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Ghetto Walls Crumble, Israelis Feel the World Opening Up With AM-Lebanon-Israel

October 29, 1994

Undated (AP) _ By MARCUS ELIASON Associated Press Writer

JERUSALEM (AP) - Israel’s revolution came into focus for me on the El Al flight from Hong Kong to Tel Aviv, when the pilot casually informed us that we were over Vietnam, heading for a refueling stop in India.

Vietnam, India, China (El Al flies there, too). All these countries until recently were implacably hostile to Israel, their airspace shut to the Israeli national carrier, which never flew east of Jerusalem.

Israel’s world used to end at the barbed wire along the Jordan River. Now it circles the globe. The ″nation that dwells alone,″ a biblical phrase that aptly recalls Israel’s 46 years of isolation, is welcome almost everywhere.

Meron Benvenisti, an Arab affairs scholar, writes of ″the lifting of the siege.″ Oz Almog, a Haifa University sociologist, speaks of ″our crumbling ghetto walls.″

Now, with a peace treaty with Jordan, a handshake between Yasser Arafat and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and the promise of peace with more Arab countries, there is a sense among Israelis of events no less momentous than the fall of the Berlin Wall, or the end of apartheid in South Africa.

Israelis are already taking the earthquake in stride. But for a visitor returning after an 18-month absence, the aftershocks strike hard and often: King Hassan II of Morocco being interviewed on Israeli television; a new bridge going up across the Jordan River to accommodate an expected tourist rush; Algeria ending its boycott of Israeli sports players.

An Israeli delegation headed by a Cabinet minister attended an environmental conference last week in Bahrain, which not only used to bar Israelis but was selective about letting in Jews.

Most stunning of all is the transformation of Arafat from bogeyman to peace partner in just 13 months.

When I left Israel, the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization was still anathema. Now he’s a neighbor, ruling the Gaza Strip, an hour’s drive from Tel Aviv. He’s on Israel TV. He will meet Rabin again in a few days. Israeli officials can call him up whenever they please.

Almog recalls how Menachem Begin, the late Israeli prime minister, used to liken Arafat to Hitler.

″Arafat was Israel’s demon - grotesque, immoral, ugly, cruel. Now suddenly this big Hitler is sitting in Gaza, with all his problems, and he’s just a little guy,″ Almog said.

All these vast and rapid changes make some Israelis question their own sanity.

″Do we have the slightest idea of how to live a normal life?″ columnist Ron Maiberg asked in the newspaper Maariv. ″True peace is a virtue so unfamiliar to us that it might arouse healthy doubts as to our ability to withstand it.″

In the same newspaper, long-time peace crusader Uri Avnery painted a lyrical vision of the future:

″Peace will open borders. Masses of Israelis will go to Arab countries, meet a new reality and bring home the taste of peace. ... Peace with Syria will come, and in this new reality, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will look like a relic of the past.″

But Israel is a highly strung, self-questioning society, still steeped in the Nazi Holocaust and rarely given to unalloyed euphoria. Alongside the joy at making peace with King Hussein of Jordan is the gnawing fear that radical Islamic fundamentalists will derail the peace train.

The Oct. 19 bus bombing in Tel Aviv that killed 23 people came a week before the peace signing and was preceded by a string of other bloody attacks. Israelis see fundamentalism’s inroads in Egypt and Jordan and worry they have made peace with the wrong people.

Writing about Jordan, Arab affairs scholar Yossi Olmert warns that ″even a stable, orderly regime doesn’t necessarily control the passions of all its people.″

This leads some Israelis to apocalyptic visions of Israel and the Arab moderates - Egypt, Jordan, the PLO - allying with the West in a ″clash of civilizations″ with a militant Islam.

Fantasies? Perhaps. But Israel’s problems with Syria aren’t. Israelis are disappointed that even after being personally courted by President Clinton, Hafez Assad of Syria failed to spell out a vision of peace that could draw him onto the bandwagon.

Another worry is that the 120,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank will resist efforts to extend Arafat’s rule to the rest of the occupied territories, thus delaying the final settlement of their problems with the Palestinians. A sobering lesson came last February when a settler massacred 29 Palestinian worshipers in a West Bank mosque.

Many Israelis would like Arafat to deal with Islamic militants as forcefully as Israel’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion, fought his Jewish compatriots who resisted the compromise that led to Israel’s independence in 1948.

But they doubt Arafat is a latter-day Ben-Gurion. They don’t see him as a man of the stature of Hussein, or Egypt’s Anwar Sadat, who launched the process 17 years ago with his epic journey to Jerusalem.

Some Israelis blame themselves, recognizing that they bequeathed to Arafat an impoverished, neglected Gaza Strip. Now, because of the bus bombing, the Gaza Strip is sealed, cutting off thousands of Palestinians from jobs in Israel and compounding the misery Arafat must deal with.

Israelis even worry about whether they are ready for peace. Zvi Elpeleg, an Arab affairs scholar in the Israeli delegation sent to Bahrain, foresees hard choices for Israel in meshing its Western-oriented society into the Arab world.

″Israel can no longer shy away from the questions that she didn’t have to answer until now: Who is she, what is she, what’s her place in the region?″

But all these questions cannot obscure the certainty that something momentous has happened.

One reason is the end of the Cold War. With the disappearance of superpower rivalry from the Middle East, neither side has a compelling reason NOT to make peace.

The other catalyst was the 1991 Gulf War. It broke the Arab consensus against Israel. And the Iraqi missiles that fell on a helpless Tel Aviv drove home to Israelis their vulnerability in the modern battlefield.

Rabin, the architect of the Israeli peace strategy, grows impatient when asked about the roadblocks immediately ahead, such as Syria. He says people should look at the big picture.

″This is the essence of the peacemaking process: to be patient, to be determined, and not to be misled by ups and downs of public statements,″ he said Thursday night after meeting Clinton in Jerusalem.

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