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Conflict rages over size of Israeli crumb

It is sadly ironic that one of the holiest places on earth is also one of the most violent in history. The Holy Land in general and Jerusalem in particular reek with old hatreds and new tensions. To say the impasse got worse since Benjamin Netanyahu became Israel's prime minister last year is to put it mildly.

This is a crucial time for the simmering Middle East, where time is running out. Voices of reason all over the world need to be heard. The voices, however, are all too often subdued, in part because of the enormous historical and moral baggage that Middle East issues come trailing.

The Holocaust was in several ways a turning point in modern history. One consequence of the Holocaust was the universal resolve that such a calamity should never happen again. Another was an almost worldwide mixture of sorrow, sympathy and guilt that converged to make amends for the wrongs done. Such sentiments were a large part of the engine driving the political forces that culminated in the state of Israel.

The short history of that state has been a succession of peaks and valleys, like that of most states, except that in Israel history flexes its muscles to intensify everything. The state was forged amid the kind of freedom-fighting or terrorism -- the terminology usually depends on who is using it -- that is still the stuff of Israeli existence. Whether Israeli or Palestinian, yesterday's terrorist tends to become today's hero, or at least politician, from David Ben-Gurion to Yasir Arafat.

The day is happily fading when those who accuse the state of Israel of injustice or oppression against Palestinians run the risk of being branded anti-Semitic. A more sophisticated generation has grown used to distinguishing between Jews and Israelis. Citizens of Israel likewise hold a wide range of views about how their state should be run, and right now many of them oppose the in-your-face tactics of Netanyahu. And while Jews worldwide have a greater loyalty to their homeland than any other diaspora on earth, time and again American Jews in particular have spoken out in disapproval or condemnation of unjust policies or unfair practices in Israel.

Now is a good time to speak out.

Netanyahu and Arafat glare at each other across those dusty patches of disputed land, each about as hard to love as the other, the two horns of the Middle East dilemma. But they're not equally responsible, equally guilty, equally anything. Netanyahu holds all the cards. In that ongoing skirmish, Israel is Goliath -- which is why the young Palestinian Davids with their slingshots pack such potent symbolism.

It is time to speak out and say that Netanyahu, a smart man with a knack for demagoguery, climbed to unsteady, irresponsible power on the backs of a fanatical right-wing Israeli beast that he now dare not dismount. If Netanyahu carries the flag for extremists, it is time to speak out. Noted Newsweek recently: "From practically the moment he took office last June, he has been rubbing Palestinians' noses in their own impotence."

The word peace gets kicked around the Holy Land these many years. Many young men and innocent women and children have died in the name of that elusive peace. Heroes have died in its name, most recently the courageous Itzhak Rabin. The jaded modern world is tired of phony talk of peace. Americans, who annually send huge sums of money in aid to Israel, will get tired of funding a country that talks of peace while inflicting wrenching injustice on Palestinians.

The immense goodwill and reservoir of sympathy that Jews have won worldwide, not only in the wake of the horrors of the Holocaust but through their enormous contributions to three millenniums of human endeavor, could be squandered by repeated repression, in what most Jews everywhere see as their homeland, of today's outcasts. Yes, the Palestinians. It is time to speak out.

In early April a coalition of U.S. Christian groups spoke out, demanding that the U.S. government practice "tough love" vis-a-vis Israel. Called Christians for Middle East Peace, they urged the media, perennially timid in matters dealing with Israel, to question Israeli actions it said threaten peace. The group focused especially on the now notorious Har Homa settlement being built in East Jerusalem. Said the group's spokesperson: "The president needs to make clear to Prime Minister Netanyahu ... that Israel's actions are incompatible with the peace process and will not be supported by the United States."

It is time to say: This isn't about equal justice, equal conditions, equal access to houses, water, other necessities or amenities of the area. It's not about an egalitarian solution. It's about whether Palestinians will get anything at all beyond their current stateless status, beyond their refugee status, beyond the camps, the poverty. The conflict is about the size of the crumb, if any, that Israel will give away.

And that makes it also about the soul of Israel and its stature among the nations.

National Catholic Reporter, April 18, 1997