Two small patches of land, roughly the size of Delaware, are at the center of the Middle East peace problem.
Arab nations have fought for them - and lost. Israeli armed forces and an increasing number of Jewish settlers occupy them. These two territories - part of the biblical Land of Israel and the present home of about 1.2 million Palestinian Arabs - are the occupied Gaza Strip and West Bank of the Jordan River.
For many modern-day Israelis they represent a test of political resolve - and sometimes religious will.
For its part, the Israeli government is actively laying a foundation for permanent Israeli control of the West Bank and Gaza. The government has just announced its intention to double the Jewish population of the West Bank in coming months. This it does in the name of Zionism.
Although virtually all Israelis accept the legitimacy of Zionist aspirations - the desire of Jews for a national homeland in Palestine - many Israelis do not share the government's interpretation of Zionism. These competing conceptions underlie a crucial and intensifying debate within Israel over what to do with the West Bank and Gaza. On the domestic scene, these ideological divisions are beginning to seriously strain the social fabric. On the international scene, the outcome of this debate may in large part determine whether a negotiated peace is achievable in the Middle East.
Polls show approximately half of all Israelis support the government's policies toward the occupied territories. Domestic criticism is widespread and vocal.
Late last March, opponents of Prime Minister Menachem Begin failed by only one vote to pass a motion of no-confidence in the government policies toward the West Bank and Gaza. More recently, many Israelis have bitterly condemned their country's invasion of Lebanon, which the prime minister and his ruling Likud union justify partly on the grounds that a defeat for the Palestinian Liberation Organiztion (PLO) will reduce opposition to Israeli rule among the Palestinian inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza.
The possibility of early elections, or of a change of leadership within Likud , suggest the debate over the occupied territories are likely to become even more heated in the months ahead. Likud leaders have indicated a desire to call elections in 1983, two years ahead of schedule. Also, the prime minister has expressed a wish to retire from political life before too long, an inclination that may be intensified by the recent passing of his wife. Finally, the findings of the commission of inquiry looking into the Sabra-Shatila massacres in Beirut may contribute further to the possibility of political change.
Should any of these possibilities materialize, political competition will intensify and, as at present, reflect the fundamental ideological differences among Israeli Jews about the meaning and priorities of Zionism. These ideologies break down into five major groupings. They are:
* Secular nationalists. This hard-line segment, represented by Mr. Begin and his Likud coalition, insists it will accept no division of Palestine between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. Likud argues territorial fulfillment is a historical right of the Jews, as well as the only reliable guarantee against unyielding Arab opposition. And it believes this will also accelerate the development of Hebrew culture and stimulate immigration from Jewish communities around the world.
* Religious nationalists. Like the Begin government, segments of the religious community have emerged as the strongest opponents of withdrawal from these territories, which both religious and secular nationalists regard as biblical Judea and Samaria. Unlike the secular right, this view seeks the creation of a society ruled by the Torah, which embodies Jewish religious law. Represented by Gush Emunim, or Bloc of the Faithful, they believe religious law forbids Jews from relinquishing sovereignty over any part of the biblical Land of Israel. Many also believe Jewish settlement of these territories will hasten the arrival of the Messiah and, in the interim, deepen the spiritual character of Israel.
* Secular moderates. The principal alternative to the hardliners' vision is articulated by the Labor Alignment, which favors territorial compromise. Labor has long favored a Jordanian solution to the Palestinian problem, similar to that recently proposed by President Reagan. Israel would return most of the West Bank to Jordan, which would then become the focus of efforts to solve the Palestinian problem. Labor acknowledges that Palestinian aspirations cannot be realized exclusively on the East Bank. Thus, unless Israel withdraws from the West Bank and Gaza, it will be judged to value territory more than reconciliation and may squander its first real opportunity for peace.
* Religious moderates. These individuals also favor territorial compromise. Since the Messiah has not arrived, they argue, the sanctity of the Holy Land is unaffected by the religious affiliation of its rulers. Indeed, religious law would favor a withdrawal from Judea and Samaria, if to do so would save Jewish lives. In any event, the only essential task is to deepen the religious character of Jewish life, and for this territorial expansion is irrelevant. Some also denounce the equation of religion and nationalistic chauvinism they see in Gush Emunim, arguing this is alien to the true spirit of Judaism.
