Young Palestinians throwing stones at Israeli soldiers. Israelis responding with tear gas and ruber bullets. Firebombs thrown at Israeli vehicles. Terrorist bombs going off in Tel Aviv.

As these scenes of murder and mayhem are endlessly replayed, we are told in solemn voiceover that the Middle East is back to the days of the intifada. Not quite. There is one large difference, hardly noticed and hardly mentioned. These Palestinians throwing stones and hurling firebombs are not living under occupation. The single most misunderstood fact about the Middle East today is that of the 2,300,000 Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank, 2,250,000 live under the rule of Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority. Of the Palestinians who were formerly under Israeli rule, 98 percent now live under Palestinian rule.

Ten years ago, the world experienced an outpouring of sympathy and support for these stone-throwing youths because they were living under occupation. Well, they no longer are. They have long ago had their wild ceremonies celebrating their liberation from Israeli occupation. Nonetheless, the Western sympathy they enjoyed seems not to have abated. Why exactly are these young men throwing stones and firebombs? Answer: Because they are unhappy with what is happening outside their liberated zones. Specifically, they are protesting Israel's building Jewish housing in East Jerusalem. They are also protesting Israel's latest territorial concession. The Jewish state gave them only 9 percent of the relatively empty land remaining in the West Bank rather than the 30 percent Yasser Arafat says he is entitled to.

Thus the violence you see on your TV screen is not the work of an unjustly occupied people wanting to be free. It is the work of an already freed people trying to storm demarcation lines solemnly established by their own leadership to separate their territory from Israel's. Their aim is to attack Israeli soldiers and civilians on the Israeli side of the line as a way of protesting Israeli policies elsewhere. Were the Israeli soldiers not to fire back with tear gas and rubber bullets, these mobs would overrun the Israeli areas -- in Hebron, for example -- and no doubt kill and expel their Jewish inhabitants.

These are not Gandhi's Indians rising up against the Raj. The better analogy is Mexicans storming the border crossings at Tijuana, attacking American police and civilians with stones and firebombs to protest U.S. government actions in, say, Los Angeles.

It is important to understand that Palestinian violence is coming from a self-governing people. Otherwise, one cannot understand what the current turmoil is all about. Ten years ago, there was a great debate among Israelis whether or not to hold on, brave the intifada, and rule the Palestinians. There was a great debate whether or not to annex the land the Palestinians lived on and create a Greater Israel. There was a great debate whether or not to grant the Palestinians the essentials of sovereignty over the places they inhabit.

Those debates are over. The Left won. Greater Israel is dead. The Palestinians rule themselves. The only remaining argument between Israel and the Palestinians is over territory that is largely uninhabited. Like the Har Homa area in East Jerusalem, an entirely barren hill between two Jewish neighborhoods. Like the so-called Areas B and C, the relatively empty areas that Israel has promised in the Hebron agreement to turn over in part to Palestinian rule in three phased withdrawals.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has entered a historic, final stage. After a hundred years of war, the major political questions have been settled. The Jews have their own state. And the Palestinians have their own quasi-state that is destined, as no one doubts, to be sovereign Palestine. All that is unsettled is the size and boundaries of the two entities.

We are now entering the final battle for the disposition of the largely uninhabited lands between them. That is what the rock-throwing, the firebombing, and the terrorist attacks are about. The battle for the Jordan Valley, the Judean desert, and Jerusalem has begun.



II

After the start of the intifada in the late 1980s, but before the Oslo Peace Accords of 1993, there was a curious faction in the raging Israeli debate over the occupied territories. These were the unilateralists. These Israelis argued that Israel should simply get up from Gaza and the major cities of the West Bank and leave. Unilateral withdrawal, with nothing in return.

Why? A unilateral approach would solve two problems. First, it would relieve the strain on Israel's nerves and the stain on Israel's conscience of occupying a people who obviously did not want to be ruled by Jews. This was a far more serious argument for Israelis than most people have understood. Indeed, of all the reasons Israel did finally leave Gaza and the inhabited parts of the West Bank, this was perhaps the most powerful: Israelis could not stand the role of occupier. There are many peoples on the planet for whom occupier is a welcome, indeed coveted, vocation. Not for Jews.

The second reason for leaving was to resolve Israel's great dilemma -- the contradiction between the democratic and the Jewish nature of Israel posed by the forced incorporation of 2.3 million reluctant, recalcitrant Palestinians. Either they had to be disenfranchised, in which case Israel would cease to be democratic. Or they would be enfranchised, in which case a demographically overwhelmed Israel would cease to be Jewish. How to cut the Gordian knot? Free these people and let them rule themselves.

The argument against the unilateralists was quite obvious: How could you give up such a big prize for nothing? Yes, said the critics, we want to be relieved of the occupation. Yes, unilateral withdrawal solves the democratic vs. Jewish state problem. But after all, the Palestinians don't just want to be free and independent. They want to throw the Jews into the sea. Why not offer them a deal: Offer them the former want as an inducement for giving up the latter.

