JERUSALEM — For all the detailed press and television coverage of the uprising in the occupied territories, it has admittedly always been difficult for Western observers to fully appreciate the ferocity of the emotions and fears that inform the sides to the 40-year-old Arab-Israeli conflict. A longstanding joke has such a typically puzzled American asking: "I don't understand why those crazy Arabs and Jews can't just turn around, shake hands, and become friends, like good Christians should."
The truth is that deep-seated national conflicts are never settled in such reasonable fashion. In the present case there is quite a bit of confusion and intentional obfuscation of what the conflict is all about. The issue of the territories and of the understandable desire of the Palestinians to get the Israelis off their backs has come to occupy center stage. But in their occasional moments of candor, most of the parties would admit that while an Israeli withdrawal from most--or even from all--of the occupied territories might bring about an abatement in the popular Palestinian uprising, it will not bring on a peaceful solution to the wider Arab-Israel conflict.
A democratic and a profoundly self-critical and argumentative Jewish Israel has always been split on the issue of the territories. The public debate during these past 20 years has been dominated, nearly exclusively, by the extremes: one side believing that the territories should eventually be annexed to Israel for religious, national or security reasons, without addressing itself to the problem of what to do with a large and growing Palestinian population that will continue to be hostile to Israel; the other extreme agonizing over the "intrinsic evil" of an Israel in the role of occupier, without giving an answer to the very profound threat to Israel's security entailed in territorial concessions in the absence of any persuasive signs of an Arab change of heart on making peace with Israel.
The near monopolization of the public debate by those extremes, which together account for perhaps 20%-25% of the Israeli public, has served to divert attention from the fact that the large majority of Israelis, who are very alive to the dilemmas entailed in the occupation of the territories and their Palestinian population, have always subscribed to various versions of the "territories for peace" formula that is at the heart of the peace plan being pushed by U.S. Secretary of State George P. Shultz.
The problem has been that the Arabs have always rejected that formula and continue, in effect, to reject it today. This was true during the first 10 years of the occupation, when territories-for-peace was the official policy of Israel's Labor governments. In the years of the Likud government, the ideological commitment to the proposition of the settlement and eventual Israeli annexation of all the territories was never put to the test of real politics as a result of that adamant Arab rejection of peace.
The only exception to that latter assertion was the response to the late President Anwar Sadat's territories-for-peace initiative in 1977. At that time, Prime Minister Menachem Begin agreed to return all of Sinai in exchange for peace with Egypt, and the overwhelming majority of the Israeli public ecstatically welcomed that trade-off with all its risks.
The tragedy of the present situation is that the Palestinians in the occupied territories, who together with the Israelis have been the major victims of the ongoing conflict, are in no frame of mind or position to give Israel the security guarantees that alone could persuade a majority of Israelis to run the risk of withdrawing from most of the territories.
To be sure, there are Palestinians in the territories who would acquiesce in such a pragmatic trade-off. The trouble is that they are not calling the shots and have, in effect, abdicated responsibility to their firebrand teen-age and older children, who have been manning and orchestrating the current violent uprising. These Palestinian youngsters, who have undoubtedly succeeded in discomfiting Israel, are even more extreme than the mainline Palestine Liberation Organization leadership in their antipathy to Israel. And the PLO itself has always been a curious combination of a legitimate movement of national liberation and a very illegitimate movement dedicated to the proposition of achieving such national self-determination only as a result of the annihilation of Israel.
Shultz's territories-for-peace approach is eminently reasonable. Reason, however, is rarely the dominant factor in such conflicts and their resolution, and certainly not in the super-heated Middle East. Where Shultz and his supporters are wrong is in their determination to proceed at full speed to push, in the remaining months of 1988, for a solution that has escaped all others for the past 40 years.
Israel has good reason to be extremely wary of such misguided American haste and disregard for unpleasant realities. There never are quick fixes to such conflicts, yet a quick fix is apparently what Washington is after in the present case. Israel's understandable fears stem from the realization that while the United States has very tangible and overpowering leverage over Israel to try to compel it to make territorial concessions, Washington has no parallel leverage against the Arabs to compel them to make a peace they do not want to make.
To paraphrase H. L. Mencken, many Americans believe that to every complex problem there is a simple solution and are then surprised when those solutions fail to work. Israel's problem is that it will be the one to have to pay--in the lives and welfare of her citizens--for the certainty of failure that is built in to such well-intentioned penchants for the quick fix.