Elusive Mideast peace -- must it be imposed?

The howls for help, the crash of bombs or shellfire, the clap and whistle of bullets, the blustery vows of revenge. It is all, I imagine, pretty much the same as when I departed what was left of the state of Lebanon 12 months ago.

I saw men, women, and children slaughtered by a whole range of armies, toting a whole range of arms -- the Syrians and Palestinians with their Soviet-manufactured weapons, the Israelis and Lebanese Christian militiamen with Western, largely US-made, arsenals.

One image sticks in my mind. It was a morning in 1977, not too long after i had arrived in Beirut.The Israelis, in their US-built aircraft, had struck a "Palestinian target" in south Lebanon.

The "target" was, in fact, the tiny village of Azziyeh not far from the Mediterranean coast. "Nearby," the Israelis said, "Palestinians had fired a salvo of rockets." This was believable, if hard to verify. Yet most of the villagers were not Palestinians, guerrilla or otherwise, but south Lebanese farmers who had fled north from incessant border violence.

When I arrived at the hamlet, it no longer existed. There was only rubble, and the occasional foundation of what was once a wall. An elderly woman had pulled the corpse of her husband from the ruins of their home.

Very quietly, I asked, "Where will you live now?"

"And why are you asking?" she fired back. "Can you give me a place to live?"

As i picked my way out of the flattened village, I noticed another woman clawing in another pile of rubble.

"Her husband is dead," a neighbor explained. "But he had buried what money they had, in a mattress.She is trying to find it. . . . She must live."

For at least several years, few in the outside world have paid much attention to the relentless, ritual murder of the Mideast. Stories like this one, I suspect, are far more often printed than read.

But there have been -- and will always be -- brief interludes of genuine world alarm over the victims, overwhelmingly civilian victims, who pay the price for the Arab-Israel conflict.

These are invariably times when the outside world, outside political leaders, feel somehow threatened by the faraway bloodletting -- when, as i believe the journalistic cliche goe, "wider, even superpower, conflict" seems a possibility.

Now is such a time, and I use its an excuse to broadcast an appeal I have heard often from both Araband Israeli friends: Please stop this madness.

The Arabs, of course, assume the Israelis are the mad ones. Israel argues the opposite. The Mideast conflict is not uniquely the work of selfish politicians. There are real issues at stake, issues that some on both sides are ready to die and kill for.

Some recent developments -- Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin's reelection; the missile crisis Lebanon -- would seem to make the conflict yet more intractable.

But after more than three years first-hand contact with Mideast violence -- having been shouted at lead to, even, inadvertently, fired on by various of its participants -- to remain convinced that some sort of peace can be found.

What follows is not a comprehensive "peace plan." Dozens of such blueprints over the last 35 years or have failed.

I put forward, instead, a few observations and suggestions distilled from my experience of the Mideast -- from time in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Israel, and other countries; from interviews with men like Anwar Sadat, Menachem Begin, Yasser Arafat, King Hussein of Jordan, and many of their aides.

Also with dozens of "nonofficial actors, Palestinians, Israelis, or the teen-aged gunslingers of Beirut.

* Whatever outside power or powers make peace in the Mideast must, ultimately , impose it.

All Mideast regimes, including the stateless one running the Palestine Liberation Organization, are inherently weak bodies that will find the status quo more comfortable than change.

Of all of them, the government of Egypt and Israel were by far the least susceptible to potential internal unrest when Anwar Sadat upped and flew to Jerusalem in 1977. It would be chancy, at best, to assume that Mr. Sadat is as politically secure nowadays.

Israel, with a reelected Prime Minister Begin, is a special case. No matter how narrow his majority, he is a tough politician given up for defeated a few months ago who somehow turned things around by election day. His religion, his soul, tell him there must be no major concessions to the Palestinians. It is unrealistic to believe that he will not see his reelection, in part, as a vindication of this.

