WASHINGTON — Israel is facing its most serious crisis in recent history. In the occupied West Bank and Gaza, the violence seems endless. In Washington, the Reagan Administration, against its political judgment and despite its lame-duck status, is being forced to try another go at Arab-Israeli peacemaking. Across the United States, Israel's friends, particularly those in the Jewish community, are defensive and upset. Publicly they are saying as little as possible. Privately they are agonizing. Where will this lead?
Much depends on the ability of the Palestinian protesters in the West Bank and Gaza to keep the pressure up. From the outset, the scope and intensity of their demonstrations has confounded the Israeli military. "The Palestinians are finally doing the right thing," said one Lebanese policy analyst. "The way you fight Western countries is to attack their consciences." The Israeli response, alternating between shootings and beatings, has indeed proved offensive to most Western consciences.
As a result, many Palestinians conclude they have achieved more in the past two months than in the previous 20 years of Israeli occupation. One State Department official explained this continuing intensity: "If they have gained this much in two months, imagine what they think they can do in two more months."
If the Palestinians can keep up the pressure, Israel's problems with the United States can only increase. Last week, for example, a dozen Jewish members of Congress summoned the Israeli ambassador in Washington, Moshe Arad, to a meeting on Capitol Hill. "We told Arad we do not like to see Israel as an occupying power," explained Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), who attended the meeting. Another participant was even more blunt. "We urged Arad, in the strongest possible fashion, to back off from the types of activity they are engaged in," he said. "For us it is not just a question of image--but of substance. And the substance must change."
At this point, however, the Israelis seem to be in no position to change either substance or style. They seem able only to react to events in the streets. Compounding the problem is that these events are instigated, if not controlled, by a new leadership in the occupied territory--a leadership the Israelis are at a loss to contend with. Israeli and U.S. intelligence officials have identified five separate organizations--three linked to elements of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the other two with ties to the Communist Party and Islamic fundamentalists. Most ominously, say these officials, there are signs that all five groups have begun to coordinate activities.
Still, the shadowy nature of these organizations has so far allowed their leadership to escape detection by Israel's internal police, the Shin Beth. More important, their success has bred more resistance. As one U.S. expert said, "Palestinians have lucked onto the right approach. Now they are building on it."
Ironically, Palestinian success comes at a time when their cause seemed most bereft of outside support. The Arab summit in Jordan last November, which focused almost exclusively on the Iran-Iraq War, made clear that the Arab states have all but abandoned the Palestinian cause. The superpowers were even more distant. The U.S.-Soviet summit, when it touched on regional issues, came only as close as Afghanistan. In Israel even those who were concerned about the long-term consequences of occupation--such as Foreign Minister Shimon Peres--focused on talks with Jordan's King Hussein, a widely discredited figure among Palestinians. And despite the secret meetings between Peres and Hussein, no one was predicting a breakthrough.
In retrospect, however, the Palestinians appear to have had a vital asset--an example. Of all Israel's neighbors only one, Lebanon, continues to be a source of trouble. A treaty with Egypt (not to mention the contingent of U.S. troops) keeps the peace in the Sinai. A de facto peace agreement with Hussein ensures that terrorists do not cross the Jordan River. And the United Nations--plus a healthy dose of mutual deterrents--makes for quiet on Syria's Golan Heights.
But from Lebanon, despite an ultra--sophisticated security system stretching along the entire border, come repeated terrorist forays. On Thursday, Palestinian infiltrators killed two Israeli soldiers. And last November a Palestinian attacker in a glider launched from Lebanon surprised an Israeli military encampment. Before he was stopped, he had killed six Israeli soldiers and wounded several others. This act, which the United States officially refused to describe as terrorism (since it was directed exclusively at a military target) was a cause for celebration in the occupied territories. When the street violence began soon after, more than a few observers saw that glider attack as the inspiration.