- The Washington Times - Monday, March 26, 2001

The basic question about the Arabs and Israelis today is exactly the same one that was overriding when Israel was created a half-century ago: Will the Arab leaders and their people allow permanent peace? Their answer then and now wast he same: No, not ever.

The only change in all these years since 1948 has been Arab strategy to achieve the death of Israel. For most of the passing decaades, it was by wars as many wars as it would take. Israel was seen abroad at first as heroic in defense of its new existence.

When Israel triumphed again and again, almost all the nations of the world were terrribly annoyed and still are. They were used to seeing Jews lose whatever they had to lose, particularly their lives, not to seeing them fighting wars for freedom and winning.

The members of the U.N. kept pressuring a winning Israel into giving Arab demands for land, money, arms, statehood while terrorist bombs were exploding in Israeli cities, Arab bullets penetrating Israeli flesh, and Arab broadcasts spewing hatred about Israelis making matzos with the blood of Arab children. Most of the time one Israeli prime minister or another did as they were pressured.

I thought of these things while I sat waiting in a jammed hotel ballroom and then at a private home for the appearance of Ariel Sharon, prime minister of Israel, a few nights ago as he was ending his visit with President Bush. He is a conservative leading that delicate mechanism, a left-right coalition. In younger years, he was a daring general. He was elected by the Israelis to preserve their nationoood by ending the era of the Israelis giving away political and military asssets, while ducking terrorist attack not just with rocks but bullets and bombs, and with foreign as well as Palestinian Arab terrorists in Yasser Arafat's own security guard.

I've known Mr. Sharon for years, trust him and like him. He says Israel will no longer negotiate under the threat and reality of violence. He sees that position as not simply a matter of honor but of Israel's continued existence. There is not a lot of giving-room for Israel any more without cutting too deep to survive physically and emotionally.

The Arabs' strategy changed, brilliantly, when they lost war after war to the Israelis. The goal remained the same, the end of Israel, but it was to be achieved through a mixture of continuous armed attack from within Israel and its Arab neighbors, and periodic negotiations for what the world believed and the Israelis prayed would be peace.

But never was the strategy intended by the Arabs to reach anything but a temporary armistice until the next war. They carried out negotiations and war by terrorism at the same time which few nations or movements have been able to do. But the leaders always they let their people know that whatever they were saying to foreigners, the goal of elimination of Israel and the use of religious and nationalist hatred against it remained unchanged and unending.

Most of the world came to believe that the Arab mixture of attack and negotiate could bring peace. Many Israelis believed it too. They were weakened by war weariness and by something no Arab nations was troubled with a sense of guilt at the pain of the enemy, but even more at the memory of thousands of years of Jewish suffering.

Countries that denounce Israel for opposing the current rebellion would have wiped it out in a weekend, as Syria did to its rebels.

When the Labor government of Ehud Barak offered Mr. Arafat control of parts of Jerusalem and he answered by ordering the new intifada, the Israeli public had enough of both of them and elected Mr. Sharon, whom both villified.

The meeting between Mr. Sharon and Mr. Bush went well. They liked each other, not always the case between Israeli prime ministers and American presidents. These first meetings are not not meant to solve everyting and this one didn't. The Israelis are more worried than the administration seems to be about Iraq and Iran at least until the administration makes up its mind about core policies regarding them.

Mr. Bush went out of his way to say that, despite the close relations between Israel and America, he would not attempt to be the manager of talks between the Arabs and Israelis, which is a complete shift from the Clintonian policy. That should be a blessing to all.

A.M. Rosenthal, the former executive editor of the New York Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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