For the more rickety regimes other (non-Egyptian) Arab world, that is to say just about all of them, continued conflict with Israel makes good political sense. At the very least, going out on a limb for peace would be foolhardy.

* No Mideast settlement is possible without some resolution of the Palestinian issue. This is one Western journalistic cliche that happens to be true.

The Palestinians -- leaving aside, for this article, the question of just how they got that way -- are a people without a nation.

Many of them, including tens thousands above Israel's northern border in Lebanon, are armed to the teeth. They are not about to stop firing into Israel or mounting raids there, much less fade away.

Nor can Israel's muscular military hope finally to root them out of the scrubby hills or thick banana grows of south Lebanon. I watched one unbridled attempt in 1978, when the Israelis invaded Lebanon. Lots of people were killed, mostly civilians. The Palestinian guerrillas remained.

* There are at least two Arab leaders, central to hopes for peace, who accept Israel as a state and are tired of war. One is Mr. Sadat.

The second is Jordan's King Hussein, although he sees no percentage in saying so openly. Nor is he about to do so unless he sees some real prospect of ending Israel's 14-year occupation of the West Bank of the trickly Jordan River, which he controlled before defeat in the 1967 Mideast war.

The King probably has more personal courage than the rest of the Arab world's leaders put together. this should be reassuring for would-be outside peacemakers. If he sees prospects for what he considers a fair peace with the Israelis, he is likely move on them. It is an open Mideast secret, routinely denied by the Jordanians, that he has, in the past, met face-to-face with Israeli officials.

* Yasser Arafat hints at recognition of Israel when convenient. He did so to this correspondent amid (abortive) Carter administration moves to open some kind of dialogue with him. With his go-ahead, PLO officials have met with some (leftist) Israelis.

That having been said, he will never give any reliable guarantee of recognizing Israel unless events somehow force him to; he thinks more like a guerrilla than a politician.

He is, however, no fool. He does seem to worry about being excluded from an eventual Mideast settlement. This explains why he scampered to mend fences with King Hussein -- whose Army drove Palestinian guerrillas from Jordan in a 1970 civil war -- after the 1978 Camp David accords.

While he was publicly attacking those agreements, PLO officials also, quietly , sounded out some friendly West Bank and Gaza Palestinians about running in eventual elections foreseen at Camp David.

If there ever is anything remotely approximating a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, it is safe to assume Mr. Arafat will want to be in on the deal.

* West Bank and Gaza Palestinians don't trust the Israelis any more than Mr. Arafat does. But for him, "Israeli occupation" is grist for communiques, speeches, and military commands. For them, it is an everyday fact of life. They are the ones who have lost land to Israeli settlements, who deal directly with the Israeli occupation apparatus, troops included.

They want peace much more than he does, and very few argue the fact that open acceptance of the state of Israel must be part of the bargain.

* Israeli concession are the key to any workable Mideast peace.

This is not an assessment of blame. Both sides in the Arab-Israeli conflict have proven equally energetic and ingenious in killing people -- again, mostly civilian people.

But it is a fact that Israel hold virtually all the cards now. Israel occupies the West Bank and Gaza, the stage on which any resolution of the Palestinian problem must necessarily be worked out.

* The United States has enormous leverage at its disposal should it irrevocably decide to push for Arab-Israeli peace, for something beyond the separate Egyptian-Israeli pact that has done so little to quell fighting elsewhere in the region.

The Americans funnel huge amounts of military and other assistance to the Israelis.

This means not only that the US holds potential sway over Israel, but that Israel's Arab foes look naturally to Washington for any negotiated alternative to open-ended Mideast war.

So how, then, might US negotiating assets be used?

Not, certainly, to push for some kind of overall peace conference. Even assuming that men like Messrs. Begin, Sadat, Hussein, and Arafat could be lured to a single table, they would merely stare, shout at each other, or walk out.

Nor would repeated delays in delivering a few US planes to the Israeli Air force seem to hold much promise in themselves.

