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What do we do about Israel?

From both the Arab and Israeli points of view, such agreements as have been reached so far between the two countries are worthless. And with a fortnight to go, the likelihood of the two countries coming any closer together are infinitesimal. From the Arab point of view, for example, the precipitous Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon some time ago had no lasting significance.

In all the wrangling that the two sides have engaged in recent months, it is to be remembered that such a comprehensive peace agreement has never been proposed for the area. And even now, neither side has come forward with a generally acceptable proposal of any kind. Such proposals as have been made involve questionable notions such as “split sovereignty” (as with the Temple Mount) and numerous other such dubious concepts. All in all, thousands of negotiated details, including the return, or non-return, or partial return of refugees from the 1967 war, would have to be agreed upon for the accord to have any sense at all.

In a television interview this week, Dr. Henry Kissinger said that he could grasp the understanding reached at Camp David. But to have Camp David followed by more military behavior in the streets, and then to have this military behavior followed by even more concessions, Kissinger found this mystifying. When did it stop?

For Ehud Barak to have put a plan “on the table,” Kissinger said, and then to have thought that it remained in effect nearly permanently was almost silly. One of the American negotiators, Barak repeated, said that we can put a plan out — not written down of course — and if nothing happens then it could just evaporate. This Kissinger found ludicrous. Once you’ve said it, it doesn’t disappear, he emphasized.

He also made the point that the neighboring countries of the Middle East are not like Belgium and the Netherlands. In Israel, half the population wants real peace — maybe more than half — whereas the Arab world wants simply to destroy Israel, nothing less. And, furthermore, they feel with recent events — to put it simply — that they have the Israelis on the run.

The eagerness with which this is being pushed, the profusion of peace offers, and the desperation of an American president who will be leaving office in just a few days, all make it apparent to the Arabs that the Israelis are on the brink of surrender. The Israelis made, after all, a peace proposal of an extraordinary generosity. The Arabs rejected it. Are the Israelis now to be expected to make an even more generous proposal? Where can Arab demands end short of the destruction of Israel?

There are things you can ask Yasser Arafat to do — such as not to raise this subject or that — but there are things you can not ask him to do, such as to assure you that he will never raise a given issue.

To return to Camp David now, utterly unprepared, our success depending entirely on the negotiating skills of President Clinton — and even then allowing ourselves perhaps only two weeks — would be folly in a rather advanced stage.

But the greatest problem facing the West is to convince the Arab world that its goal should not be the destruction of Israel but coexistence with Israel. Many deeply familiar with this part of the world think this might not be possible for at least another generation.