IT has become part of the conventional wisdom about the Arab-Israeli conflict that the Palestinians have never wanted peace and, even today, would drive the Israelis into the sea at the first opportunity. But an informal survey of Palestinians from several United States cities casts doubt on this assumption. Palestinian-Americans do not grant Israel's ``right'' to exist. But they do, in overwhelming numbers, accept the fact of Israel's continuing existence. They demand an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, but they generally do not demand or expect that Israel will ever cease to exist.
The 150,000 to 250,000 Palestinians in this country are a small proportion of the estimated 4.5 million Palestinians worldwide. But they are vocal and influential - well plugged in to the populace of the West Bank and Gaza and well represented in international Palestinian organizations.
Some Palestinian-Americans will unquestionably never accept Israel. ``Nahil,'' who edits an Arabic-language newspaper in the US (and whose real name is not used here because his views might be considered inflammatory), is an example. He was born in a refugee camp in Jordan in 1950. His family was forced to flee two years earlier from the northern Galilee village of Tarshiha.
``I know that in the Israeli society there's citizens born there. They didn't know other countries,'' Nahil says. ``But this is not my problem. I have a right to live in my father's home, not the Jewish [who] comes from Poland....''
For all their intensity, however, these views are in the minority. Of Palestinians interviewed in six US cities, all but a few accept Israel as an enduring reality.
Mona Sahoum, a young Los Angeles housewife, expresses the kind of resigned acceptance that seems to typify the majority of Palestinian-Americans. She feels guilty, she says, about settling for a West Bank-Gaza state and forfeiting any claim to other Palestinian lands, including her own family's land within pre-1967 Israel. ``But if you're starving to death, I don't think you will have a chance to refuse a banana if it's offered to you.''
Many Palestinian-Americans do hope ultimately for a ``democratic, secular state'' in all Palestine, but this does not mean to them Israel's forcible destruction. Such a state is seen as coming about through an evolutionary process in which both the Palestinian and Jewish people come to see the wisdom of living together in a state that is truly nondiscriminatory and connected to no religion.
Others approach this issue with a bit more hard-nosed realism. Fuad Ateyeh, a San Francisco food distributor who grew up in a West Bank refugee camp after his village near Jerusalem was destroyed in 1948, believes a democratic, secular state is impractical.
``Every incident proves that that is not going to work. So I believe the Jews should have their own state, and we should have our state,'' he says.
Whatever their realism or their willingness to accept Israel's presence, Palestinian-Americans almost universally feel they are unable - in the absence of some Israeli recognition of Palestinian national legitimacy - to acknowledge Israel's legitimacy. There is a clear distinction in the Palestinian mind between recognition of existence and recognition of legitimacy. Palestinians see themselves as victims, and as such are fundamentally unable to recognize that Israelis also feel themselves to be victims.
One hears a fairly consistent message from thoughtful Palestinian-Americans on this issue:
``I cannot accept the legality of Israel,'' says Abadur-Rahim Jaouni, a geochemist in Berkeley, Calif., who was originally from Jerusalem. ``What if somebody comes and robs your watch, and the police comes and says, `Look, this man took your watch so it's his, and all you need to do now is go with him to the court and give him the right, the legal possession of it.' Now for me as a Palestinian, rationally I say, `All right, Israel is there,' but emotionally I'm not going to go legalize it.''
Stanford University professor Khalil Barhoum expresses a similar inability to accept Israel's need for legitimacy. He is asked if he can accept that before 1948 Jews had the same longing for a homeland as the Palestinians do now.
``You're asking the wrong person,'' he responds. ``You're asking the victim. That's like asking a chicken to acknowledge the right of its killer to put the knife to its neck.''
But refusal to recognize Israel's ``right'' to exist does not, as Israel and its US supporters fear, translate into a desire for the destruction of Israel.
Forty years of steadily increasing Israeli strength and continued Palestinian powerlessness have made the majority of Palestinians, here as elsewhere, unable even to conceive of a situation in which Palestinians could predominate.
``What can we get more?'' asks Walid Shafi, a San Diego businessman, ``The [Palestine Liberation Organization] accepted the creation of a homeland on a part of Palestine, and their acceptance means that they already accepted the Israelis to live in occupied Palestine, which is Jaffa, Haifa, Tel Aviv. I'm sure we don't like it this way. But if the whole world is against us, what can we do?''
For every Palestinian American who refuses to acknowledge the reality of Israel, there seem to be eight or 10 others who recognize that there can never be a return to 40 years ago. They see that generations of Israelis have been born in Palestine and that the same human decency the Palestinians ask for themselves now demands leaving a place for Israelis.
``Let's be realistic,'' says Yousef Anabtawi, a Los Angeles grocer. ``If we are asking for self-determination because of birth, ... now a majority of Israelis were born there. So if we are asking by a specific right, they have that right, too.''
Last in a four-part series. Previous articles ran Oct. 7, 14, and 21.