* Zionist doves. A few leftist groups argue that Labor's proposals do not go far enough. They call for negotiations with the PLO and acceptance of an independent Palestinian state. Naturally, they add, such a two-state solution requires Palestinians and the PLO to recognize the Jewish state as well. Elements in Peace Now and other groups believe that nothing else will solve the Palestinian problem, and thus they offer still another Israeli perspective on borders and Zionist fulfillment.
Polls show that if elections were held tomorrow, Likud would probably retain control of the government. However, a victory for the Labor Alignment, which holds a near majority in the Knesset and was the foundation of every governmental coalition from 1948 to 1977, is by no means out of the question.
The religious parties have virtually no opportunity of coming to power, but they have proved themselves to be effective interest groups in parliamentary maneuverings. Further, religious nationalists, represented in large measure by Gush Emunim, are powerful and well-organized for action outside the formal political system. Gush Emunim, for example, has occasionally established settlements in Judea and Samaria over government objection. The religious moderates, meanwhile, though not insignificant, are a minority within the orthodox community. Their motivation and abiliity to influence government policy is limited.
The Zionist doves are reasonably peripheral, though they could become more influential should significant numbers of Israelis conclude that the Palestinians are ready to recognize Israel.
At present, the nationalists - both secular and religious - are dominant. But the debate juxtaposes firmly established Zionist conceptions and continues an ideological struggle that is almost 60 years old.
Political Zionism is only 100 years old.
For centuries before this many Jews regarded themselves as spiritually linked to the historical land of Israel. Considering themselves as passive before God's will, Jews believed that one day the Messiah would return and the Jewish people would be restored to its historical homeland.
Modern political Zionism emerged in the latter half of the 19th century as some European Jews determined that it was appropriate to become more active in constructing a national home in Palestine. The organizational structure of the movement took shape during the early years of the 20th century. Following World War I, about the time the League of Nations gave Britain the Mandate for Palestine and Transjordan, Zionists hammered out their proposals for the fulfillment of Jewish national aspirations.
The territorial content of their proposals reflected the borders of the Israelite empire forged by King David, about 1000 B. C., which stretched from the Red Sea to the valley of Lebanon and from the Mediterranean Sea to Ammon and Moab in Transjordan.
In 1925, however, a hard-line faction founded the Revisionist Party and declared its opposition to the mainstream of Zionist thinking. This party was the precursor of Mr. Begin's Herut Party, which today is the dominant faction in his ruling Likud union.
The Revisionist Party criticized the mainstream of the Zionist movement for inadequate militancy and the vagueness with which leaders of the World Zionist Organization (WZO) discussed the Jewish ''homeland'' they purported to be building. They also criticized the utopian socialism of many Zionist leaders, arguing this diverted from more pressing concerns. Above all, revisionists denounced [TEXT OMITTED BY PUBLISHER IN ORIGINAL SOURCE]
By contrast, Revisionists were clear about their own program. They called for massive immigration to create a Jewish majority in Palestine. They further insisted that the Jewish National Home, as they called it, be an independent state, exercising Jewish sovereignty over Palestine. Finally, they defined the territorial focus of their state in maximalist terms, based on the borders of the historic Land of Israel. This included part of Transjordan, as well as all of Mandatory Palestine. Revisionsts emphasized discipline and organization, martial values and physical courage, and, above all, militancy and direct action.
The Labor-dominated Zionist mainstream considered the Revisionists irresponsible. It is true that early Zionism was often vague about its territorial aspirations. There was also some early equivocation about whether or not Zionism sought an independent state with a Jewish majority. Yet the WZO leaders defended their moderation on both practical and ideological grounds.
The WZO had initially shown an interest in Transjordan. For one thing, many early Jewish land purchases were east of the Jordan River. Yet the dominant elements within the Zionist movement saw territorial maximalism and ideological purity as false goals. The WZO argued that cooperation with the British would maximize gains relating to immigration and land purchase, the foundation of all attempts to develop the Jewish community in Palestine. Also, moderation was necessary if there was to be any hope of accommodation with the Arabs.
Above all, Labor Zionists and others called for attention to the quality of Jewish life in Palestine. The Jewish homeland must be a self-sufficient whole, which meant Jews must work the land as well as exercise sovereignty over it. It was Labor-Zionists, not Revisionists, who did the patient work of building agricultural settlements, and who promoted Jewish welfare and development through the massive Israeli Federation of Labor.
