West Bank warning

So many trouble spots of the world demand attention that the public may be loath to put still another one on center stage. But with tensions rising in the occupied West Bank it is well not to ignore the Middle East. King Hussein of Jordan actually warns of a new war. He may be speaking partly out of frustration, but this makes his words no less disturbing: ''We are passing through one of the most critical stages we have witnessed in our time,'' he declared. ''It is far more serious than it has ever been.''

The incidents in the West Bank are anguishing: Palestinian Arabs intimidated by Jewish settlers, Jewish settlers the target of rock-throwing Palestinians, Israeli police wounding or killing Palestinian demonstrators (12 since March 6). As the violence grows, fear mounts on both sides, threatening even more violence.

Who is to blame? It would be hard to sort out the rights and wrongs of any one incident. But few would quarrel that the underlying cause remains the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and the failure to give the ruled Palestinians the right of self-determination. Palestinian Arabs indeed take up stones against Jewish settlers. They feel themselves the helpless victims of an Israeli policy which, more and more, seeks to subjugate them - by expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank, by trying to implant a pro-Israel civil administration, by harassing Palestinian educational and family life.

In Palestinian eyes, Israel is embarked on de facto annexation of the West Bank. Indeed any dispassionate onlooker comes to the same conclusion. Prime Minister Menachem Begin makes no secret of where he believes the boundaries of ''Judea and Samaria'' -- meaning parts of Israel -- are. When a political colleague of Mr. Begin was asked by New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis why Israel did not annex the West Bank outright, he replied candidly: ''I'd love to do it. But we can't while the Camp David framework agreement still formally exists. The failure would have to be much more obvious.''

If annexation is the desired goal, its implications are sobering. It would suggest that Israel is either prepared to incorporate over one million more Arabs into a secularized state -- or, assuming that is incompatible with the Zionist ideal -- to go on subjugating them. The only other alternative would be to expel them. Would the people of Israel, who themselves have suffered so grievously at the hands of others and who have fought for their own independent homeland (and not without violence), wish to inflict such injustice on another people? Could Jews ever feel themselves secure, or live with themselves, if they denigrated their own ideals and perpetrated such an injustice?

These are profound questions not only for Israelis but for their American supporters. The loss of life in the West Bank does more than evoke sadness. It points to dangers -- of growing Arab bitterness, of uncontrollable violence, perhaps of rising anti-Americanism throughout the region. Does the United States see these dangers? If so, what will it do about them? There is in effect no long-term Middle East policy at the moment; one hopes someone in Washington is thinking about one. Unless the US is prepared to accept Mr. Begin's.

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