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Jewish World Review July 19, 2000 /16 Tamuz, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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The Arab tragedy: When mistake becomes tradition -- IT'S NO SURPRISE when a Palestinian delegation shows up just outside Camp David to urge Yasser Arafat not to compromise any of his demands for an Arab Palestine. They urge him to insist on all of the West Bank, all of the old city of Jerusalem, all of the Jordan Valley ... and all of Israel?

This kind of delegation, with its nonnegotiable demands, represents a long tradition in Arab diplomacy. So does the catastrophe that follows in its wake. At least since the 1937, when the Peel Commission first suggested dividing Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, Arab spokesmen have been rejecting any compromise with the infidel -- and rejecting their own best interests.

Perhaps the Arab world's biggest mistake was not to accept the partition of Palestine in 1947, which would have created a small, shrunken Jewish state consisting of three barely connected parts, each highly vulnerable. Instead, the whole Arab League, from Egypt even unto Iraq, from the Syrians to the Saudis, with banners flying and threats resounding, chose to invade the newborn state. It was to be dismembered in its cradle. Arab "diplomats'' spoke of massacres that would dwarf the Mongols'. How dramatic. The end result was a larger Israel.

The Jewish state grew again 20 years later, in 1967, when Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser forged an all-Arab alliance, blockaded the Jewish state, and dared the Israelis to do something about it. They did, and the result was an even larger Israel that included old Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and the West Bank of the Jordan.

Now it is Yasser Arafat who is being told to reject any compromise. Unwilling to accept half a loaf, or rather 90 percent of the loaf, Arab zealots may yet succeed in losing all of Palestine. Again. The greatest threat to Palestinian aspirations at Camp David is not the Israelis, but the counsel of fire-eaters like those masterminds just outside its gates. They never seem to learn.

Each Arab defeat breeds more zealotry, which is the nature of defeat. War is such an emotionally satisfying high, an all-or-nothing gamble, an outlet for decades of desperation, a stirring call ... in contrast to the mundane work of nation-building, of picking up the garbage and building roads and teaching school and sowing and reaping in season.

Peace is so dull, so long-range, so constructive. It can't have the same appeal to a great people with nomadic roots and a storied history. Such a people will always produce its share of romantics with eyes so fixed on the past they cannot cope with the challenge of the present. No wonder they're hooked on defeat.

The occasional Arab leader who is sufficiently far-sighted to negotiate with the Jewish state, like Egypt's Anwar Sadat or Jordan's King Abdullah, risks the assassin's bullet. Yasser Arafat's security team needs to be on guard. And the fate of Israel's Yitzhak Rabin demonstrates that the Israelis are not without their zealots, too. (Who says the Jews are not indigenous to the Middle East? Its intrigue, infighting and even assassinations are not confined to the Arab states.)

But the Palestinians seem particularly adept at undermining themselves. It is hard to think of another people so consistently ill-served this century by its leaders and "friends.'' Again and again, from the days of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem to Gamal Nasser's delusions, the real interests of Palestine's Arabs have been sacrificed to the pride and fantasies of ambitious demagogues. Will it happen again?

Arab leaders like these, so resistant to learning from history, bring to mind the kind of Southerners who are still fighting the Civil War -- and still losing it. There is a kind of nationalist who would prefer his fantasy world, though it means unending defeat, to the real world where peace and prosperity might be sought, but at the cost of compromise. Forget, Hell!

Both Arabdom and the Old South are remnants of once great civilizations with flaws that doomed them to defeat. The blinder partisans of each look back with a nostalgia that clouds their vision. Their love for an imagined past that is now beyond re-creating prevents them from seizing the present, and fashioning the future. They prefer their imaginary world of slogans and fixations, though it means continued defeat, to the possibilities of a new start in reality-because reality requires compromises.

And so here they are again at Camp David, the same old irreconcilables in still another suicidal incarnation, again lobbying for complete defeat in the name of complete victory. They've come to press their leader to walk out on what may be the best opportunity in half a century to create a free, independent Arab Palestine -- a nation of its own that could live in peace and commerce with a Jewish state. And they just can't bear the thought. There is no satisfaction in it. They seek victory, not mere success. And in the end they lose both.

It's as if some Arab leaders had learned nothing since 1937, or 1947, or 1967. Well, they do have a tradition to uphold -- a tradition of almost unbroken defeat. And they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

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©2000, Los Angeles Times Syndicate