The Zionist establishment thus rejected territorial maximalism and, in fact, established relatively few settlements in the hilly areas of Judea and Samaria. Steady land purchases resulted in concentrated Jewish holdings in the valley areas, coastal plain, and lower Galilee. The WZO subsequently accepted the principle of territorial partition and stated that Zionist aspirations could be realized through a flourishing Jewish state occupying only part of the historic Land of Israel.
Most orthodox Jews originally stood apart from this debate, seeing modern political Zionism as a profanation. The ultra-orthodox Agudat Israel Party, long anti-Zionist, insisted the Jewish people was defined by its devotion to the divine law of the Torah, not by territorially oriented nationalism.
During the 1930s, however, most Agudah adherents came to accept the need for a Jewish state in Palestine. Further, with assurances the new state would respect Jewish law in fundamental areas, the party joined the first government coalition after independence. But Agudah remained indifferent to territorial issues unrelated to security. Its goal was to make Israel a Torah-ruled state. The Zionism it embraced was concerned with how Jews lived, not with how much of the Land of Israel they controlled.
A minority of orthodox Jewry did embrace Zionism at an early stage. The Mizrahi faction within the WZO called for a Jewish homeland governed by the Torah and populated predominantly by observant Jews. To achieve this would serve both Judaism and the Jews, and was thus defensible from a religious perspective. Some Mizrahi elements, notably the followers of Rabbi Avraham Y. H. Kook, went even further. They asserted that the Messianic era had in fact begun and that political Zionism, however secular it might appear, was an instrument of the divine plan.
Mizrahi was not preoccupied with border questions. It rejected the secular nationalism of Herut's maximalism, even though some of its members believed that God would eventually reestablish Jewish control over the whole Land of Israel. After independence, Mizrahi's factions evolved into the National Religious Party (NRP). The NRP displayed no significant interest in territorial expansion and participated in successive Labor-based governments.
More recently, however, a ''young guard'' has come to the fore within the NRP and, in the tradition of Rabbi Kook, argues that Israel's capture of Judea and Samaria (and East Jerusalem) demonstrates further that God is restoring the Jewish people to its land. It has united with other hard-line factions in Gush Emunim.
Among secular parties, both nationalsits and moderates today continue to advocate their historical positions. Thus, while Likud carries forward the Revisionist tradition of territorial maximalism, the Labor Alignment maintains its traditional advocacy of territorial compromise. Labor insists that peace with the Arabs will be impossible so long as Israel retains the West Bank and Gaza. Yet Labor is concerned with more than political accommodation.
Its most severe condemnation of Likud is based on the assertion that retaining the West Bank and Gaza would undermine Zionism by placing another 1.2 million Arabs in the Jewish State. Coupled with the 600,000 Arab citizens of Israel, this would make Jews a near-minority in their own country, and demographic trends indicate the Arab population would become numerically predominant within a generation.
This ''demographic issue,'' according to Labor, poses insoluble dilemmas. If the Arab inhabitants of ''greater Israel'' were given full political rights, they would fundamentally alter the Jewish identity of the state. If denied these rights, Israel would lose its democratic character and be forced to control permanently a hostile population. In either instance, the result would be incompatible with a vision of Zionism that emphasizes the quality of life in the Jewish State.
Likud sometimes contends the problem will be solved by increased Jewish immigration, or by voluntary Arab emigration. Labor responds that neither trend is of a magnitude to eliminate the basic dilemma, however, and that withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza is the only solution. Labor's position assumes a Jordanian solution to the Palestinian problem. The Alignment does not favor the creation of an independent Palestinian state and, like most Israelis, believes such a state would threaten Israeli security.
How Israel resolves its internal debate about the West Bank and Gaza will affect the future of the peace process in the Middle East. The prospects for President Reagan's recent initiative, for example, will depend in substantial measure on Israel's willingness to make additional territorial concessions in return for peace. Further normalization of relations between Israel and Egypt may also depend largely on whether Israel is willing to relinquish control over the West Bank and Gaza.
Equally significant, the Jewish state's debate about borders, and about the meaning of Zionism, interact with and reinforce other important cleavages within Israeli society. Israelis are deeply divided about the rightness and wisdom of their contry's actions in Lebanon. Also, social and political tension between Jews of European and those of Afro-Asian origin have increased markedly in recent years.
In this context, competing conceptions of Zionism reflect growing strains in the social fabric of the Jewish state. They also provide the ideological foundation of organized political competition, which is becoming more divisive and is almost certain to intensify in the months ahead.