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What Israel Needs Now

March 19, 1989

Three months ago Israel's government said it was working on a new "peace plan" in response to the Palestinian uprising in the occupied territories and to Yasser Arafat's statement that the Palestine Liberation Organization was at last renouncing terrorism and accepting Israel's existence. Since then, and most noticeably in the last few weeks, it has become steadily clearer that the approaches Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir has in mind aren't new, won't advance the peace process and could only by the most charitable of interpretations be regarded as constituting a "plan."

What the government has been vaguely talking about is reviving the autonomy provisions of the 1978 Camp David agreement and bringing Jordan's King Hussein into negotiations about the West Bank's future. These approaches made sense in their time. Now, Shamir's suggestion that he finds virtues in them is only ironic. When the Camp David accords were put before the Knesset a decade ago, Shamir voted to reject them as unacceptable. And Shamir's Likud Party in the past has been unsparing in its scorn for the Labor Party's notion of invoking a "Jordanian option" to try to bring about a West Bank settlement.

Too little and too late will not produce the required directional shift in a dead-end policy. Shamir's second thoughts about a new peace plan seem to reflect an assessment that, despite earlier concerns, the Bush Administration isn't about to lean on Israel to begin planning for an eventual withdrawal from most of the West Bank. Washington's attitude in turn appears to be conditioned by its own disappointment with the course of the U.S.-PLO talks that have been going on since January in Tunisia, with some officials complaining that the PLO has so far shown itself incapable of moving beyond slogans to deal with substance.

Even Secretary of State James A. Baker's comment--anathema to Israel--that direct PLO-Israel talks might one day be needed doesn't seem to have affected Shamir's perception that he can coast with the status quo. To conclude that, though, is of course again to evade facing the basic challenge: Palestinian nationalism as exemplified by the 16-month-old intifada isn't going to falter or disappear, and the burdens on Israel of maintaining a repressive occupation aren't going to become more bearable. Israel needs a change in policy not to appease Washington or accommodate the PLO, but because it has become painfully clear that its own political, economic, security and moral interests urgently demand it.

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