Jerusalem A king told an offender that in two years he intended to condemn him to death unless the offender taught the king's horse to talk. When the offender's friends expressed puzzlement about his cheerfulness, he explained: "In two years I might die of natural causes. Or the king might die. Or the horse might talk."
Jerusalem Twenty-five years ago, during one of the regularly recurring episodes of U.S. pressure on Israel to "take a risk for peace" it is so much easier to pressure a democracy than a dictatorship the United States said its policy toward Israel was undergoing "reassessment." Today Israel is in the throes of an agonizing reassessment of seven years of its own policy.
Beginning with the 1993 Oslo accords, which started the wildly misnamed "peace process," Israel has wagered its survival on diplomacy as psychotherapy. The handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn expressed Israel's bet that by surrendering land, a tangible and irrecoverable component of its security, it could produce a Palestinian mood change which, although intangible and perishable, would so sweeten the atmosphere that land would be unnecessary for security.
The Palestinian Authority has comprehensively violated the Oslo agreements, including the undertaking to stop anti-Semitic propaganda. On Friday, Palestinian Authority television broadcast a Gaza imam's harangue telling the faithful that it is their duty to kill Jews wherever they find them. In President Clinton's final months of office, the Middle East is more aflame than when he began ministering to it.
Clinton having invested heavily in Arafat no world leader has visited Clinton's White House as often it was an understandable spectacle two weeks ago when his secretary of state ran in her heels after Arafat, begging him not to storm out of the meeting with Ehud Barak at the U.S. ambassador's residence in Paris, and ordering the gates closed to prevent him from doing so. And with Clinton at Sharm el-Sheikh this week was another investor in Arafat, Dennis Ross, who for 12 years now has been a State Department architect of policy. Ross symbolizes the continuity of the delusion behind U.S. policy. The length and result of his service confirm the axiom that a society in which there is no penalty for failure will have an abundance of failures. Unless there is, at long last, realism about Arafat, we shall be seeing many more pictures of Ross and Arafat what mirthless laughter of contempt Arafat must stifle whenever Ross drops in dotting i's and crossing t's on pointless pieces of paper.
As pointless as the Oslo limits on the size and weapons of the Palestinian "police" actually, by now an army. Both limits are as unenforced as were the Versailles Treaty's demilitarization of the Rhineland, the Soviet Union's adherence to arms control agreements, and the inspection regime for Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.
At Sharm el-Sheikh Clinton plaintively urged Arafat and Barak to remember "how far we have come" since the handshake. But if we have come so very far, why did Clinton have to fly so far to try to slow the slide into chaos?
Tuesday's attempts to paper over Middle Eastern fissures with yet more pieces of paper aimed to stop the violence that was set in train by his summit at Camp David. That July summit was fecklessly called by Clinton, who thinks nations, like interns, can be quickly charmed, and was recklessly conducted by Barak, who sprinted far ahead of where he could persuade his nation to come. By offering to divide Jerusalem, to yield the Jordan Valley and to grant a right of return to perhaps 100,000 Palestinians, he communicated only weakness to Arafat, who responded, as dictators do to weakness, with violence.
An Israeli vastly experienced in politics and diplomacy explains Israel's most decorated soldier this way: Barak "has fought Arabs all his life. He is not afraid of Arafat, he just doesn't understand him." Barak is a soldier who respects directness and thought he could make Arafat an offer he could not refuse.
If Barak and all other Israelis who have allowed their wish for peace to father wishful thinking about Arafat now know that the only such offer is everything the liquidation of Israel the learning experience of recent weeks, although ghastly, has been useful. It has taught that the Palestinian leadership of Arafat and his thugocracy is, as Barak says with considerable understatement, "not ripe" for peace and must "change or be replaced." Israel's challenge is to be cheerful while waiting, perhaps for a long time, for ripeness for the horse to talk.
George Will is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.