Riding off the road map

Diana West

6/9/2003 12:00:00 AM - Diana West

In 1857, the British consul in Palestine, James Finn, told his government that Palestine "is in a considerable degree empty of inhabitants and therefore its greatest need is that of a body of population."

Ten years later, Mark Twain visited the Holy Land, recording his impressions in The Innocents Abroad.   Jericho was "a moldering ruin," he wrote. About the Galilee, he noted "a desolation ... that not even imagination can grace with the pomp of life and action." Which is pretty desolate. As for the land around Jerusalem, "The further we went ... the more rocky and bare, repulsive and dreary the landscape became," Twain wrote. "There was hardly a tree or shrub anywhere. Even the olive and cactus, those fast friends of a worthless soil, had almost deserted the country."

Things hadn't changed much by 1881, when British cartographer Arthur Penrhyn Stanley observed, "In Judea it is hardly an exaggeration to say that for miles and miles there is no appearance of life or habitation." To be sure, there were at this time Arabs (and Jews) living in Palestine, but 1881 hardly marks the shimmering highpoint of civilization Yasser Arafat would describe to the United Nations in 1974 when he conjured visions of "a verdant land, inhabited mainly by an Arab people in the course of building its life and dynamically enriching its indigenous culture."

Why it is that the world came to accept the mendacious vision of a terror-kingpin over a wealth of historical impressions recorded by writers, scientists and officials is a tantalizing question. (On another memorable U.N. occasion, this same terrorist-fabulist hallucinogenically said, "Jesus Christ was the first Palestinian fedayeen" -- or Muslim fighter of Christians.) Somehow, the weight of the world's collective understanding of history flipped: Myth turned to fact, and the facts were forgotten. I don't know when this happened. I just know I never came across such vivid eyewitness accounts of 19th-century Palestine as those above until I read them (and others) in the 2000 edition of Benjamin Netanyahu's excellent Middle East primer A Durable Peace: Israel and Its Place Among the Nations.

Mr. Netanyahu, current Israeli finance minister and former prime minister, also exemplifies a hairpin turn of historical perception. The reason he didn't accompany the Israeli delegation to the recent Aqaba summit, he told CNN, was his concern about the Palestinians' ability to follow the so-called road map.

"Until the Palestinians teach their children to accept Israel; until they actually go out and arrest, and even fight terrorists; and until they drop the right of return, this will remain a flowery path," he said. "And we've been down this path before."

Rather abruptly, it seems, the reluctance to endorse a Palestinian state has become the minority view in the Israeli government. This may also be the case in the United States, where it used to be that any politician who even touched on the statehood concept found himself sparking the third rail of politics. It wasn't so very long ago that Hillary Clinton, for example, who helped funnel grant money to PLO-associated groups in the 1980s, caused a ruckus by calling for a Palestinian state, later going so far as to dig up a Jewish relative (by marriage) to calm a cheek-kissing furor involving Yasser Arafat's wife Suha.

Now, the United States is committed to President Bush's vision of "the state of Palestine and the state of Israel, living at peace with each other and with every nation in the Middle East." Now, Mrs. Clinton would probably let sleeping relatives lie.

What changed? Certainly, American sympathy for Israel continues to run high; and certainly, Palestinians haven't fulfilled the conditions for American support that President Bush laid out last June, such as ending incitement or dismantling the terrorist infrastructure. What is different now, I fear, is that the world sees Palestinian terrorism, including suicide terrorism, in a new light.

In a recent interview in the Atlantic, terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman explained that one strategy of such terrorism is "to provoke the (Israeli) government into undertaking actions that the terrorists feel they can manipulate for propaganda purposes" -- such as crackdowns by the Israeli Defense Forces -- "which will also portray them as victims rather than as perpetrators." He continued: "I think that's where the Palestinian terrorist groups have been remarkably successful, not necessarily with public opinion in the United States, but certainly in Europe." As Mr. Hoffman put it, "terrorists have gotten people to sympathize much more with the perpetrators of the violence than with the victims."

If so gruesome a shift in sympathy is even part of the driving impetus behind the road map, more than the lines in an atlas, or even the destiny of a people may be changing. The moral fundamentals of civilization itself may be in flux, and that leads off the map.