Last summer Palestinians in the West Bank expressed to me their worry that the partnership between Jordan's King Hussein and the PLO's Yasser Arafat would fail to result in negotiations with Israel on the future of the West Bank. Alternative means to achieve such negotiations would then have to be found, they said--including initiatives by West Bankers independent of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Now that Hussein has dissolved the partnership and called for the emergence of independent Palestinian leaders--and now that Britain's Margaret Thatcher has echoed that call--West Bankers will have to respond to the realities that confront them.
Of course, this is easier for me to say than for them to do. The assassination in March of Zafir Masri, the Israeli-appointed mayor of Nablus, illustrates the danger that faces West Bankers who take political initiatives or engage in activities that could be construed as such.
In Masri's case, it could be argued that what had not been an independent position when he first took it became one as a result of a sudden (and, for him, tragic) turn of history: He had received permission, from both Hussein and the PLO, to accept the Israeli offer to run the West Bank's largest city, only to find himself stranded on an Israeli limb when the Hussein-PLO partnership ended.
But Masri was in danger even before Hussein and the PLO split. It was only Arafat's wing of the PLO that had approved his assumption of mayoral duties. The other wing, based in Damascus and adamant against not only a partnership with Hussein but also any agreement with Israel, saw Masri's mayorship as a step that could lead to something less than the liberation of all of Palestine, including the part that is now Israel.
Just how self-devouring the Palestinian tragedy has become was underlined for me in a conversation I had, the day after the Masri assassination, with a West Bank Palestinian visiting this country. He told me that six Palestinians living in the United States had called him after hearing the news, none doubting that he would share their joy over the death of the West Bank "traitor."
In fact, in reaction to so deep and spontaneous a commitment to violence, my friend found himself overcome by despair. The Palestinians from outside the West Bank, such as the ones who called him, were, my friend saw, further than ever from a unified commitment to a policy that could lead to realistic negotiations. And, he added, many of the Palestinians in the West Bank, who had grown ready for some kind of accommodation with Israel, were ever more fearful, not only of assassins sent from the outside, but of the local youth, who are increasingly rejecting compromises, identifying with the most radical of the PLO factions and falling under the sway of a militant Islamic fundamentalism inspired by the Shia martyrs in southern Lebanon. "Meanwhile," my friend concluded sadly, "time is passing, and we have to find a way to save the land."
Exactly what way, though, is ever harder to find. Negotiations involving some combination of Israel, Jordan and the PLO are further from reality than at any time during the past year. King Hussein, it now seems, will always be afraid to strike out on his own. The PLO, even under moderate and realistic leadership, will probably always value unity over negotiations. And Israel is unlikely to be able to offer anything close to the minimum that either Hussein or the PLO would accept.
Meanwhile, Palestinians on the West Bank, like my friend, feel desperate because the land is being lost. Though Jewish settlement has slowed in the past two years, it continues. Moreover, an entire generation of Israelis has grown up knowing no country other than one that includes an area that was known for 19 years as the West Bank of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan--a place that they know as sacred, the heart of historic Israel.
If it isn't too late for Israel to divest itself of rule over most of that area--or, more pointedly, over that area's Palestinian population--it may soon be. And that may well become a tragedy--not only for the West Bank Palestinians, who will indeed lose the land, but for the bulk of the Israelis, who value democracy and who reject the idea of ruling indefinitely over a population without political rights.
Moreover if the Palestines of the West Bank and Gaza were granted such rights as a result of the annexation of those territories, then they, together with Israel's current Arab citizens, would soon become the country's majority and quickly vote Israel out of existence.
Clearly, the specter of a Jewish state strangled by its own democratic noose isn't merely a product of Meir Kahane's demagogic imagination. There's much in it that alarms many Israelis--and gives Kahane a caldron of fears he can boil and stir into an engulfing vortex of panic and extremism.
For Israel's sake, as well as that of the Palestinians, it's time for West Bankers, despite the dangers that confront them, and with the encouragement and assistance of an enlightened Israeli government, to develop an independent leadership, to coalesce around it, to protect it from external threats, and to be willing to enter into negotiations with Israel that might, for them, save the land, and that might, for the Israelis, ensure the integrity, safety and survival of the Jewish state.