THE uprising in the Israeli-occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza has brought more sharply into focus in both Israel and Jordan the nature of the Arab-Israeli dispute. The issue is one of land, compounded by very different meanings of that word to Israelis and Palestinians. This is the inescapable conclusion of a visit in late May to Israel and its Arab neighbors. While nations are involved and religious aspects cannot be ignored, the essential problem is to reconcile the claims of two peoples to the same land. But for the Palestinians, especially those in the refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and the adjoining Arab countries, land means those individual plots and villages which they and their families had occupied for generations and left when Israel was created.
The Palestinian is a rural person. Talk to those in the camps, and this longing for specific pieces of land becomes painfully clear. For this reason, in particular, Palestinians reject the suggestion of many Israelis that, since they are Arabs, they should resettle to other Arab lands.
For the Israelis, land means the broad territory linked to them by religion and on which they have founded the Israeli state. Although many have turned to agriculture, Israelis are more an urban than a rural people. They do not seek to return to specific parcels of family land.
The Palestinians' desire to return to their lands and their bitter resentment of both displacement and occupation have long been apparent, in declarations of the Palestine national movement and in incidents of violence against Israel and the occupation that long predate the current intifadah, or uprising. Yet Israel and the United States and, to lesser degrees, Jordan and Egypt, have sought to ignore this fact and to resolve the issue on a state-to-state basis. Israel has insisted that the matter be resolved by direct negotiations with Jordan and, ultimately, with Syria.
Israel's primary preoccupation is security. Neither the Labor nor the Likud party is prepared to support a Palestinian state, and certainly neither is prepared to consider the return of Palestinians to the lands and villages within what is now Israel. The Camp David agreement with Egypt is seen by Israelis as a model for peace, but the Camp David agreement in its first phase did not have to deal with the Palestinian question. Prime Minister Menachem Begin effectively prevented the carrying out of the second part, which relates to autonomy for the Palestinians on the West Bank and in Gaza.
Even the question of autonomy involves land. Earlier efforts to establish autonomy under the second phase of the Camp David agreement foundered, in part, because Mr. Begin saw autonomy only in terms of personal law for the Palestinians and not in terms of control over land.
The Palestinians insist that they cannot agree to any ultimate solution of the West Bank problem that does not take into account the wishes of the Palestinians in camps in other Arab lands to return to their homes. Although some Palestinian leaders acknowledge that, for many, this is an unrealizable dream, none have yet dared express this in ways that will reassure Israel or the US. For those in the camps, especially, the dream remains; no Palestinian leader wants to destroy it, at least in the absence of an alternative.
Recent speeches by King Hussein of Jordan make clear that he recognizes the force of Palestinian nationalism, based on that portion of the land of Palestine now inhabited by the Palestinians and symbolized by the uprising, and that leaders chosen by the Palestinians must be at least equal partners in any negotiations with the Israelis. The role that many have envisioned for Jordan as the spokesman for the legal and administrative interests of the West Bank must now be amended to take into account the message of the uprising.
The Arab-Israeli dispute, as complex as it is, might seem resolvable if the matter were merely one of defining borders and ensuring the security of states. The uprising has reminded players in the area and in the world that the issue concerns peoples with ties to the same land - and not nations.
The return of the Palestinians to many of their former lands is, clearly, not feasible, if Israel is to exist. If there is to be a permanent resolution of the problem, therefore, a means must be found, whether through compensation or partial resettlement, to recognize the issue of land - as the Palestinians see it.
David D. Newsom, director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University, has just returned from a visit to Jordan, Syria, Israel, and Egypt.