Brutality - or peace?

THE brutal also damage themselves. Israel's policy of beating Palestinian protesters - breaking their hands so they can no longer throw rocks - is no less inflammatory to world sensitivity than the use of guns and rubber bullets that left 38 Palestinians dead. That the government would discriminate between beating and shooting as tactics for breaking the back of West Bank and Gaza Strip protest makes one wonder what delusive spell has seized it.

The choice is not among forms of repression, all repulsive, but between repression and the resolution of the dispute over Israel's occupation of the territories.

Feeding this delusion is the notion that impending elections in Israel and the United States have disconnected the political leaders' heads from their wills.

The situation is complex. The West Bank and Gaza figure in a regional struggle for power. Syria's President Assad sees the matter in pan-Arab terms; he talks of first reaching arms parity with Israel before talks can start; he says the Palestinians must have a say in their destiny, but he also dallies with their fate in the interest of Syrian hegemony. King Hussein of Jordan feels threatened by Syria over his shoulder and by a Palestinian majority in his own kingdom; he would like any Palestinian entity to be on the West bank of the Jordan River; yet the longer the impasse continues, the greater the risk to his own country.

The Palestinians themselves are not of one mind. Many Palestinians look for a restoration of national rights, in which recognition of a Jewish state occupying most of historic Palestine would be a concession indeed. But given the situation on the ground - Israel's firm grip on the territory from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean - and the obvious Palestinian political aspirations behind the current protests, the logic in going for a settlement forthwith cannot be ignored.

A way can be found to bring the Palestine Liberation Organization into the process, by indirection if need be.

Egypt negotiated its territorial dispute with Israel, in the Camp David process. President Mubarak, visiting Washington this week, has proposed a six-month cooling-off period, leading to negotiations between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Why shouldn't President Reagan take this up?

Washington has complained about Israel's repressive tactics. But the White House and State Department remain as limp as ever about pressuring Israel to get on with peace. If the US needs Israel that much strategically in the region, then it needs an Israel not torn apart by internal strife. If the US has embraced Israel in its first-ever free-trade zone - an opportunity only just now being extended to Canada, America's premier trade partner - Washington has an interest in the domestic tranquillity of its partner. And then there is the $4 billion in US aid: Why pretend such leverage does not exist?

Within the US, American Jews deplore Israel's repressive tactics. The national organization leadership may be pressured to avoid a break in ranks. But at the rank-and-file level, the American Jewish community is less reticent about speaking out. In the US, fund raising for Israel's Peace Now movement is reportedly on the rise.

Israel's Likud bloc, led by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, would prefer to keep the territory it holds, wait for the Arabs to ebb into disarray, and postpone dealing with the Palestinian population's growth. The Labor Party, though open to an international peace conference, has, as part of the coalition government, gotten itself involved in the repression, too. But even within Israel enough interest in peace exists to encourage an initiative.

What is the alternative? To so subdue the Palestinians, denying their political rights, as to make Israel into a South Africa? Israel then would no longer be the democratic state of its aspirations.

Again, the brutal damage themselves. They erode the moral authority on which alone lasting power can be built.

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