In Praise of Their Boldness

AN event like the Sept. 13 signing in Washington of the accord between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization is an occasion for rejoicing within the family of nations - but the rejoicing is not unanimous, and so supporters of the accord have all the more work to do.

Perhaps most important, the leaders on both sides need continued support in their boldness. The mutual recognition had to come eventually, of course, as could be seen by anyone who has a grasp of the larger principles of statecraft involved here and is not blinded by the particulars of the case. But it still took boldness.

The long years of standoff turned both sides into ``victims,'' and the nastiest disputes include those in which both sides see themselves as victims, as the oppressed minority.

Political theorist Yaron Ezrahi has been quoted in recent days that Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin differs from most Israeli politicians in the lesson he has drawn from the Holocaust experience: ``That lesson is that having power allows you to move in the direction of compromise. Power allows you to reshape your own future, not just hunker down.''

Other Israeli politicians, by contrast, learned from World War II that they must rely on their swords and should trust no one; this left them defensive and reactive.

Mr. Ezrahi went on to say, ``Rabin did not want to preside over another epic chapter in Jewish history where the Jews die in the end as heroes. He opted instead for the sort of gray compromise that makes life possible.''

Mr. Rabin's boldness has its counterpart on the Arab side: Two generations of Arabs who have organized their existence around the political fact of the struggle with Israel are going to have to restructure their worlds. The plight of American cold warriors disoriented without their Russian enemies pales by comparison with what the Palestinians must adjust to. It will be a challenge for them to have to exercise authority rather than merely seek to subvert it.

Disputes like those in the Middle East and other notable ``trouble spots'' often lay claim to a uniqueness in their intractability - a uniqueness ostensibly rooted in the substance of the grievances. In fact, there can be remarkable parallels between these trouble spots; the basic problem is eventually seen to be disputatiousness itself.

One fruit of the Israeli-PLO accord should be a more positive sense of nationhood, letting individuals see their compatriots as fellow citizens, not just fellow victims.

Rebecca West, in her remarkably prescient book on Yugoslavia, ``Black Lamb and Grey Falcon,'' written during the years between the world wars, speaks of the trouble the people there had with the idea of a central government authority, because of their wretched history of ethnic and religious strife. She goes on to wonder how the Americans and the British would feel about government without their more positive historical experiences.

The ability to draw on a positive history gives a nation the same kind of security that an individual draws from having had a happy childhood. Future generations of Middle Eastern schoolchildren will be able to learn of the day when their leaders went to Washington to exchange bold handshakes and to step bravely into a new world.

It was a day that was a vindication for all those who have never believed in ``never.''

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