JERUSALEM — Yitzhak Shamir and Meron Benvenisti don't see eye-to-eye on very many things. But they did agree this week on the recent wave of violence that has swept the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
"There is nothing new in this," said Shamir, Israel's rightist prime minister. "It's really nothing new," Benvenisti, the dovish director of the independent West Bank Data Base Project, a research group, agreed.
The similarity of reaction to the unrest from Israelis of all political stripes, albeit based on very different reasons, may be the most important point in assessing what impact the troubles are likely to have here. The consensus: Very little, in terms of the real problem.
To Shamir, the Palestinian youths throwing rocks in the face of Israeli assault rifles are just another in the long history of trials that the Jewish people have faced.
"Our people . . . fought for 3,000 years for its land, for its freedom, for the right to observe its culture and heritage, and it is certainly continuing to fight," he said during a Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony at his office on Monday. "There is no end to this war, and it is a war in which we must triumph, in each and every generation."
Four days earlier, he had told the U.S. ambassador to Israel, Thomas R. Pickering, that he regretted the heavy Palestinian casualties but that the responsibility for them rested with the Palestine Liberation Organization, which he argued was behind the riots.
And two days before that, he was reported by the independent newspaper Haaretz to have told leaders of Israel's National Religious Party that U.S. criticism of Israel related to the violence should be understood as a "payment" Washington was making to cement its relations with the Arabs.
To Shamir and the rest of Israel's political right, there is nothing new in any of that. They see the hand of the PLO everywhere, and they have complained before that American administrations have acted cynically in their Middle East relations.
For Benvenisti, "the writing has been on the wall" for anyone to see. What has caught the world's notice in the last two weeks is the body count in the territories, he said in an interview. But the increase in violent demonstrations and clashes between Palestinians and Israeli troops has been going on for some time. Instances of stone throwing, tire-burning, and other forms of protest have averaged 10 to 15 a day for the last six years.
And the number of Palestinians shot to death by Israeli security forces had also been on the rise--at least 21 in the 12 months before the most recent clashes broke out.
Now there have been 21 more deaths in two weeks.
'A Question of Communities'
What is under way here, said Benvenisti, is not some orchestrated campaign against Israel, but "civil strife . . . between national communities. National communities is not the West Bank and Gaza," he added. "It's not a question of territory. It's a question of communities, meaning all the Arabs against all the Jews."
That point was driven home Monday when Israel's 700,000 Arab citizens, who live inside the pre-1967 borders of the country, struck in solidarity with their nearly 1.5 million fellow Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which Israel captured during the 1967 Six-Day War.
It's nothing new that "Greater Israel"--a term that includes the occupied territories--has become a true, binational state, with an Arab minority approaching 40% and gaining, noted Benvenisti.
Real Issue Submerged
Even with the latest violence, this real issue is still submerged, said the researcher and former deputy mayor of Jerusalem.
"It's either depicted as an issue of law and order on the one hand or as (proving) the necessity to go ahead with the peace process."
However, contended Benvenisti, neither is the answer. Despite calls from the Israeli right for a harsher crackdown and warnings that violence will gain the Palestinians nothing except more suffering, repression has proved over 20 years to yield at best a lull in the strife.
And the peace process, always on the lips of the left, "has nothing at all to do with internal strife, with an internally generated type of violence which is a civil war."
"What will the 'peace process' change?" Benvenisti asked rhetorically. "That Israel will negotiate with (Jordan's) King Hussein over the right to shoot Palestinian demonstrators?"
To break the stalemate, the researcher said, the two sides must first recognize each other as legitimate enemies.
"Once you reach that stage, then you can start thinking about converting or transforming that definition of an enemy to a definition of a partner. But the problem today is that there is no perception that the other side is a legitimate enemy. And that is why there are no choices--because this man is subhuman. The Jews are subhuman (to Arabs) and the Arabs are subhuman (to Jews). But this is also common to such civil wars. It's not new."
No Bold Moves Seen