Apartheid for Palestinians - Not a Viable Mideast Option

Apartheid, or cooperation based on mutual respect? This is the choice facing Israel in its relationship with its neighbors today.

As Secretary of State Madeleine Albright makes her first visit to the region, she and President Clinton need to understand the depth of the present crisis. They need to start working hard for a specifically American plan to bring peace with respect and cooperation to the Holy Land.

Americans are generally familiar with the anguish felt in Israel. In Jerusalem, Israeli civilians are blown to bits by terrorist bombs. In Lebanon, 12 Israeli soldiers perish in an ambush.

Israelis see Arab leaders fleeing from the partnership with Israel that was a cornerstone of the peace march launched six years ago in Madrid. But those Israelis who seek to build peace with their neighbors must - along with their friends in the US - also consider how things look from the Arabs' viewpoint.

The Arabs see Palestinian society devastated by prolonged lock-downs in the cities where they hoped to have viable self-rule. The lock-downs have caused many avoidable deaths, and a collapse of basic social institutions and the economy.

In Lebanon, Arabs see local civilians, army men, and militia members all hit by Israel's high-tech weaponry, with casualty rolls that far exceed Israel's.

In all the occupied territories, the Arabs see Netanyahu's government digging ever deeper into land that - according to international law - is not Israel's to keep.

In August, Ms. Albright did well to state publicly both that the Palestinian leadership should commit fully to the fight against terror - and that Israe's final-status agreement with the Palestinians should be based on the exchange of occupied lands for peace. A month later, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to carry out even the partial troop withdrawals required by the Oslo agreements.

Through his open defiance of Oslo, Netanyahu has helped dictate an agenda where what needs attention now is no longer the interim steps called for in the Oslo agreements, but, rather, the shape of Israel's final-status arrangement with the Palestinians.

Will this arrangement be, as Netanyahu seems to intend, a version of apartheid, with Palestinians confined to non-viable, and ever-subservient Bantustans? Or will it be based on truly mutual cooperation between Israel and a viable Palestinian entity?

The name "state" doesn't matter here. The Palestinians want the protection that they think a "state" affords. But the racist rulers in South Africa called their Bantustans "states." What matters is the viability.

Because of its twin role as sponsor of the peace process and principal friend and guarantor of Israel, the US is inextricably entwined in the current crisis.

If the US posture throughout the broader Middle East is to survive, then the secretary and president both need to speak out against the "Bantustan" vision of a Palestinian future - and for mutuality in the peace process, Palestinian viability, and significant and timely withdrawals of Israeli forces from the occupied zones.

This, in addition to existing exhortations for Arab cooperation with Israel and Arab help in fighting terror.

Will Albright do this? I hope so. I hope that, having gotten back in touch with her tragic family history in Europe, she has seen once again that the protection of human rights and human dignity are the bedrock of any lasting social order - in any region of the world.

Bantustans did not bring the long-term peace that South Africa's supremacists sought. Nor can Bantustan-like arrangements do that for Israel.

Most Israelis shun the "integration" solution that South Africans eventually chose. That leaves only a two-state, or two-entity, solution between the two peoples, based on mutual respect and cooperation. Let's see Clinton and Albright working hard for that.

* Helena Cobban writes on foreign affairs from Charlottesville, Va.

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