The trouble with Barry Rubin's article is that it is reasonable, sensible, and logical -- all dangerous qualities in a discussion of the Middle East.

Rubin describes changes in Arab attitudes toward Israel as a neat, linear development from uncompromising war against Israel to a "no war/no peace" situation (which he admits "opened the region to enormous dangers. . . . fostered revolutionary Islamic movements, expensive arms races, catastrophic civil wars"), to a grudging acceptance of war's futility and Israel's inevitable presence, and finally to a readiness for coexistence and peace with the Jewish state.

Unfortunately, history -- even in its more felicitous moments -- is never quite so sane and orderly; and to count on such sanity in the Middle East is to recklessly tempt fate.

There have, of course, been changes in the region. Nothing is ever static. And some of these changes have indeed been positive and encouraging. But the fundamental transformation in Arab attitudes has not been a recognition of the futility of war against Israel, nor an awakening to the need to accept Israel as a permanent and beneficent neighbor. What has dawned on some Arab regimes, particularly the "moderates," is that the war against the Jews has been conducted the wrong way.

Palestinians

They have finally realized that the chances of defeating Israel in open war are slim, and that the most viable alternative is the Palestine Liberation Organization's Phased Plan of June 9, 1974, a blueprint for Israel's destruction that Yasir Arafat regularly cites in speeches and interviews to justify the PLO's acceptance of the Oslo agreements.

Formulated by the Palestine National Council, the PLO's highest body, the plan calls first for establishing "a combatant national Authority over every part of Palestinian territory that is liberated." The second phase is the establishment of "the democratic Palestinian state specified in the resolutions of previous Palestinian National Councils." This would lead to the third phase, a pan-Arab war "with the aim of completing the liberation of Palestinian territory."

The first phase of this plan has been accomplished, and its description of the Palestinian Authority (PA) entity as "a combatant" is all too apt. In the thirty-three months since the signing of the Oslo accord, 220 men, women, and children have been killed by Palestinian terrorists in Israel and the territories. (The number reaches 350 if one includes casualties of anti-Israel terrorism abroad in such places as Argentina, Mexico, and Lebanon.) This is the highest number of terrorist fatalities Israel has endured in any such period since the establishment of the state. The per capita equivalent in the United States would be 11,000 terrorist-inflicted deaths.

Rubin never mentions these figures. If his off-handed reference to Hamas terrorism is any indication, he considers the phenomenon, as did the Peres government, the last, desperate gasps of the "enemies of peace." But the fact is that Arafat and the Palestinian Authority have collaborated with Hamas; last December, they concluded an agreement with it that defines the parameters of its terrorist actions. Arafat himself refers to Sheikh Ahmad Yasin, the Hamas leader, as "my brother." He eulogized slain arch-terrorist Yahya `Ayyash (the "engineer") as a martyr and hero and the Palestinian Police accorded him military honors at a funeral attended by three hundred thousand Palestinians -- the largest Arab gathering in Palestinian history. The PA speaks of its dedication to the peace process, but even after the February-March 1996 suicide bombings, when it became clear that terrorism might kill the Oslo process, the PA did not close down the Hamas infrastructure in the areas under its control.

The Arab States

Nor have the neighborhood's "old-fashioned" types (as Peres likes to refer to them) -- Saddam Husayn, Mu`ammar al-Qadhdhafi, Hafiz al-Asad, Sudan's Hasan at-Turabi, and the ayatollahs of Tehran -- disappeared from the region. They may lack a Soviet umbrella, but they still hope to destroy Israel by defeating it militarily. With the temporary exception of Iraq, all are building vast arsenals of nonconventional chemical and biological weapons and acquiring state-of-the-art delivery systems. Moreover, Iran will have a nuclear bomb in five years and Iraq can produce one within three years of the removal of U.N. inspectors. Rubin overlooks these inconvenient facts even though the Clinton administration, hardly a paragon of hawkish policies, deems Libya's new chemical-weapons plant so dangerous that it has threatened to bomb it.

Syria's sister plant (built by the same German firm as Libya's) is just as enormous as Libya's, and Damascus is now building its own ground-to-ground missiles. If the United States does not threaten military action against the Syrian plant it is because the White House is still a captive of the cockeyed notion that Syria can be induced to abandon its alliance with Iran, renounce terrorism, and join the West. All Washington must do is deliver the Golan Heights and south Lebanon, remove the Asad regime from the State Department list of terrorist-sponsoring, drug-pushing, human-rights-abusing states, receive Asad on the White House lawn, and throw in a few billion dollars in aid and investment to sweeten the deal.

Rubin says U.S. policy has been tough, but it's been the precise opposite. "Rather than the United States's appeasing the Arab states," he writes, "the latter needed to satisfy American requirements to escape their own chronically unfavorable circumstances." After Warren Christopher's twenty-fifth pilgrimage to Damascus, Asad must find such observations vastly amusing.

As if to remind the U.S. government how unpredictable Arab dictators can be, Asad met Saddam, his arch enemy of thirty years, in April 1996, reportedly to cooperate against Israeli-Turkish military cooperation.

True, Israel can probably still fight off a Syrian assault, even if Damascus manages to form an eastern front with Iraq or Iran (or both), and it is possible (though not at all certain) that Washington would threaten to intervene. But such calculations may not provide a deterrent to war. Saddam was unfazed in 1991 when virtually the whole world arrayed against him.

A Distant Peace

Indeed, to say that violence is still endemic to the region is to understate the case. Even before the Netanyahu administration took office, the Palestinian Authority and many Arab regimes -- including Egypt, with which Israel has had a peace treaty for seventeen years -- threatened violence unless Israel met Arab demands to return to the 1967 lines and allow the establishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.

Not that Rubin is wrong that in the long run it is likely that the Middle East is indeed marching to peace and prosperity, although he fails to mention that this must be preceded by the transformation of Arab societies to democracies. The wave of anti-Western fundamentalist fanaticism now sweeping the Muslim world may soon wane, succumbing to the irresistible enticement of Western technology and decadence.

But this is like saying that Western Europe began its march to peace after the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. From a perspective of the year 3000, what happened between 1918 and 1948 may appear like a slight setback in this march, and that it cost the lives of 100 million people may seem far less important than the stable and solid peace and European union that it brought at millennium's end. But it takes no more than such a setback in the march to peace in the Middle East to wreak deadly havoc on Israel. And if Western policy continues to be dominated by wishful thinkers who believe that pacts with a PLO/Hamas police state and the Asad dictatorship can bring an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict, this deadly setback will surely come.
David Bar-Illan is Israel's head of policy planning and communications in the Prime Minister's Office. Until recently, he was executive editor of The Jerusalem Post.