THE LATEST SEQUENCE of terror, Palestinian and Israeli, in the West Bank has had the unexpected effect of lending not only media celebrity but also enlarged political stature to the Palestinian mayors there. They have emerged as authentic spokesmen for Palestinians living under Israeli military rule. To judge by what was said in Washington this week by the two West Bank mayors the Israelis recently deported, these leaders refuse to separate themselves on any substantive issue from the Palestine Liberation Organization, the umbrella organization of both resident and diaspora Palestinians.Yet one of those mayors, Mohammed Milhem of Halhoul, insisted that Americans should harken to Palestinians through their "recognized elected representatives." The two are not necessarily the same.
The program and policies of the PLO necessarily are created in the interplay of Palestinian, Arab and international politics. The positions of the mayors, on the other hand, are formed in the crucible of enforced Israeli-Palestinian coexistence on the West Bank. As was evident from what Mayor Milhem and Mayor Fahd Kawasme of Hebron had to say here, the West Bank approach is different.
There is an all-consuming resentment of the Israeli occupation: it may be that the physical hand of the Israelis is relatively light as occupations go, but the perceived Israeli intent -- to humiliate Palestinians and steal their political birthright -- is a source of great anguish. There is a feeling that it is necessary to keep faith with the emotions now rampant on the West Bank, and with the extreme formal positions of the PLO. This means refusing to condemn terror when committed by Palestinians and rejecting or evading demands to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state. But at the same time there is an evident awareness -- still mostly implicit -- that the future of the West Bank can evolve only in conditions agreed upon with Israel. As despairing as they currently are, the mayors remain intensely political in their approach to a shared future.
In one sense it is the worst of times on the West Bank: violence is on the upswing, accommodation seems impossible. And yet even some of the wisest Palestinians, almost against their better judgment, concede that it could conceivably be the beginning of the best of times, too. For the first time, the strain of Zionism that supports colonization of the West Bank has been fully exposed, systematically tried out and found wanting -- found wanting not simply by Palestinians, who needed no lesson, but by a clear majority of Israelis and by every other country in the world.
To everyone except Prime Minister Begin, the issue now is how to end the occupation on terms mutually acceptable to Israelis and Palestinians. There are various formulas available, some more promising than others, many consistent with Camp David. Whichever is finally tested, the West Bank mayors will have a central role.