Israel and the PLO: conflict between two kinds of loyalty

The struggle for Palestine is being waged not just between two rival peoples but between two incompatible political systems. The incompatibility derives from the basic difference between the Zionist and the Arab concepts of political loyalty.

Loyalty is a crucial component of every organization, because it is the glue that holds the organization together - be it a family, an army, or a nation. No nation can survive that cannot inspire loyalty strong enough to impel its citizens to risk killing or being killed for it. As human society has evolved, political entities have grown larger, more complex, more remote from their constituents - and consequently less able to inspire that ultimate level of loyalty. The man ready to risk his life to save his child from drowning is much less likely to perceive an equally compelling threat to his own interest in a dispute between his country and another.

Governments habitually use the media and the public schools to enhance the patriotic fervor of their citizenries. However, individual mindsets are deepest and most enduring when they are imprinted by family and friends in early life. Those mindsets combine to determine the loyalties of each individual - their strengths and their focuses.

In general, the possible focuses of political loyalty appear to be four: universal, ideological, communal, and territorial. In the Middle East, the first two are not politically significant.

On every rational count, mankind will some day have to learn to pay ultimate loyalty to a world government, but that day is not yet with us.

Ideological loyalty is the next on the scale of sophistication; in its strongest form it cuts across the lines of community and even of family. There are a few political parties in the Middle East that can lay claim to ideological bases, but this phenomenon is still in its infancy. The inability of the Syrian and Iraqi Baath parties to overcome their own parochialism exemplifies the state of Arab political evolution. The Soviet Union has a folk hero, Pavlik Morozov, who at 13 denounced his father to the government for aiding fugitive kulaks. A similar event in Middle East politics is difficult to imagine.

Communalism is the traditional way of life in the Middle East. Ultimate loyalty is paid to tribe or sect or ethnic group, but never to central government. Ten centuries of foreign rule have only served to reinforce the ancient suspicion of alien authority.

Lebanon is the unhappiest example; its fragmentation has been largely along sectarian and ethnic (Palestinian) lines. Nevertheless, the Lebanese - like the other Arab states - continue to try to build a secular state, wherein national loyalty will transcend communal loyalty.

Against this background, the creation of the Jewish state of Israel in 1948 was a step back to the Middle Ages. In the language of physics, it is a singularity - perhaps the only modern example of communal nationality. It is unabashedly dedicated to providing the ultimate refuge for one people, regardless of place of birth.

Conversely, it is forever excluded from being governed by non-Jews, even if non-Jews should some day become a majority of the population. This philosophy was enunciated by a Jewish settler on the West Bank, speaking to a New York Times correspondent in the summer of 1982: ''I want to strengthen the Jewish people inwardly. I wouldn't want my kids at this point to live with Christians in America, not because I'm against the Christians. I want my kids to have a very strong Jewish identity.''

In this fundamental respect, Israel contrasts sharply with the PLO. The latter is primarily a Muslim Arab organization, with not too many Christian Palestinians in its membership, and perhaps no Jewish members at all. In theory, however, it is dedicated to the principle of secularism, and this makes all the difference. In a secular state, loyalty is territorial, and citizenship derives primarily from place of birth. This is the kind of loyalty we know in the United States.

Which system will prevail - Israeli communalism or Palestinian territorialism? To this outside observer, the answer is clear. In the international struggle for power, Israel is mortally handicapped by its inability to coopt non-Jews as enduring allies, let alone loyal citizens. Zionists are facing with ever-increasing candor the growing problem of disloyalty among Israel's own Arab citizens. How can a state form lasting ties with 100 million Arabs when it cannot command the support of the Arabs within its borders?

The fact is that Israel has never succeeded in this endeavor. Instead, it has relied for survival on the support of the US. This same support derives from the political influence that the American friends of Israel enjoy by virtue of the fact that the US, far from being a communal state, is a secular state in which religious belief and ethnic origin are increasingly irrelevant to political decision.

This ultimate irony - the dependence of Israeli communalism on American secularism - should impel the leaders of Israeli thought to soberly review the premises on which their state was founded.

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