JERUSALEM — Moshe Amirav knew he was skating on thin political ice, but he thought what he was doing was more important than the next election or even the future of the rightist Herut Party to which he belongs.
So for two months last summer, the former government functionary turned suburban Jerusalem businessman held a series of secret meetings with West Bank Palestinians to explore what, in Middle East terms, is a revolutionary idea--that the Israeli government talk to the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Everything seemed to go well until word of Amirav's meetings leaked in the Israeli press. Then one of his two principal Palestinian contacts was imprisoned for six months without trial as a security threat. The other suffered a broken arm and a seven-stitch gash in his head during an attack by masked Arabs.
Compares to Purges
Amirav himself has twice been put on trial in Herut Party courts, and he has been threatened with expulsion in proceedings that he compares with ideological purges in totalitarian countries.
The incidents reveal the continuing perils of those who champion moderation and compromise as means to resolve one of the world's most impassioned and seemingly intractable conflicts.
The point was buttressed further last week by the case of Mubarak Awad, a Palestinian-American political activist and proponent of nonviolent resistance to Israeli military rule on the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Awad was ordered to leave the country despite the protests of the U.S. government and many Israelis, who contend that the principles of nonviolence and peaceful change deserve encouragement, not punishment. He was told to leave by last Friday, when his tourist visa expired, but he defied the order and stayed.
No official reason was given for ordering Awad to leave, but Israeli government sources have complained about his political activity.
Yossi Sarid, a Jew and a leftist member of the Israeli Knesset (Parliament), argued in a recent commentary in the Jerusalem Post newspaper that "With extremism there is no problem. There is no need to take it into consideration, and certainly no need to enter dialogue with it. All you have got to do is take aim at it."
But he went on to write that "With moderation, there is a big problem. You must sit down and have coffee with it. You must, eventually, make some sort of proposal to it."
Only Death Brings Praise
A member of the Citizens' Rights Movement and an outspoken advocate of territorial compromise with the Palestinians, Sarid said Israeli leaders view Palestinian moderates with suspicion, regard their moderation as a ploy and praise them only after they have been assassinated by Arab extremists.
The clear suggestion, Sarid wrote, is that the Israeli leadership believes "a moderate Palestinian is a dead Palestinian."
To be sure, the more ominous threat to Palestinian moderates still comes from their fellow Palestinians who see compromise with Israel as a betrayal of the Arab cause.
Sari Nusseibeh, a professor of political philosophy at the West Bank's Bir Zeit Palestinian University, said in an interview that "If I stand up now and say I believe in a two-state solution (to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict), I wouldn't be ostracized as much as I might have been 10 years ago or five years ago."
But he still prefers to keep his political activity "in the background," he said. "I don't like to be in front because I know what happens."
Nablus Mayor a Victim
Nusseibeh recalled the fate of Zafer Masri, a moderate Palestinian who agreed to serve as temporary mayor of Nablus, the West Bank's largest city. Palestinian extremists opposed the move as de facto acceptance of Israeli occupation, and Masri was assassinated on March 2, 1986, only weeks after he took the post.
Nusseibeh himself was beaten up for participating in Moshe Amirav's initiative last summer. "I thought if anyone would know anything about this, it would be 20 years from now--not now," he said of his meetings.
As Amirav tells it, he wanted to make contact with well-connected West Bank Palestinians to sound them out on an idea for shared rule that he had been developing for nearly a year. "I did it on my own initiative," he said in an interview, "but people in the Likud knew about it."
Amirav sits on the central committee of the Herut Party, the dominant faction in the right-wing Likud Bloc. Currently Likud shares power in the national unity government with the centrist Labor Alignment of Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir heads both Herut and Likud.
Likud Minority Listens
"My positions are accepted not by the majority, but by a significant minority of the Likud," Amirav said.