From "who are the Palestinians?," Golda Meir's putdown, Israelis have officially progressed to the question of where is Palestine. There is a world of difference between the two -- the second grants the basic premise, the premise of peoplehood, denied by the first -- and it should not be disregarded by those who do not like the current Israeli government's answer.
So OK, you say, but where is Palestine? Begin and Sharon say: in Jordan. A lot of people snort at this answer, as though its essential foolishness were self-evident: New York, with all its Jews, might as well be designated Israel. But let us sift through the logic. After all, Jordan was carved from the Palestine that Britain took over from the Turks in World War I, and its current majority is Palestinian.
These considerations, however, are flimsy. Though Jordan was carved from old Palestine, subsequently other events befell the territory and today it is what is: a country run by a resilient family whose rule in that place has run almost twice as long as the Zionists' in Israel. The Hashemite egg is no easier to unscramble, as a matter of policy, than the Zionist egg. Israelis, who refuse to have Israel renamed Palestine, cannot demand that Jordan be renamed Palestine. If Israel is prepared alone to promote a Palestinian revolution in Amman, it should prepare for the consequences, also alone.
The argument that Jordan is Palestine because most of its current residents are Palestinians does Israelis who make it no credit. That Palestinian majority is not a "natural" phenomenon but the result of a flow of refugees generated by the establishment of Israel in 1948-49 and by the 1967 war. The accident -- the tragedy -- of a people's diaspora cannot be twisted into the pretense of a national territorial base. By the standard of majority population, moreover, Israel itself would not have become a state in 1948.
The truth is that it is not so much history as politics that determines, and must determine, where Israel now is and where Palestine now is. Israel is essentially pre-1967 Israel, and Palestine is the West Bank-Gaza. They sit in a part of the world where the origin and legitimacy of peoples is deep and undeniable and the origin and legitimacy of governments is unavoidably arguable.
Perhaps that is why Israelis and Palestinians alike are so litigious, defensive and insecure, so insistent that we memorize and repeat their claims. Certainly it is why they should be more humble and respectful about the competition between them.
Trace the borders of the two places on a map. Their odd, distended shapes betray their tangled, twinned evolution -- and the impossibility of disentangling their fates. Sometimes the West Bank looks to me like a fetus in the Israeli womb: the head is to the north and Nablus is the eye.
I am aware of the tremendous evocative power of the land, of particular patches of land, to both Israelis and Palestinians. (Hence, by the way, the Palestinians' great and justified anger that Begin should insist that autonomy is a condition of the presumably movable inhabitants of the West Bank, not of the inalienable land.)
But both peoples, if they are to find peace, must loosen the grip of historical memory on their minds and allow space to assert the prime value of contemporary (democratic) politics, which is that one people cannot rule another against its will. If they can agree that individuals of the one group may live on territory of the other, fine. Otherwise, involuntary rule by foreigners is out. In this sense, the Palestinian problem is exactly what Ariel Sharon says it is, the problem of the now-1.3 million Arabs living since 1967 under Israeli rule.
It was put once to Simcha Dinitz, a former Israeli ambassador, that Israelis should not sit on Arabs and, agreeing, he replied that neither should Arabs sit on Israelis. That seems to me exactly the right way to define the problem, and exactly the way Ronald Reagan has now defined it.