A SECOND Palestinian prisoner on a hunger strike has died after being force-fed in an Israeli prison. The pair are heroes to their people two times over, first for the terrorist acts for which they were earlier convicted and now for their defiance of the prison authorities. The Israelis are doubly vexed. Their prison practices are being questioned, or condemned, at home and abroad, and so is their occupation of the West Bank.
The occupation makes the Israelis hostage to any Palestinian who desires martyrdom, or on whom martyrdom can be settled. The other day it was an innocent Bethlehem girl struck by a soldier's careless bullet. Then it was the West Bank mayors, victims apparently of Israeli terrorists' bombs. Now it is a couple of jailed murderers. Who will it be tomorrow?
The solution, obviously, is to bleed off the Palestines' rage by a political settlement. But here, no less obviously, there is a problem. The autonomy formula offered by the government of Menachem Begin has elicited no Palestinian takers, and no change in the Israeli formula is conceivable without a new Israeli government; elections are some, if not many, months away. The West Bank-Gaza plan offered by Egypt has been rebuffed by Mr. Begin, although Egypt and Israel continue to go through the slow-motions of negotiation. No other Arab government has yet come up with a settlement plan acceptable even to an alternative Israeli government.
The other Arabs expect nothing to happen anyway until after the American elections and possibly after Israeli elections, too. In the interim, they are allowing the Palestinians to indulge their more reckless and nihilistic fantasies -- this is what the debate on the Palestine question at the U.N. General Assembly, and at the Women's Conference in Copenhagen, is about.
Whatever the eventual prospects of negotiation, events are now forcing a pause, and it is a dismal one. The United States has slowed its pace, not so much because -- as Arabs grimly charge -- American politicians do not wish to offend Jewish voters as because at this point the Carter administration's whole foreign policy is a holding action across the board. Overall, the situation is not one in which outsiders can usefully do much, although the Europeans, eager to please their oil suppliers, are pretending otherwise. In the absence of a determined American push and ready Israeli and Palestinian partners, the occupation and the political war go on.