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Jews and Arabs Deadlocked in Nightmares : These Dreams Last for Generations, Driven by Fears of Losses Yet to Come

January 04, 1988|WALTER REICH | Walter Reich, a psychiatrist, is a senior research associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington and the author of "A Stranger in My House: Jews and Arabs in the West Bank" (Holt, 1984).

The Arab riots in the West Bank and Gaza are, for now, over. Though the circumstances that spawned them have existed for decades, and though the dilemma of what to do about those circumstances have challenged Israelis, Arabs and many other parties for just as long, the startling ferocity of the riots serve as a reminder that passions of the highest and lowest kind are at work in the region.

Those passions derive from the dreams that have occupied both sides for a long time. For anyone who cares about the fate of the parties to the conflict, those dreams, and particularly the nightmares they have become, are worth an empathic look.

Israelis dream in political colors, and the colors of the left and right make for different nightmares of different hues.

For the Labor alignment, and those further to its left, the greatest nightmare is a loss of the achievement attained in 1948 by the Zionist endeavor. That achievement consisted of the creation of a Jewish state in the Jews' ancestral homeland, a geographic space in which to gather the dazed remnants of their decimated people after two millennia of exile, persecution and powerlessness.

The Jews were able to rule, and to rule democratically, because they were the majority in that small space. And they were the majority because the partition of the Palestine Mandate into a Jewish state and an Arab one, the war that followed and the exodus of a large number of Arabs resulted in an Israel whose population was, in June of 1948, 81% Jewish. With Israel's victory in the Six-Day War of 1967, a large number of Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza, many of them refugees from the 1948 fighting, came under Israeli administration. Those Arabs, together with Israel's own Arab citizens, now constitute about 38% of the total population within the borders ruled by Israel. It is this percentage--and the great likelihood, due to the high Arab birthrate, that it will exceed 50% within 25 years years--that lies at the heart of Labor's nightmare.

For if Israel annexes the occupied territories, and in so doing makes the Arabs living there Israeli citizens, it will soon cease to be the Jewish state its founders struggled to establish. And if it doesn't annex the territories but continues to rule their people without giving them the rights its own Jewish and Arab citizens enjoy, then it will become a chronic occupying power accustomed to oppressing an angry population, thus damaging the democratic and humane principles on which it was founded.

As a result of this nightmare, Labor and its political allies have sought since the Six-Day War to relinquish control over most of the occupied territories. Their greatest hope has been that Jordan's King Hussein, who lost the West Bank during that war, would take it back, together with Gaza but without East Jerusalem and certain strategically sensitive areas; and that he would then make sure that those areas would not be used as a springboard for attacks against the Jewish state.

For Labor's chief political opponents, the Likud and its allies on the right, such a plan is a self-deluding fantasy. They don't believe that Hussein would ever accept Labor's terms and are convinced that, even if he somehow did, the result would be catastrophic.

Hussein, in their view, would be toppled quickly if he took charge of the occupied territories--his kingdom, now about two-thirds Palestinian, would be overwhelmingly so--and the result would be a state run by the Palestine Liberation Organization composed of Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza alongside and flanking a geographically vulnerable Israel. Alternatively, or perhaps first, Hussein, sensing the danger of being toppled, would cut loose the West Bank and Gaza, which would then declare statehood under PLO governance and attempt to liberate the rest of Palestine, which is to say Israel.

Many of these Israelis fear, in addition, that the new and radical Palestinian state, whatever political form it might take, would be supported not only by other Arab states but also by Israel's own Arab citizens, now 17% of Israel's population and growing, who have drawn ever closer to their brethren in the West Bank and Gaza during the past two decades and who demonstrated that closeness by organizing a general strike during the recent riots. Those Arabs, who already constitute the majority of the population in the western Galilee--a part of the Palestine Mandate not originally assigned to the Jewish state by the 1947 U.N. partition plan but won by Israel during the subsequent war--would demand self-determination and union with the Palestinian state. It would be a demand that would attract enormous and automatic support in the Third World and the Soviet bloc.

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