implanted into the heart of the Islamic world.
And those who fled what is now Israel demand: “What about us?”
Their anger is now as likely to be turned inward--against PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and others who support the pact--as against Israel. A Palestinian civil war is the ominous prediction when the occupied Gaza Strip is handed over to the Palestinians to govern.
“First, the armed struggle will be intensified, and secondly the revolution will be purified of people like Arafat,” Ahmed Jibril, leader of the radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, said in Beirut. “They have betrayed the cause of liberating Palestine and uprooting Zionism.”
On the Israeli side, the ultra-religious groups are allying themselves with the right-wing parties to fight the agreements, which they believe will quickly squeeze out Jewish settlements on the occupied West Bank, the Judea and Samaria of the Bible. Here too predictions are multiplying of a civil war.
Denounced as a “traitor” by the right-wing opposition, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin will have to struggle for the votes needed to ratify the package of agreements, which are scheduled for formal signing Monday at the White House in Washington.
Ariel Sharon, a former defense minister in a Likud government, denounces secret diplomacy unhesitatingly as “a great victory for the Arabs.”
“They have established a Palestinian state,” Sharon commented. “They declared it in 1988, but did not have territorial control. From today, they have that.”
“Peace is not made with friends,” Rabin told members of his Labor Party on Thursday. “It is made with enemies who are not at all nice. I will not try to beautify the PLO. It has been our enemy, and it is still our enemy, but negotiations are carried out with enemies.”
Palestinian leaders are making the same point as they tour the West Bank and Gaza Strip to develop support for the autonomy plan that the PLO negotiated with Israel in months of secret diplomacy.
“We cannot forget our martyrs, and we should not,” Faisal Husseini, the head of the Palestinian team in the Arab-Israeli negotiations, told a meeting here this week. “But what can we do to ensure that there are no more martyrs? What will it take to end the killing, what should we do now to achieve our national goals? These are the questions we must answer.”
The agreements that have been concluded are only the start, Israeli and Palestinian leaders agree: Rabin said 80% of the work remains to be done before the Palestinians have their own government, and Husseini said: “We have an architect’s drawing of the house, but we still need floor plans to begin construction.”
Shimon Shetreet, Israel’s economics minister, contrasted the latest agreements with those signed with Egypt 15 years ago.
“This agreement is the beginning of a process,” he said, “while the peace treaty with Egypt was the conclusion of a process with everything ready in front of you.
“Here, you have so many questions open,” he continued. “How will security arrangements be secured? What direction are we going in overall? What will be the nature of this Palestinian entity?
“Is it going to be associated with Jordan, or is it going to be separate? There are important questions that have not been clarified. . . . There are too many questions, in fact, that haven’t been clarified.”