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Two Way Street

It has been three months since "the handshake" on the White House lawn, and the euphoria that followed it has by now all but dissipated. The Israel-PLO talks have become one impasse after another. What keeps the process going is one Israeli concession after another. Yasir Arafat says he won't come to Jericho unless and until his officials control the bridges to and from Jordan and the cross-points between Egypt and Gaza. In return, the Israelis agree to a larger, more heavily armed Palestinian police force than they ever contemplated. Then they help raise international funding for the embryo state even though the Arab League insists the boycott of Israel will stay in place. Most recently, the currency of concession is in Israel's release of Palestinian prisoners, some of them terrorists. The September 13 accord actually doesn't require Israel to release prisoners; it doesn't even mention prisoners. Meanwhile, the PLO hasn't yet produced on the only two undertakings to which it committed itself in return for Israeli recognition. One is the nullification of various provisions of its charter denying the existence of a Jewish nation. The other is a clear renunciation and condemnation of terror. It is true that President Clinton extracted one grudging fax from Arafat after one Israeli was murdered. But since then, Fatah militants (competing with Hamas) have been on a killing spree.

Yasir Arafat has contrived to see each of his disputes with Israel not as the ordinary difficulties of a complicated and laden negotiation but as an occasion to create another crisis. This may be in desperate response to pressure from his ultras. By it, however, he also aims to increase the pressure on Israel always to go the extra mile. But on the Israeli-Palestinian front there are not that many extra miles to go in the first place. So it won't be very long before Yitzhak Rabin will say, "We can go no further."

This dynamic is largely the result of the peace agreement itself. The Israelis signed an accord that was a stellar example of what Henry Kissinger used to call "constructive ambiguity'." Since no final maps were drawn, it was predictable that the Palestinians would assume (or pretend to) that in the end they would be given every contested point. Ararat should know, for example, and probably does know, that he's not about to get essentials of sovereignty such as control of the Allenby bridge--at least not now. The bridge, after all, is a bridge into what will still be Israeli territory. But Arafat makes the petulant demand anyway. If the Rabin government were to concede on this and every other point, because of Arafat's weakness vis-à-vis his own and because of his weakness vis-à-vis Israel, it would guarantee an eternity of blackmail.

The truth is that Arafat's Fatah is not now the dominant operative force among the population in the territories. It may not even be in control of Fatah itself. One telling sign of the erosion of Arafat's sway, among many: in bellweather Bir Zeit University's student elections, all alliance between the Islamic extremist group Hamas and secular campus Communists defeated Arafat's faithful. The radical winners called their list "Jerusalem First." The "moderates" called theirs "Jerusalem and Statehood First." Off-campus, so to speak, the intransigence is even worse. Many Palestinians, apparently, still harbor the quaint notion that the peace accord doesn't--and shouldn't--ensure the satiety of the Israelis. And there's little recognition that certain territorial concessions on their part may be necessary. Will the PLO accept, for instance, that the virtually unpopulated narrow strip west of the Jordan river, so critical to Israeli defense, can remain under Israeli control?

Given the random taking of Jewish lives since September 13, the Israeli body politic as a whole remains stunningly supportive of the accord. There are, of course, Jewish terrorists, tit for tat. But their deeds repel the population at large. Even Likudniks know there is no going back to the nutty dream of dominion nurtured by Yitzhak Shamir; fifteen Likud mayors have endorsed the Labor government's policy. But many dovish Israelis now expect to see what territorial claims and functional demands the Palestinians are willing to give up. Handing back to Israel the I.D. tag of an Israeli soldier who disappeared in Lebanon eleven years ago is no substitute for this, even if Warren Christopher seems to drink so. Without real concessions, support for the peace plan will unravel, and it will begin to unravel among those on the left who bear the burden of the risk Israel has undertaken. There is already an emerging cohort in Labor of newly hawkish old doves, many close to the prime minister. For them the ability of the PLO also to make painful concessions is the telling test of the real possibilities of peace. "Land for peace" is properly a two-way transaction. It's time the Palestinians--and the Americans--realized it.