Jerusalem — The military helicopter coughed to life in the chill dark, the final weapon in a private war between an Israeli official and a Palestinian official who both dream of peace.
The May 3 chopper ride into forced exile for West Bank Mayor Muhammad Milhem, on orders from Israeli Defense Minister Ezer Weizman, made perhaps a fitting metaphor for a year of failed US efforts to convert the Camp David "autonomy" framework into genuine Middle East peace.
Failure becomes official with the passing of the May 26 "target date" for a Palestinian autonomy accord. But the cause seems to lie less with the Camp David accords than with the stubborn Middle East rivalry they were designed to resolve.
The year-long negotiating efforts of president Carter, Egypt's Anwar Sadat, and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin have raised serious questions as to whether any foreseeable framework can bring genuine Arab-Israeli peace. The reason goes back 32 years, to the birth of Israeli in Biblical Palestine:
Israei Jews and Palestinian Arabs love the same homeland. They are prepared to fight for that love. And neither party has any immediate intention of making fundamental compromises for the peace many on both sides desire.
That applies even to "moderates" like Muhammand Milhem and Ezer Weizman.
Mayor Milhem, turned instantly into a former mayor by that involuntary helicopter ride into southern Lebanon, looks and dreams a little like the late John Kennedy. Across a generous helping of grapes famous in his native West Bank town of Halhul, Mr. Milhem used to tell reporters he had nothing at all against living as a peaceable neighbor with Israel. There was one, only one, condition: that the Palestinians get a state of their own.
Defense Minister Weizman, turned instantly into a former defense minister by his own just-submitted resignation from Mr. Begin's Cabinet, also badly wants peace. He is against Jewish settlements on private Arab land, one issue that led to his resignation.
But would Mr. Weizman accept creation of a Palestinian state? No. That, for him, would mean a threat to the existence of an Israeli state next door.
It was this "security" concern that prompted Mr. Weizman to order Mayor Milhem, without a legal hearing, into exile. In the Defense Minister's view, a fiery public protest by Mr. Milhem against Israeli plans to escalate West Bank settlements had helped cause an armed attack on Jews there. Even now, Mr. Begin's government is facing an Israeli High Court demand to prove this.
It is Mr. Begin, not Mr. Weizman, who speaks for Israel. Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) chief Yasser Arafat, not Mr. Milhem, is the widely recognized leader of the Palestinians.
Like Messrs. Weizman and Milhem, these two aren't anywhere close to agreement. But worse, they don't -- won't -- even talk to each other.
"We can wait. We can die for our cause. We will win," is the way a PLO spokesman in Beirut, Lebanon puts it.
"Begin can wait, too," says an Israeli friend of the prime minister. "He will wait. He is never, I repeat never, going to give the Palestinians anything he even suspects could lead to statehood."
The American idea behind the Camp David plan for Palestinian autonomy on the West Bank and the also-occupied Gaza Strip was, with the help of men like Ezer Weizman and Muhammand Milhem, to seal at least a partial and temporary agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
That idea, despite an unceasing outcry from much of the Arab world, made some sense.
For the time being at least, no Israeli governmnet is going to agree on paper to any form of Palestinian state. This goes not only for Mr. Begin but for the more moderate Labor Party coalition likely to succed him. Labor feels it can make peace with the Palestinians by giving part of the West Bank back to the Jordanian king who lost it in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
No Palestinian leader, meanwhile, will formally renounce claims to a state.
Another frequent criticism of the Camp David framework is that it leaves the PLO out of the picture and provides the possibility, now verging on certainty, that negotiations could continue without direct participation by any Palestinian.
But here, too, the Camp David formula does make some sense. Getting the Israelis and Palestinians around a negotiating table has proven impossible in the past, and there is no indication that even with Palestinian participation the Camp David negotiators could have solved major issues more quickly.
The autonomy negotiations remain a failure. But as one Middle East diplomat comments privately. "That is not really because the Palestinians aren't involved in the process. It is not even because of Israeli settlements, strictly speaking, or because the wording was so vague."
All these, he and many other analysts now argue, are symptoms more than problems.
The central "problem" remains that the Palestinians, many driven from their homes with the creation of the Jewish state of Israel, want a state of their own. And Israel rejects the idea.
If the Camp David dreamers made one major mistake, it was to assume that a separate peace between Israel and the largest Arab state would prove contagious. It has not been, at least so far. Perhaps, in the end, only the unpredictable tide of history will do what four major Middle East wars since 1948 have not: bring Israel and the Palestinians together.
In the meantime, the Camp David "failure" may have brought with it one success. Although Israel and Palestinian positions remain fundamentally unchanges, never before has either side given their explosive rivalry such detailed and serious internal debate.