Not because they're Jews - but because they're Westerners

When dealing with the Middle East, many hold the assumption that if only Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin were ''reasonable,'' and if only PLO head Yasser Arafat recognized Israel, a major step forward would be made in reaching an Israeli-Arab agreement and achieving peace in the Middle East.

But what if the assumption proved to be wrong? What if the two Mideast leaders acted as they are urged to do and no peace came to the Middle East? These are not rhetorical questions. It is quite possible that the Arabs will refuse to recognize Israelis, tomorrow or in the foreseeable future, not because they are Jews but because they are Westerners.

Arabs will accept Western technology and forms of progress, but not to become Western themselves. The West is as alien to Islam as Islam is to the West. They respect each other, but will never become integrated. They are two worlds apart and they propose to remain so.

Israel in relation to Islam is like a foreign agent that a body tends to expel. That is the reason for its sense of isolation and insecurity. Deep down the Israelis know they may never be accepted any more than a Muslim state would be accepted in Europe, if ever it managed to establish itself by force. It took centuries for the West to expel Islam from Spain, but in the end it succeeded. The fact that the Muslims built magnificent monuments that the world still admires made no difference. They were an alien agent that the Christians had to expel. With Israel, it is not so much the religion that is alien, but the way of life.

This assessment is pretty grim but, should it prove correct, what can the West do? The Israelis make no secret of the fact that they would carry the whole Middle East with them if they went under. And no one who knows them doubts that they mean what they say. It is in the West's interest to enable Israel to survive, and the Israelis know it.

It is possible - and this probably represents the only hope - that sometime in the future the Israelis will have adapted themselves sufficiently to their environment to become less Western and more Oriental. The Arabs, for their part, may evolve in the opposite direction so that the two communities will no longer be mutually incompatible. On that day the Arabs and the Israelis may reach a difficult coexistence, just as the Muslims and the Maronite Christians of Lebanon have. Maronites and Muslims still go on murdering one another on a grand scale despite having lived together for many centuries, but at least the Christians' right to live in a Muslim world is no longer disputed.

It is also possible that instead of moving toward the West, the Muslims will end up by rejecting it completely. Iran represents a dangerous precedent. In that case the chances that Israel will become integrated into its surroundings become more remote than ever.

While waiting to see which way the Middle East goes, the West might insist on pursuing the Camp David agreements. If honestly implemented, they could provide a gradual process of mutual adjustment between Jews and Muslims. It is hopeless to expect the Palestinians to realize their dream of a state under the PLO after long decades of mutual hatred. It took the French and the Germans - both of them Christian and Western - nearly a century and three devastating wars before they learned to live in peace as good neighbors.

To expect a Palestinian state to come into being in the present circumstances is to do the Palestinians themselves no service. Even if a state could be imposed on Israel, it would not be long before a war broke out, which the Palestinians would be bound to lose, and for which the West as a whole might have to pay very dearly.

We can only contribute to progress if we accept the premise that a solution is not for tomorrow or the day after, but that major evolutions must take place before it can be envisaged.

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