Such moves won't fundamentally convince skeptical Arabs of US even-handedness in the Arab-Israeli arena. Mr. Begin, his supporters, and even more Israelis who don't like him are apt, meanwhile, to see the move as a crude attempt at public pressure.

And even though the delayed shipment of the US planes probably has helped seal that latest in a history of periodic truces between Mr. Begin and the Palestinians, there is little reason to believe it will be anything more than a truce.

Only a genuine shift in the US approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would seem to hold out much hope of resolving it. This recasting would have to be communicated with patience and subtlety, but also clarity and coherence.

Care must be taken not to lecture the Israelis on the virtues of Palestinian statehood; or the Arabs, whose first priority is Israel, on the danger of a "Soviet threat" to their oil fields.

The script, I imagine, might go something like this: Sure, Mideast peace is in the Mideast's interest. But it is also -- indeed primarily so, for a US government elected by US voters -- in Americans' interest. This need not, and should not, imply a return to an era of big sticks. It means simply that the US is diverting enormous resources to various Mideast regimes, particularly to Israel, and would be naive not to expect appropriate political consideration in return.

To relevant Arab leaders -- including, at some point, Mr. Arafat -- the Americans would presumably make clear, with a minimum of public fanfare, the following.

"The US remains committed to a secure and sovereign Israel. This is not negotiable. But the US has also decided that some form of Palestinian settlement is top priority.

"We are not going to get you a written guarantee of a Palestinian state. No Israeli, Mr. Begin or otherwise, will ever agree to that on paper. We are not going to pressure him to.

"But we are determined to put together a transitional scheme leading in that direction. It will significantly limit Israeli control and prerogatives on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, conforming to our, and not Mr. Begin's, interpretation of the self-governing powers agreed at Camp David.

"This means, among other things, a moratorium on Israeli settlements there and limitation of Israel's troop presence.

"When we have this, we will push for the long-delayed local elections envisaged under Camp David."

Mr. Begin, in essence, would then have to be told much the same things, with one important addition:

"We give you enormous aid, largely military. We are not going to play public games with it.We have neither illusions nor intentions of physically forcing you to sign an accord you will not sign.

"If Israel is militarily threatened, we will respond. That is immutable.

"But we, too, are a sovereign state with our own interests in capping an ever-more-volatile Mideast caldron. To the extent that you unreasonably stymie those interests, long-term relations with Israel, all aspects of these relations , cannot help but be affected."

Mr. Begin will reply that he, not the Americans, will decide what is reasonable and unreasonable for Israel. He will go public He will know that, regardless of what he does, in case of war the Americans will militarily defend Israel if necessary.

But Mr. Begin, parliamentary majority notwithstanding, is not Israel. He runs a tiny nation that knows war firsthand, knows that even a delicate shift in military equations and alliances can mean many more sons, brothers, and friends will die.

And in this context, there is one quiet group of Israelis with enormous input into moves toward peace or war. They are the generals and, regardless of their (varied) political credos, they understand the crucial, long- range importance of not overly angering the Americans.

All of the above is necessarily subject to the traditional uncertainties of Mideast politics: the regimes that totter and may some day fall, the alliances that emerge and evaporate and emerge redrawn.

The loose script suggested might not, even should all go right, ensure unbroken or unchallenged Arab-Israeli peace. Elements and actors -- the Soviet Union, Syria, and radical Palestinian splinter groups, for instance -- have been skirted.

An American president, too, would eventually have to sell such policy to Congress -- although successively escalating Israeli bombing strikes probably make the task easier.

It is all, in short, a waking dream. . . .

But one, I suspect, the embraces elements crucial to any serious, realistic US attempt to move the Mideast toward peace.

And one that might allow somebody, if not tomorrow or the day after, to get around to addressing an agonized question from one woman near the south Lebanese coast:

"Can you give me a place to live?"

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