The Israeli-Palestinian agreement to be signed today in Cairo means that the Mideast peace process is going to be implemented despite all attempts to derail it.
It is a victory not for virtue or conscience but for reciprocal self-interest. It has become possible because the Palestinian and Israeli leaderships have awakened from illusions. The mainstream Palestinians, after years of trial and error, must know that their prospect of freedom is contingent on Israeli security. This perception owes much to American policy which, under the Bush and Clinton administrations, has made Israel strong enough to accept courses not politically feasible before.
Most Israelis now understand that the greatest of all fallacies is the idea that one nation can rule another without consent. What the British could not do any longer in India or the French in Algeria or the Dutch in Indonesia or the Belgians in Congo or Rwanda or the Soviets in Afghanistan or the Americans in Vietnam or the South African whites in South Africa has also become impossible for Israel, despite ancient Jewish memories and pieties.
Israel is not a colonial newcomer to the land of its national birth, but it is undoubtedly alien to the people whom it holds under rigorous military rule. The peace process gives Israel a chance to redeem its own democratic identity. It is not in the nature of democracies to rule over 1.8 million members of a different nation without offering them either equal justice as citizens or a chance to establish their own separate jurisdiction.
After 27 years of military rule, the West Bank and Gaza are among the most chaotic, explosive and socially incoherent areas in the world. Ethnic identity is the pervasive criterion for the application of flagrantly unequal enactments. It was largely in order to liberate Israel from this incongruous condition that the new Israeli government received a mandate in 1992 to establish a Palestinian self-governing authority as the first cautious stage toward equality of rights and coexistence.
In the policies that he now espouses, Yitzhak Rabin is not leaping into a new uncharted field. He is returning to the essential truths that launched Israel on its breakthrough to statehood under David Ben Gurion's leadership. The partition principle, without which Israel could not have emerged in 1948 as a recognized sovereign state, reasserts itself now as the only viable formula. It is as true in 1994 as it was in 1948 that the Israeli and Palestinian nations can find their harmony only by living side by side in separate areas of jurisdiction with integrated economies and mutual accessibility for their populations.
Palestinians will have to pay for prolonged rejectionism by gaining less than they could have obtained years ago. Israelis of the radical right will have to renounce the dream of establishing a colonial regime in the post-colonial age.
The Cairo accords will be irreversible. Despite their boasts and threats, Rabin's opponents will not lead Israeli occupation forces back to Gaza and the West Bank to re-create the kind of repressive and discriminatory regime that will by then be obsolete even in South Africa.
No government has a watertight formula against individual violence, but the peace process has greatly transformed Israel's overall economic, security and diplomatic situations. The number of states maintaining or seeking relations with Israel has jumped from 40 to 120. Israeli isolation is a thing of the past. At the same time, the Gulf War, the collapse of the Soviet Empire and the arms sales authorized by the Bush and Clinton administrations have assured Israel of an unprecedented predominance in the strategic balance.
Treaties already formulated with Jordan, and likely to be concluded with other negotiating partners, open spacious horizons for economic growth similar to that achieved by the newly industrialized nations on the Pacific Rim. Openings in the Arab states of the Gulf area are already beginning to appear. So are possibilities of trade and cooperation with the former Soviet republics, including those that are faithful to Islam.
Israel's liberation from the burdens of ruling over a foreign nation will enable the Palestinians to advance toward self-government and thereafter to possible evolution to more advanced forms of independence. This must involve a purposeful decision on the PLO's part to thwart terrorist assaults. Skeptics should not doubt this possibility before the physical and technical opportunities have even been provided.
The fulfillment of the peace process will not immediately bring utopia, but its failure would condemn the region to profound despair of peace. Nobody in the Middle East or in the world community will try in the foreseeable future to construct a brighter opportunity for a new Middle Eastern era. Much depends on the willingness of the United States to carry the momentum forward in Damascus and Amman.