Novelist Amos Oz relates a telling story about the late Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. "When you came in the early 1920s," he told her, "you dreamed of establishing a Jewish state based on justice and equality, you dreamed of living peacefully with our Arab neighbors and you dreamed of renewing our relationship to the Jewish heritage."
"What do you dream of now?" Oz asked.
"The incessant ringing of the phone at night leaves me no times for dreams," the weary prime minister responded.
So it is today with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. His phone is ringing constantly in the midst of escalating violence. Consider that, last Friday, the biblical tomb of Joseph was desecrated by Arabs after Israeli troops pulled out of the town of Nablus. The very next day, Jews in the town of Tiberius vandalized an ancient Moslem mosque.
In recent days scores of Palestinians have been killed in street battles, and three Israeli soldiers were kidnapped by Hezbollah guerrillas from Lebanon. This shows how quickly the Israeli and Palestinian sides, which have been conducting peace negotiations, can lurch toward confrontation. It further underscores how religion in this land holy to Jews, Christians and Moslems can play such a volatile role.
The recent spate of violence partially stems from the fact that, since the founding of Israel in 1948 and the expulsion or exodus of Arabs, Israel enjoyed 50 years of statehood while the Palestinians endured 50 years of dispossession. Then there's the question about who should control Jerusalem.
Credit for the peace process of the 1990s goes to the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. He had his share of phone calls in the night, yet launched talks resulting in a partial Palestinian state. He died by an assassin's bullet, but reasonable Jews and Arabs hope the process he and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasir Arafat fostered won't flicker and die now.
If Barak and leaders in the Arab world can dream big dreams, it should be to restart the Mideast peace process at all costs. They should envision a Palestinian state alongside Israel. But the small Jewish state has every right to ensure its security.
That's where Arafat has to compromise. Arafat cannot continue to give a wink and a nod to extremists who desecrate tombs and kidnap Israeli soldiers without receiving harsh retaliation in return.