Israel begins a new year in the Jewish calendar with its prime minister expressing a renewed vision of its future. "We know where we are going," said Yitzhak Rabin after Israeli and Palestinian negotiators reached their landmark accord to begin transferring authority on the West Bank. "We are going toward a state of Israel as a Jewish state. And beside us, a Palestinian entity, not under our rule, which peacefully coexists with us."
With that, the leader of a somewhat shaky coalition government boldly proclaimed defunct the Israeli expansionists' dream of a Greater Israel, stretching from the Mediterranean to the River Jordan and even beyond. With the new peace accord Israel commits itself to a pullback of its army from the West Bank's large population centers. Within about six months the military withdrawal from about 30% of the West Bank is expected to be completed, clearing the way for Palestinian legislative elections. Only in Hebron, site of the Tomb of Abraham, where about 450 Israeli settlers live amid 120,000 Arabs, will the army maintain a presence.
Some Israelis on the far right, like former Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, who led his country into its disastrous invasion of Lebanon in 1982, imply that if the Likud Party is returned to power next year it might move to reclaim the West Bank areas Israel is preparing to yield. Anything is possible, but it's hard to imagine a more self-destructive act than the violation of the agreement Sharon suggests. Besides immediately ending all progress in resolving the Palestinian issue it would almost certainly cause collapse of the historic political changes that have taken place in Israel's relations with Egypt, Jordan and other Arab states. And it would profoundly affect Israel's relations with the United States, whose key role in the accord with the Palestinians will be noted at the signing ceremony set for the White House on Thursday.
Sharon and others who oppose political and territorial compromises with the Palestinians play most heavily on Israeli concerns about security as the army presence on the West Bank shrinks. Those concerns are of course justified and will remain so as long as Palestinian extremists reject any coexistence with Israel and use terrorism to express their rejectionism. It also must be remembered that Israel's 28-year-long military occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which have 1.2 million Arab inhabitants, didn't assure security either.
There are inescapable security risks in beginning to withdraw from parts of the West Bank. There are no less certain risks--moral as well as political--in seeking to perpetuate indefinitely the sterile status quo. Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin will never be able to satisfy the extremists in their two camps. Both deserve credit for having the courage to defy them.