AS a journalist covering the Middle East conflict, I've heard over and over: This region, and the entire world no less, will never experience peace until the Palestinians have their own independent state. I've heard it from politicians, Palestinian intellectuals, spokespersons, economists, entrepreneurs, refugee-camp dwellers, and, last but not least, my fellow journalists. They're wrong. If this weren't the Middle East and if Palestinian political norms were different, a Palestinian state might be a great idea. But this isn't Philadelphia, Yasser Arafat is not Thomas Jefferson, and a Palestinian state will thrust the region into decades of instability and bloodshed.
I realize that to my colleagues the sound of ``Israel must allow the Palestinians to have their own state'' is soothing to their liberal consciences. ``It's only fair,'' they tell me. ``It's the just solution.''
But regardless of what they and Palestinian intellectuals feel about the PLO's commitment to democracy, there is no evidence to indicate that once in power, the PLO will share that power with other political parties or ``the people.'' There is not a single democracy in the Arab world, no commitment to it, no history or tradition of it. Strength in leadership is directly related to longevity. Intellectuals are these regime's greatest internal enemies. Even among Palestinians in East Jerusalem, a 1986 poll in the daily paper ``Al-Fajr'' indicated that only 36 percent of the respondents chose democracy over autocratic rule or an Islamic state.
Palestinian intellectuals and activists like Dr. Sari Nusseibeh and Feisal Husseini say that in a situation of real peace, there will be no need for a Palestinian army. They talk of a demilitarized state.
If the new entity were demilitarized, who would prevent an insurrection against the incumbent government (a not uncommon occurrence in the Arab world)? What would happen if a coup, assassination, or revolution were initiated by extremists opposed to the peace treaty with Israel, for the sake of ``liberating all of Palestine''? Would Israel be forced to defend the new Palestinian entity? To arm it? When Mr. Arafat is declared ``King of Palestine,'' will Nayif Hawatmeh, Ahmed Jabril, and George Habash simply pack up their Kalachnikov rifles and go back to Jericho to raise red peppers and cucumbers?
Considering the recent performance in Lebanon, how long will it be before conflicting groups of Palestinians are killing each other? Considering the ``self cleansing'' by violent murder during the intifada, how long until uncontrolled armed groups make their bid for power? And if this violence is turned against Israel and/or Jordan, would Israel be forced to reenter the territories with the aim of policing them?
Even if the leadership of the new state truly desires stability and non-hostility with Israel, it might be forced into confrontation either to divert domestic discontent (another not so uncommon practice in the Arab world) or to satisfy irredentist sentiment.
With the freedom to garner arms and no security force to stop radicals, is there any way - given the history of Palestinian politics - that the struggle for power wouldn't become violent? A state the size of Delaware, of which 40 percent is desert and the rest a haven for any Arab terrorist organization with enough force to take it, is certainly no solution. The key must lie elsewhere.
Despite the cruel reception the idea usually receives, annexation of the West Bank by Israel may be the answer. After formal annexation of the West Bank, Israel could remove its troops from the populated centers while retaining its surveillance of the Israeli-Jordanian frontier.
The ``Province of the West Bank,'' would be declared, officially ending Israel's 22-year-old military rule of the territory. A local legislative body would be created of elected officials from several districts. Any citizen with enough popular support could field a party and run for that district's seat. The legislative body would then collectively elect candidates to represent the ``Province of the West Bank'' in Israel's national parliament, the Knesset.
The provincial parliament would have extensive regional powers. It would have its own judicial, health-care, and educational systems, interior and religious bodies, police force, airports, jails, and taxation. The Palestinians could issue their own passports, stamps, and currency, and participate in international organizations and committees. Even send their own team to the Olympics. In addition, they would enjoy the medical, educational, and economic benefit of political federation with Israel. It could be called dual sovereignty.
The next step would be for Israel to remove its forces from the Gaza Strip. If Egypt accepts its international, historical, and human obligations, it will extend its sovereignty over the 44-mile-long adjacent strip that it previously claimed and populated.
Ah, but my friends and fellow correspondents say this arrangement for the West Bank isn't fair. Palestinians don't get a proportionate vote in the Knesset, only in their regional legislature. But in a world of diminishing resources it is selfish to demand and unfair to reward people who have encouraged unfettered population growth. More than 50 percent of Palestinians in the administered territories are under the age of 15.
When Lebanon was created, the number of Christians and Muslims was equal. The Christians, having made Lebanon the Switzerland of the Middle East, are now being massacred and forced to hand their country over to the Syrians because they were outbred by the Muslims. Is this the justice of one-man, one-vote?
If given the chance to look at the situation clearly, without all the emotional rhetoric and PLO propaganda, the Palestinians will see that their solution lies in improved socioeconomic conditions via greater employment opportunities. They may see that to improve their situation, they must finally raze their refugee camps to the ground and begin working on decent housing. What they don't need is the PLO, Syria, Libya, Iraq, and another two decades of revolutionary jargon, or United Nations handouts.
Is this scheme viable? It does have precedents: Wales doesn't have an army yet enjoys a reasonable degree of self-determination from England. Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Marshall and Virgin Islands are not independent states, yet none of these US protectorates are unstable nor on the verge of economic collapse.
There are those who say, ``The Palestinians will never accept autonomy under Israel.'' That's true, if given the chance to reject it. If given no other alternative, they might seriously take a look at it. Perhaps it's time the international community encouraged the Palestinians to accept something other than an independent state for the sake of peace and stability in the region.