THE opposition to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and his handling of Arab-Israeli peace negotiations is gaining in momentum in Israel. Benjamin Natanyahu, recently elected Likud leader and author of a new book, "A Place Among Nations" (Bantam), is leading the fight to topple Mr. Rabin, vowing not to surrender strategic territory, even if that means the collapse of the peace process. Mr. Natanyahu argues against major territorial concessions, citing: (a) the strategic need for high ground (b) the lack of an y democratic system in the Arab world, and (c) the continued Arab rejection of Israel in principle. Although he correctly predicates Israel's ultimate national security on deterrence and on peace, neither he nor any other Likud leader has explained how they will make peace without major territorial concessions.
On the question of strategic territory, one need not be a military expert to appreciate the value of the territorial depth that the Golan and the West Bank offer especially in a state of war. Even a missile attack that could inflict massive damage to Israel's heartland would still require ground troops to cross such a "buffer zone" to consolidate any military gain.
Under conditions of peace, however, Israeli military experts confirm that the value of strategic territories diminishes considerably. In addition, Israel's military power offers such credible deterrence that the Arabs would be hard-pressed to put it to the test. This is not to suggest, however, that Israel should immediately withdraw its forces and rely on deterrence alone.
The Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai was completed only after Israel secured safety requirements, including the two most advanced air bases in the Negev, permanent demilitarization of the Sinai, and the stationing of United Nations troops to monitor compliance. These and other security steps can be adopted on the Golan and the West Bank. Israeli withdrawal must be done in stages over a period of 10 to 15 years, allowing a full peace to evolve and become a way of life on both sides of the border.
Second, a strong argument can also be made regarding the Arab states' lack of democratic systems, which could make peace tenuous in the face of opposing forces. The Middle East is characterized by despotism, economic disparity, and a lack of political legitimacy. These elements provide a perfect recipe for continued strife and unpredictability. The question is: How long are Natanyahu and the Likud prepared to wait for the Arab states to reach that elusive political maturity? It may take two or three more
generations before democratic systems in the Arab states reach a semblance of Western maturity. Even then, their brand of democracy will be quite different from what Natanyahu envisions.
Algeria's brief experiment in democracy gave the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) party a stunning upset victory, capturing more than 60 percent of the national assemblies; they stood to win a decisive majority in the second round had the election not been nullified by a "white coup" led by the defense minister Khaled Nezzar. Certainly, a democratically elected Islamic regime in Jordan or Egypt would not be more sympathetic to Israel nor reliable partners for peace. The Egyptian-Israeli peace was not predic ated on "Egyptian democracy" but on Israeli and Egyptian national requirements. Israel's deterrence safeguards the peace.
Finally, Natanyahu argues that there is no disagreement about the ultimate goal of Israel's destruction among the various Arab fundamentalist and radical Marxist groups. What separates them is only tactics: whether Israel should be eliminated in one or more stages. Natanyahu cites the long history of the Arab world's refusal to accept the Jews as equals, their enmity and hatred, and their vow to liquidate Israel, as the PLO charter still attests to this day. The truth in this regard is cynically stretche d to play on the Israeli public's anxiety and genuine concern with national security. Natanyahu and his Likud Party must accept the fact that there is a practical change, born of necessity, in the Arab states' attitudes toward Israel. Their willingness to make peace has evolved over decades, during which the Middle East has witnessed dramatic geopolitical changes caused by five Arab-Israeli wars, the Israeli-Egyptian peace, two Gulf wars, the end of the cold war and the rise of Islamic militancy.
THE disintegration of the Soviet Union (Syria's main benefactor) and Israel's military preponderance rendered the Arabs' war option, if there ever was one, invalid. The Arab states know that they cannot win a war against Israel by conventional means. And if they push Israel to the brink, through the use of mass destruction weapons, they will suffer retaliatory strikes of catastrophic proportions. They have also come to realize that Iran and its fundamentalist surrogates, not Israel, are the real enemies.
Therefore, making peace with Israel has become for the Arab states a necessity for survival.
What are the alternatives? How much longer can Israel remain a garrison state? How many more Israelis and Arabs must die in pursuit of false promises? Nearly seven out of every 10 Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza were born after the Six-Day War in 1967. These youths know only Israeli occupation, depravation, and dislocation. The Intifadah would pale against the wave of violence that would ensue should the prospects for an agreement appear to have been lost.
Natanyahu, the man who could be the next prime minister, shoulders a special responsibility. If he wants to lead Israel toward that special "place among the nations," he must put Israel's national interests above party politics and seek the only viable alternative - relinquishing territories for real peace.