Its conquests in the Six-Day War of 1967 left Israel in what Abba Eban has called "a state of structural incoherence." Everyone knows it; no one really knows what to do about it.
The 20-year occupation of the Gaza Strip, peopled by hundreds of thousands of sullen and now rebellious Palestinian Arabs, is part of that legacy. So are the riots that broke out there two weeks ago and are now spreading through the West Bank.
Once you have reviewed these truisms, however, the real difficulties begin.
The United Nations Security Council and the U.S. State Department, always quick on the draw when Israel is besieged, are offering the usual admonitions. The State Department, for instance, deplores the use of live ammunition in riot control. Who doesn't?
But in their immodesty, official U.S. spokesmen forget that not long ago we were grappling with not dissimilar riots and anguishing over the use of deadly force. Have Watts and Kent State been forgotten so soon? When civil order is under attack, its keepers, in most places and times, do what they must to restore it. This is not because they love repression. They do it from the sure knowledge that no grievance was ever settled by the appeasing of mobs.
In any case, Israel is far too strong and determined to be driven out of Gaza or the other occupied territories by gangs of rock-throwing boys. No near neighbor -- certainly not Egypt, probably not the other Arab states either -- wants the Israelis to leave. Egypt could be administering Gaza now, as it did before 1967, and probably should be; but Anwar Sadat at Camp David wanted no part of that headache.
Gaza's squalid "refugee camps" are incubating their third generation of displaced Palestinians. These camps rank among the world's true hellholes, along with the slums of Calcutta and the South Bronx. These camps should and could have been dispersed long ago, their unfortunate peoples integrated into other lands and economies, were they not useful symbols of Palestinian irredentism.
In "Arab and Jew," David Shipler describes how Arab youngsters in Gaza cling to idealized images of the ancestral villages in old Palestine their grandparents fled 30 years ago. "Paradise lost," he calls it. Rarely have any of them seen these places, though they easily could. It is the idyllic myth that counts -- fuel for an unappeasable nationalism that grows more reckless as real memories fade with the generations.
In the long run, Israel will have to negotiate a peace settlement accommodating Palestinian Arab aspirations. Abba Eban, again, writes: "If we were to hear that the Netherlands was imposing an unwanted jurisdiction on 4 million Germans or that America proposed to incorporate 80 million Russians into the U.S. against their will, we would assume that they had taken leave of their senses. Yet some people still talk of Israel ruling a foreign population that accounts for 33 percent of its own inhabitants as if it were a serious option."
It is not a serious option. Nor is expulsion -- Rabbi Kahane's brutal alternative -- a serious option. Not while Israel remains Israel, anyway. None of these possibilities is consistent with Israel's historical identity or democratic values. The Afrikaner option is out.
What then is left? It is easy enough to concentrate on the symptoms and offer paper "solutions," as if Israel were in a position to do something immediate and dramatic. It is not -- not so long as the Arab states refuse to deal realistically with the problem. There is only riot control. The less dramatic the riot control is, the better for everyone concerned.
The only thing worse than Gaza as it is is Gaza as it might be if abandoned to the Palestine Liberation Organization. Judging by past performance, the PLO would do nothing but bully the people and turn the area into a platform for sabotage against Israel. That would only lead in turn to Israeli reoccupation and more bloodshed.
The truth is that for the moment Israel has no useful choice other than to police Gaza and the West Bank as firmly as required and as civilly as circumstances permit.
Meanwhile, Israel should resist the glib international clamor to renounce responsibilities no one else wants and no one else has ever discharged half as humanely. The situation in the territories seems the worst imaginable until you begin to examine the alternatives.