Israel's Tired Refrain

TWO years into the intifada, the Palestinian uprising in the Israeli-occupied territories, the right-wing politicians who govern Israel appear to have learned nothing and forgotten nothing. They still treat the symptoms of elemental outrage, civil disobedience, and occasionally violent protest, with Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin's original prescription of ``power, force, and beatings.'' And they still have no better justification than the old one, that the end justifies the means.

Mass demonstrations are fewer, which may look like progress, but the killing goes on. The New York Times reported in October a total of at least 615 Palestinians and 44 Jews dead - which means a rough average of one a day.

If there has been political movement, it has been away from moderation and compromise. Palestinian radicals have grown nastier, with assassinations of alleged ``collaborators.'' Israeli radicals have grown more paranoid, casting about for the conclusive ``lesson'' that will teach the Palestinians to submit, again closing the schools on the West Bank, occupying the town of Beit Sahour for six weeks to ``collect taxes,'' and physically attacking workers of UNRWA, the United Nations relief agency - perhaps to show that no international body can stand in Israel's way.

The net result has been to increase Israel's political isolation in the world. In official Washington, as in American public opinion (both Jewish and other), tolerance for Israeli acts that are seen as violations of international law is wearing thin.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, at the White House last month, met questions about Israel's cooperation with South Africa on missiles and nuclear weapons. Forty-one American Jewish leaders hit him with an open letter pointing out that their affectionate support of Israel does not mean endorsement of his policy.

Even Shamir and his Likud Party's most committed partisan would find it hard to contend that these policies have been successful. The party has maintained its strong backing at home largely by crying wolf. In the game of persuasion, survival is trump, and Likud apologists keep playing that card.

For years, the game has been based on the fixed assumption, unsupported by evidence, that the Palestinian people do not want a peaceful life of their own - but the destruction of Israel. It depends heavily on demonizing the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as an unregenerate gang of terrorists in order, many Israelis charge, to evade negotiation with Israel's main adversary.

There is no doubt that the Arab side has helped to make this Manichaean world-view more plausible. Stupid rhetoric on the lines of the ``Zionism is Racism'' resolution the UN General Assembly, hateful bombast, ostracizing Egypt for making peace with Israel and the homicidal antics of Islamic crazies subsidized by Iran, Libya, and Syria undermine those Arabs who advocate a compromise settlement.

The Israeli security argument has undergone a clear and troubling change in the two years of intifada, one that portends greater communal friction. The absurd thesis that an independent Palestinian state would threaten Israel's existence has been dropped.

Instead, danger is now seen as coming from the 800,000 Arabs who are Israeli citizens. Resentful of their second-class status, it is said, they would want an independent Palestine expanded to include Galilee, where they are most numerous. Allegedly, the Israeli Arabs have complemented the intifada with increased incidents of violence and subversion.

And, added to repudiation of the PLO as a terrorist organization is the warning that recognizing it would reopen the PLO's claim to the refugees' right to return to their old homes in what is now Israel. This brings fear into the living room, where the average family is already depressed by the intifada's enormous cost to Israel.

Most depressing is the feeling that there is no way out. As democratic revolution sweeps across Eastern Europe, with people in the street wresting political rights from obdurate regimes, the Israeli government stifles Palestinian self-determination in the name of law and order.

Israelis accuse Prime Minister Shamir of presenting his complex and uncertain offer of negotiations for Palestinian elections only to gain time. But after two years, with no sign of ending, the intifada puts the question more urgently than ever - time for what?

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