Leading Article: Peace will be the best guarantee for Israel's security

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IN A speech to the United Nations in New York the other week, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel, talked about the West Bank. He said that "to part with one square inch of this land is agonising for us. Every stone, every hill, every valley resonates with our forefathers' footsteps." Emotional stuff. Of course, the territory has as great a cultural and historical meaning for the Palestinian people. But, of course, it is not just about thousands of years of the history of the Jews and Arabs, the sons and daughters of Abraham: it is about the security of the modern Israeli state. This remains the key to a sustainable settlement.

Israel proper has no natural defences to speak of. In a region characterised by undemocratic regimes, and where militant Islamic elements seem to be gaining ground, it should not be surprising that Israelis remain concerned about long-term prospects for the existing peace treaties, let alone new ones. The illness of the current leaderships in Syria and in Jordan, for example, is unsettling. Further away, there is Saddam Hussein's Iraq. The shadow of chemical and nuclear weapons haunts the region. America has always stood by Israel. But, on the ground, it may be that the guarantee of a distant friend, even a superpower, will not be enough.

So the threats to Israeli security should not be downplayed. Why should Israel make any concession at all? Of course it should, because the Oslo agreement says so. But, realistically, Mr Netanyahu has to be reminded about why his predecessors, men as varied in their politics as Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir and, of course, Yitzhak Rabin, came to understand that the best guarantee of Israel's future was peace itself.

Mr Netanyahu should bolster Yasser Arafat. Mr Arafat is, frankly, as good as it gets for Israel. Mr Arafat could, if he wanted, make life uncomfortable for all concerned. He could declare independence unilaterally, and threaten the region with another war. But the presumption must be that such an act would hardly be in his own long-term interests. He, too, needs stability, given his weakness. To get that, he needs to lead a fully sovereign state. In return, he could, perhaps, do more to defeat terrorism. Israel is right to expect Mr Arafat to do his best: but she cannot reasonably expect him to eradicate terror completely. Whatever success he does have will be due to the strength of his own position, and that is down to how much authority Israel grants him.

Every new settlement in the West Bank, and especially the ones around Jerusalem, has made this more difficult. The Israeli case that much of the West Bank is uninhabited, so it doesn't matter, is not sensible. Israel cannot expect the Palestinians to accept a nationhood based on the sort of approach that the old South Africa adopted when it created its puppet regimes such as Bophuthatswana: pools of territory that are unconnected, and basically unviable as truly independent nations.

The settlements can't be disinvented, although they could be abandoned by consent, as they were in Sinai. One answer might be to grant Israel status as a guarantor of the rights of the inhabitants of these settlements even as they are absorbed. People could retain Israeli citizenship. The settlements around Jerusalem, and the city itself, are more problematic. Resolution of Jerusalem's status - perhaps by joint sovereignty - will require imagination. It worked in Northern Ireland and South Africa. Novel, bold experiments, ambiguity and contradiction have their place. But the basic territorial integrity of Palestine is the best guarantee Israel could have for her future security. Creating a sort of Middle East Bantu homeland for the Palestinians is no way to achieve it. Mr Netanyahu should not try to visit it upon any of the sons and daughters of Abraham.