Which is the origin and meaning of the peace process undertaken in the 1993 Oslo agreements. Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres decided to take the fateful step of giving up the occupation and establishing the seeds of what would undoubtedly be a Palestinian state in return for the Palestinians' giving up their war against the Jews.

That was the great bargain of Oslo. That was what Rabin offered that the unilateralists never could. And that is why he was able to command a majority, if a slim and skeptical majority, for carrying out Oslo.

Before Oslo, the PLO had a very clear end and very clear means. The end, spelled out repeatedly in the Palestinian National Charter, was the destruction of Israel and its replacement with a Palestinian state. And the means were "armed struggle," meaning violence and terrorism against Israel.

The essence of the Oslo agreements was PLO renunciation of both these ends and these means. It pledged to recognize Israel and change its charter to abolish all references to the destruction of Israel. And it pledged solemnly to abandon all violence or threats of violence as a means to achieve its ends.

Three-and-a-half years after Oslo, it is clear that what Rabin and Peres thought they had obtained for their withdrawal was nothing but air. After three-and-a-half years, Arafat has not changed his charter. Indeed, when last asked about changing it, he replied that he would do it when Israel adopts a constitution. (Israel, like Britain, has an unwritten constitution.) This was as contemptuous and dismissive a way as he could find to say: "Don't bother me with such trivialities."

As for violence, the last 14 days have shown that all of Arafat's promises about violence were merely provisional. So long as Israel was withdrawing at the correct pace, he was willing to call off his dogs. But as soon as he found that he was not getting what he wanted at the pace he wanted, he was ready to turn the violence back on.

His intentions have been quite open. He has made clear in speech after speech that Oslo is just a means to a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, and that if Oslo doesn't get him to what he wants, then he has other means. We know what the other means are. Why, his own aides have admitted that Arafat's Fatah faction has been organizing the anti-Israel rioting of the last two weeks.

Less subtly, as soon as Israel started building around Hat Homa in Jerusalem, Arafat began meeting with Hamas leaders and releasing from prison well-known terrorists. Not surprisingly, in the subsequent two weeks, Palestinians have launched three terrorist attacks, leaving dead and dismembered Israelis in Tel Aviv, and dead Palestinians in Gaza, site of two bungled attacks on a schoolbus carrying Jewish children.

Rabin and Peres did not set out to be unilateralists. But they ended up being so. Israel gave up Gaza, Qalqilya, Jenin, Nablus, Ramallah, Bethlehem, Jericho, and 80 percent of Hebron. They freed 98 percent of the Palestinian population and put them under the rule of Yasser Arafat. And in return Israel got nothing. The promise to change the Palestinian end of destroying Israel is not even on the agenda. And the promise of abolishing the Palestinian means of violence is mocked in the streets every day.



III

From the Israeli point of view the process has proved to be a cruel hoax. Yet astonishingly, in most of the Western press and in practically all the chancelleries, the destruction of Oslo is being laid at the feet of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Exhibit A is Har Homa. Exhibit B is the withdrawal that Netanyahu offered on March 7 under the Hebron accords, but that Arafat has rejected as inadequate.

Consider Har Homa, routinely cited as a violation of Oslo. Under Oslo, Jerusalem is clearly excluded from whatever restrictions exist on Israeli action in the West Bank and Gaza. Arafat was never granted veto over where Jews may live in Jerusalem. No Israeli government would ever have acceded to that. Yitzhak Rabin never did. He permitted Jewish housing to be built in East Jerusalem. Even Shimon Peres has declared that "there are no limits on building in the Jerusalem area."

Or consider Exhibit B, Netanyahu's announced withdrawal from 9 percent of West Bank territory. The State Department, which was deeply involved in drafting the withdrawal protocol as part of the Hebron agreement, quite definitively declared the 9-percent plan fully compliant with Israeli obligations. State called it "a serious expansion of Palestinian authority" and "a demonstration of Israel's commitment to the peace process."

Nonetheless, Arafat sent his stone-throwers into the street because he says Israel should have given him not 9, but 30 percent. But there is nothing in Oslo that says anything about 30 percent -- or any percent, for that matter. Arafat made that number up out of thin air. Why? Because Israel pledged to make three withdrawals before the beginning of so-called "final status negotiations" over Jerusalem and borders. If Arafat gets 30 percent in each of the three withdrawals, that would give him 90 percent. And 90 added to what he already has now would give him practically all of the West Bank and Gaza before negotiations over such sensitive issues as Jerusalem even begin.

Now, Arafat Would obviously like Israel to disarm itself preemptively before final status negotiations. But to claim that Israel's refusal to do so is a violation of Oslo is the height of chutzpah. And for the Western press to echo this absurd claim is the height of ignorance.

In the eyes of the world, however, when Netanyahu is not actually violating Oslo, he is constantly "preempting" it. The Economist, for example, reflecting a view typical of the Western press, charges that "preempting negotiations . . . Netanyahu has declared that he sees the Palestinians as getting no more than half the West Bank." Yet Arafat repeatedly declares that he demands all of the West Bank and half of Jerusalem. This is apparently not preemption, merely the presentation of a bargaining position. Why, then, when Netanyahu states his position regarding Israel's ultimate objectives, is this "preemption"?

