We are in danger of drawing too easy a lesson from the Achille Lauro affair, the lesson that the chief enemy is terrorism. It is a lesson that many in Israel and this country are pressing strongly. The recent attention to crimes and plots plausibly traceable to the PLO and Yasser Arafat make it natural and tempting to follow this course.
But it is the wrong answer. Terrorism is terrible and it has to be fought, but it has to be fought the way dangerous crime is fought, not the way a war for survival is fought: with vigilance and intelligence but not with all-out mobilization and sacrifice. Terrorism is deadly, but to make it the chief enemy is to confer star power upon bit players and to give them incentive and an easy way to keep terrorism alive.
Down that road lies a neglect of the political roots of terrorism and, in current circumstances, an uncritical embrace of one particular Israeli political judgment -- and not necessarily the best.
The latest events are being cited fairly as proof, as if more were needed, of the PLO's terrorist bent. They are being cited more arbitrarily as proof of the PLO's terrorist essence. The assertion is that the PLO as an organization is hopelessly corrupt and unreliable and that Palestinian nationalism as a political movement is no more than an expression of hatred for the Jewish people -- a movement without legitimacy in its own right.
In this spirit some Israelis see now the chance to finish off the PLO politically, just as the Israeli army finished it off as an organized military force in the Lebanon war. As usual, the PLO is making its own generous contributions to this Israeli purpose.
If they could marginalize the PLO, some Israelis would hope to move on and make King Hussein a separate peace offer he couldn't refuse. Prime Minister Shimon Peres appears to be leaning this way, at least for his own tactical political purposes. But he has yet to explain -- no one has -- how any such offer can prevail over the pressures brought to bear on King Hussein 1) by the fact of the Palestinian majority in Jordan's population, 2) by Jordan's vulnerability to ill winds blowing from other Arab countries and 3) by his own personal Arab-ness.
Other Israelis, if they could get the PLO counted out, would declare victory and complete the consolidation of the West Bank into Israel proper. Their core objection to the PLO is not that it conducts terrorism but that it claims a land that Israelis also claim. Imagine that, magically, the Palestinians halted all deeds of violence, those conducted by the PLO and its branch offices and those conducted by freelancers, kids. Rather than say, fine, now we'll work out a deal, these Israelis would say, fine, we won the war.
The Israelis hold the land by force of the sort that settled governments employ. The Palestinians use the sort available to ragtag people. Occupying the semantical high ground, the Israelis get to call the force used by their enemies terrorism. But the terrorism goes on.
I wish Israel had a smoother path. But the reality is that terrorism is not self-creating and self-sustaining; it does not arise simply from a determination to destroy the Jewish state -- although the PLO's charter and much of its daily language affirm precisely that. Rather, terrorism, political terrorism, Palestinian terrorism, arises from a plain, identifiable and, I would say, treatable political grievance, Palestinian homelessness. This is, for Israel, truly the chief enemy.
Here, of course, the familiar difficulties arise -- more precisely, the familiar mutual dependencies. The Israelis, who so far have resisted dealing with any but tame and unrepresentative West Bank Palestinians, need a sign from the PLO that it has changed its spots. Whether Arafat, with all that blood on his hands and all those deceptions, can do anything to redeem himself as an interlocutor in Israeli eyes is conjectural. But it is clear enough what the PLO needs to do: demonstrate it is closing down Palestinian terrorism.
The PLO needs a sign from Israel that it accepts the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people, which it transparently is, despite all attempts to bomb and define it out of existence. A bow of recognition -- to whatever part of the PLO is prepared to renounce terror -- would, I believe, transform Palestinian politics and create a demand for accommodation where now there is hesitation and resistance.
I am pleased here to be copying some of the ideas of an Israeli journalist, Ze'ev Schiff, who wrote with great courage and clarity on this theme in The New York Times of Oct. 15. He is a hardheaded mainstream liberal, not a peacenik. Israel and the Palestinians are in a race against time, he warned. Who can doubt it?