Three days before the war in the Middle East started, I was in the office of Teddy Kollek, for 25 years the mayor of Jerusalem. The city was not a happy place -- and not just because its residents were sealing rooms in anticipation of a gas attack. Even before the current war, Jerusalem and all of Israel were fighting a different one.
That war is with the Palestinians, 1.75 million of whom live under Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Since Jan. 16 they have been confined to their homes, a Draconian curfew for sure, but one that has kept Greater Israel generally peaceful. For the moment, the only enemy is Iraq.
But that moment is sure to pass, and Israel sooner or later will have to once again direct its attention to the Palestinians. Before the war, that attention was obsessive and so characterized by fear that it had effectively redivided the city of Jerusalem. Arab and Jew stay in their respective sectors, honoring a Green Line that was eradicated in 1967.
Kollek maintains that Jerusalem is still safer than many American cities. Maybe that is correct, but it's no comfort to Jerusalem's residents. Jews and Arabs alike are afraid of random violence. Some Jews have been stabbed or stoned. The visiting mayor of New York, Ed Koch, was beaned by a stone as he walked (with Kollek) through the ancient Old City. As for Arabs, they fear the wrath of suspicious and, in certain cases, vengeful Jews.
Jerusalem is but one Israeli city, and neither by proximity to the West Bank nor by history is it typical. But when it comes to what is delicately called the "Palestinian problem," it's not all that different. And yet this problem, which existed before the war and will resurface after it's over, has been swept under the rug. Israel, we are told, is experiencing a kind of euphoria. As in the days of inverted sailor hats, blooming deserts and Paul Newman in the movie "Exodus," the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinians are being ignored.
No doubt the Palestinians have not helped matters. The Palestine Liberation Organization has embraced Saddam Hussein. In the occupied territories and in Jordan, there seems to be no Palestinian who is not available for a TV interview extolling the virtues of the butcher from Baghdad. As a consequence, the Saudis and other oil-rich states have taken the PLO off the dole. Washington, once willing to talk to the PLO, is talking no more.
Israel's right-wing government finds all this bracing. In the press, its spokesmen talk as if the Palestinian problem has been solved and, just as wonderfully, Israel is once again a strategic American ally. Its willingness to stay out of the war supposedly puts Washington in its debt. The fact remains, though, that Israel is doing precisely what's in Israel's interests -- and the interest of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's Likud Party is to retain the West Bank.
But the term the "situation on the ground" keeps puncturing the Likud's balloon. While Saddam Hussein's embrace of the Palestinian cause has a casting couch quality to it, there is nevertheless no doubt that to many people in the Middle East the plight of the Palestinians is representative of what ails the region: the subjugation of Arabs by Westerners. To the Palestinians themselves, it's more than that. It's a struggle for nationhood.
The danger is that the United States, out of a genuine and well-deserved gratitude to Israel, will abandon its prewar efforts to find a solution to the Palestinian problem and, even if by acquiescence, embrace Likud intransigence. That seems to be the assumption of a number of Likud spokesmen. They talk as if the United States, slapped in the face by reality and coming to its senses, has finally seen the wisdom of Likud's approach. It would take more than war, though, to see that wisdom. It would take a lobotomy.
The notion that America and Israel, arms intertwined, will march united from here on is a chimera that will last about as long as Israel can keep the Palestinians in their homes. The American-Israeli friendship is deep -- deep enough for us to say that after the war, Israel must deal justly with the Palestinians. This is not solely an Arab position but one shared by many Israelis as well. Among other things, Teddy Kollek's dream of a united Jerusalem depends on it.