Similarly, consider this in the Financial Times (Julie Dempsey, March 22-23): "What particularly frustrates the Palestinians is that Mr. Netanyahu . . . has drawn up his own maps and territorial boundaries for the final settlement. 'This is not a negotiation. It is a fait accompli,' says Mr. [Saeb] Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator."

What kind of double standard is this? The Palestinians flaunt their map of Palestine all the time. Sometimes, when their guard is down, they show the one with Israel wiped off. Otherwise, it is their Palestinian state, sovereign over the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. But when Israel shows its map -- Netanyahu's, for example, shows Israel retaining the Jordan Valley as a security buffer -- this is called a negation of negotiations.

This is why the Oslo peace process is dying: It has ceased to have any meaning except what Arafat says it means on a given day. Worse, the West not only accepts, it echoes this Alice-in-Wonderland it-meanswhat-I-say-it-means Oslo. The real Oslo, the written Oslo, is dead, as dead as the famous Cairo accords Arafat once signed with the Lebanese government (when Arafat ruled Beirut and the Lebanese were desperate for peace). Cairo was not worth the paper it was written on. Neither is Oslo.



IV

The farce that is Oslo was most dramatically exposed at the Arab League meeting in Cairo, March 30-31, in which the Arabs voted to reinstate their economic boycott on Israel because of Israel's alleged violation of Oslo.

The economic normalization that is now being withdrawn -- a trade office in Qatar here, a mission to Tunisia there -- had been painstakingly granted by the Arabs over the last three and a half years of Oslo. These paltry gestures had been made in calibrated response to Israel's withdrawals from West Bank territory and its grants of power to the Palestinian Authority under Yasser Arafat.

This is territory and power that Israel will never be able to reclaim. But now that there is a halt in the peace process, the normalization of relations that had been granted Israel is to be withdrawn. Rarely has the peace process been exposed so clearly as a transaction in which what one side gives is real, while the other side gives ephemera.

The Cairo summit illuminated an even odder asymmetry at the heart of the Middle East peace process. In normal negotiations, you give A and the other fellow gives B. In the Middle East peace process, however, Israel gives A and the Arabs give B -- subject to the withdrawal of B if Israel does not proceed to give C, D, and E. Israel receives a quid pro quo not for the actual things it cedes but for the process of ceding. Israel is rewarded, in other words, not for the distance it has traveled -- it gets no credit for having given -- but for the velocity at which it is traveling. So long as it continues to travel toward the Arab position, so long as it continues to give, week by week, month by month, more and more territory and more and more power to the Palestinians, the Arabs will tolerate a few trade missions and Israeli tourists. But let Israel pause along the path of giving -- or, as Netanyahu has done, begin to outline those things, such as Jerusalem, that Israel will not give up -- and the credit Israel thought it had built with the Arabs for the concessions they have already pocketed vanishes.



V

Oslo is a process in which Israel is rewarded with temporary gifts for its process of retreat. So long as the retreat is in progress, everyone is happy. But if the retreat even pauses, all hell breaks loose.

This is obviously an intolerable situation. No negotiation can continue on this basis. The only way to save the "peace process" now is to short-circuit it. The endless process of Israel's giving while Arafat collects, complains, demands more, and waves the gun, is now at an end. The only way that the peace process can be saved is to skip the remaining interim steps and begin final status negotiations now.

The peace process that was supposed to have built confidence between the two sides has instead bred distrust. The Palestinians are frustrated because they want more and faster. The Israelis are shocked to discover that with intifada and terrorism all around, the vaunted peace deal turns out to be nothing more than unilateral retreat.

Such a process has no future. For the American "peace team" in the State Department, however, the process seems to have become life itself, a kind of permanent transition to an ever-receding final settlement, an endless state of negotiation whose permanence is not just necessary, owing to the complexity of the issues, but useful because it puts off the final reckoning.

The reckoning is here. The moment of truth for all parties, including the American side, is at hand. The conceit of the Israelis and the Americans at the beginning of Oslo was that because Jerusalem and final borders were such difficult issues, they would be kicked into the future. Well, the future is now.

The very idea of final status negotiations means an end to this endless process. With final status negotiations, Israel will finally stop giving and the Palestinians and the Arabs will finally, upon signing, have to stop demanding.

Of course, that is what Arafat cannot abide. He thrives in a situation in which Israel is required to be in a constant state of retreat. That is why he is resisting final status negotiations so fiercely. But the retreat is eventually going to stop at a certain point. The location of that point had best be decided now.

Jordan's King Hussein, who is nothing if not a realist, is open to the idea of jumping to final status negotiations. The question is whether the Clinton administration can give up its cherished peace process -- a process that insulated it from having to grapple with the final issues of Jerusalem and borders -- and sign on too.

It must. Oslo is beyond saving, but peace still has a chance. If you want to see what is left of Oslo, look at the rioters in the streets of Ramallah and the dead in the cafes of Tel Aviv. The alternative to final status negotiations now is not Oslo, but war.



Contributing editor Charles Krauthammer has won the Pulitzer Prize for his weekly newspaper column.

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