Thursday, May 22, 2003

If ever there is to be an Arab state of Palestine, it will require more than a road map to peace. Because, to quote a piece of folk wisdom in these Southern latitudes, the map ain’t the road. And this road keeps turning into an ambush.

The end of the road — a Palestinian state living in peace with its neighbor — is no longer in sight, and may have been a mirage all along. The territory that’s supposed to become a peaceful Palestine in this dream scheme is in reality crawling with bomb-throwers, jihadists, irregulars and the whole, varied assortment of cutthroats tactfully known as “militants” in the news stories. (We newsmen must always appear objective; truth is a secondary consideration.)

Contrary to the usual propaganda from suave Arab spokesmen, the biggest roadblock on the way to a Palestinian state isn’t Israel, and never has been. It’s the Palestinians’ own repeated, historic refusal to accept such a state, which would mean accepting a compromise. So their leaders continue to tolerate, encourage and supply the terrorists they officially, and only officially, condemn.

Remember the Karine A, the shipload of weapons the Israelis intercepted before it got to Gaza? That was the last straw for President Bush; he hasn’t recognized Yasser Arafat’s tawdry existence since. Mr. Arafat is now supposed to be out of the picture, but whether he really is remains to be seen.

Unless this new Palestinian government is able to root out all these disturbers of the peace, not just tone them down for a while, there won’t be a new Palestinian state. The Israelis aren’t about to shrink back and let the terrorists wage unilateral war against them, not again.

There’s a way out — for both Jews and Arabs. It’s even been tried before. And it worked — for another small state. Those trying to shape a nascent Palestine could learn a lot from its history.

That small state was also deeply divided — between an official government and various armed gangs that had won the sympathy of a long oppressed people fighting an occupation.

That small state, too, was confronted by a crisis of authority as it underwent its birth throes, with terrorist leaders challenging a moderate government.

That small state was Israel.

Its leader in its first years was David Ben-Gurion, who faced challenges on all sides — not least from within his own people. His chief rival was Menachem Begin of the Irgun, an irregular force whose indiscriminate tactics regularly left innocent civilians — Jews and Arabs — buried under the rubble.

It was when Mr. Begin defied the new Jewish state by trying to import his own arms — his Karine A was called the Altalena — that Mr. Ben-Gurion ordered his forces to fire on the Irgunists. The Altalena was turned back, set afire and a brief civil war ensued.

Israel’s new government found itself fighting not just an invasion from without but a rebellion from within. Jew fought Jew, but Mr. Ben-Gurion’s resolve held. The Irgun was defeated and its gunmen absorbed into the new national army. It wasn’t just controlled, it disappeared. As for Menachem Begin, he would become a political pariah for the next two decades, until he moderated into the statesman the world would later know.

If there is a single reason why that small state of Israel has flourished, and why this new state of Palestine has never jelled, it may be because Israel had a leader like David Ben-Gurion in its formative years, and the Palestinians have been cursed with Yasser Arafat.

Now the Palestinians have an untested new leader, Mahmoud Abbas, who has vowed to tame the terrorists: Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, Yasser Arafat’s own Fatah brigades — all of them. It will be at least as daunting a task as David Ben-Gurion faced many years ago.

And if Mahmoud Abbas fails, or was never really serious about confronting the killers in his ranks, then all this talk about a road map to peace will prove only talk. And both Israelis and Palestinians will be left holding a road map to nowhere.

The continued bombings in Jerusalem and Hebron and Shaarei Tikvah — four just as Mahmoud Abbas had his first meeting with Israel’s Ariel Sharon — are only the beginning of what the new Palestinian leader will face if he pursues peace.

It will be simple to tell if Mr. Abbas is serious. There will have to be, for however long or short a time it takes, a Palestinian civil war. That is the only way to assure that terrorism no longer threatens the chances of peace. No war, no peace. It’s pretty much that simple.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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