Dissolving the Arab-Israeli dispute is easy to do on paper -- in fact, it was already done on the White House lawn in September 1993. Now, Barry Rubin has done it again.

The rabbis tell us that there are four levels of meaning in the understanding of texts. The most literal of them, or the most superficial, is what they call p'shat. Rubin has read all the texts, and they say to him "peace." On this plane, the plane of p'shat, then, peace it may be. But is it really?

The Oslo Process

Rubin traces the new dispensation for peace to the fact that "a majority on the Arab (including Palestinian) side has engaged in a thorough reassessment of Israel." But what exactly have they concluded? Something like this: the Arabs' great power ally no longer exists, so they cannot win a war against Israel; no other power of consequence cares whether they do or don't; the world has tired of their psychodramas; Israel is a worldly success; the Arabs and Palestinians are divided; the rich Arabs are not as rich as of old; and so on, in this quite depressing vein.

Oh, one more conclusion: the United States holds most of the good cards in the deck, and all of the aces. This being true, the question immediately arises: why did the two main disputant parties, Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, choose to do their mating in the woods of Norway completely out of sight of the Americans? One reason certainly was that they did not trust Washington to keep its hands off, to be able to resist fine-tuning. Furthermore, for Yitzhak Rabin, the prospect of Warren Christopher, his nemesis from the Carter years (remember that the presidency put so much pressure on Rabin that, in 1977, Labor lost to the Likud and to Begin), inserting himself into the talks persuaded him to go it alone with the old enemy. participation in the first-stage parlays would carry the inevitable consequence of James Baker's two loyalists, Dennis Ross and Aaron David Miller, also being present. Not a good way to begin. Still, it couldn't be delayed forever. But the longer the better.

Unlike Rabin, Shimon Peres didn't feel this way, and that is another reason why the Palestinians came to the party. They had a friend in the Israeli foreign minister. By the second round, the Palestinians expected to get much of what they wanted.

I do not underestimate the significance of Yasir Arafat's putting his name to documents that refer not to "the Zionist entity" but to the State of Israel. It means that official Israelis and Palestinians now have the same sort of tense relations that other protagonists have elsewhere in the world. But this does not mean their conflict is over, any more than it does for the two Koreas, Greece and Turkey, Peru and Ecuador, China and Vietnam, India and China, Pakistan and India, the Sudan and Egypt, or Russia and various of its former subject territories. In all these cases, negotiations exist without anybody's concluding that the old conflict is over.

We all know the penchant in the Middle East for millennial eschatologies but Rubin's is really too much. Actually, he shares this exuberance with the previous government of Israel. Several months ago in New York, I heard Prime Minister Peres ask his audience whether it really understood that "this year Israel is on its way to diplomatic relations with Qatar, that the Hatikvah was played in Qatar"? Now, Qatar has a citizenry of roughly 200,000 and plentiful natural gas that it cannot sell to Israel because the Saudis won't let it do so, at least not yet. Peres also told us that relations between Israel and Djibouti were close. "Where is Djibouti?" asked the woman sitting next to me. I didn't know.

It is not Qatar or Djibouti, or even Oman or Morocco, that form the linchpin of the argument about regional peace. It is what's happening on the front line. And here, frankly, for all of Rubin's fixations on the meaning of text, he ignores the text the Palestinians were supposed to change but did not, the Palestine National Charter.1 As a corollary of the White House handshake and as a precondition to tangible concessions from Israel, the PLO had obligated itself to annul various provisions in this covenant. To this day and after several long-past deadlines, it still has not done this.

In a way, of course, this is a silly topic. The Palestinians do not pose an existential threat to the Jewish state, so what they say in their charter has little operational importance. But the Palestinians' renunciation of the old statements about destroying an illegitimate Israel is important in symbolic terms. That they cannot bring themselves to annul those belligerent slogans tells just how little, psychologically and politically, the Palestinians have accommodated themselves to a live-and-let-live world. Indeed, their resistance to these disavowals signals their intention to move on to other aspects of the conflict as soon as the ones now on the table are settled. Today the settlements. Tomorrow, Jerusalem. The day after, the return of the 1967 refugees. And why not the descendants of the 1948 ones? And then there is the matter of the Arab villages in the Galilee. Prepare for ongoing rioting, for there will be no end of proximate reasons for irredentism.

By the way, Rubin is wrong in asserting that Jerusalem was ready to parley with the Palestinians only "with Arafat finally ready to meet Israel's minimal conditions." Menachem Begin, without so much as a nod from the Palestinians, signed a document at Camp David pledging his government to "recognize the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people and their just requirements" and, through negotiations, to solve "the Palestinian problem in all its aspects." That was in 1978.

The Arab States

As for the peaceful developments on the front line to the northeast, Rubin writes that "[in Syria], the process started later and has still not ended." This is neither an accurate nor a useful characterization of the road from Madrid. It interprets Hafiz al-Asad's willingness to receive Warren Christopher as a big step forward in the peace process. Christopher, by the way, is not the first to counsel Asad that getting back the Golan Heights is in Syria's interest; President Carter had done exactly that many years earlier, and he also draped a laurel on the dictator for listening.

Yasir Arafat's wife Suha recently told an Arabic newspaper that the Palestinians want peace with Israel but not normalization. They prefer, she opined, the Egyptian model (and not, presumably, the Jordanian one). This is instructive, for peace with Israel is, as Fouad Ajami argues, a friendless peace in Egypt, unclaimed and unwanted through eighteen years. It is the ruler's peace, first the dead Sadat's and, less enthusiastically, Mubarak's. While the military (which truly governs the state) finds peace indispensable, because it is the key to American aid, aid, the government would have less adequate resources to buy off trouble and trouble-makers. Without U.S. aid, in fact, the state might collapse. the cleptocracy that runs the economy has no interest in the peace. Vestigial Nasserists oppose it on grounds of nostalgia. Egypt's intellectuals and professionals These are not men and women we know from the civil societies of the communist bloc, liberal, tolerant, open-minded. Suffice it to say, these Egyptians are largely anti-Israel, anti-American, and anti-peace. Fundamentalist Muslims have venomous views about Israel. Even religious officials appointed by the state increasingly share those views: the sheikh of Al-Azhar, appointed by Mubarak, says that anyone who dies in operations aimed at winning Arab sovereignty over Jerusalem is a martyr.1

Actually, none of this is surprising. Israel's economy and universities are deep into the twenty-first century whereas the economies of the Arab world have not yet quite gone through the industrial revolution. About Arab universities, the less said, the better. Arab markets have very little significance to Israel today and will mean even less tomorrow. In conditions of peace, Israel will dominate its neighbors just as the United States dominates Mexico. And if there is not peace, Israel will ignore the Arabs.
Martin Peretz is editor-in-chief of The New Republic.
1 See the article by the first serious historian of Palestinian nationalism, Yehoshua Porath, "Antisocial Text: Has the PLO Charter Recognized Israel?" The New Republic, July 8, 1996.
2 Al-Hayat, June 30, 1996.