By RALPH PETERS
April 21, 2003 -- IN the aftermath of the allied victory in Iraq, the international pressure to create an independent Palestinian state will be irresistible. And the Palestinian people unquestionably deserve a government and homeland of their own.
Israel's vital interests must be protected, but even Prime Minister Ariel Sharon recognizes that some West Bank settlements must be vacated. Despite legitimate misgivings in Jerusalem, Palestinian statehood is on the way.
We may hope that this new state will honor the dignity of its own people and the security needs of its neighbors, that democracy - and peace - will be given a chance.
But extravagant optimism guarantees disappointment. This politically independent, but financially dependent Palestinian state is likely to disappoint everyone except the most corrupt Arabs and the most cynical Europeans.
For the United States and Israel, the greatest disappointment will be that Palestinian statehood will not put an end to anti-Israeli terrorism. There may be an initial drop in suicide bombings, but terrorism will remain a fact of life. Palestinian authorities will sign the treaties and make the right noises, but will take only limited action - under duress - to suppress violent extremists.
Even were a Palestinian government to behave with flawless integrity, terrorists would simply stage their operations from Lebanon or elsewhere. The key fact that Western advocates for the Palestinian cause refuse to recognize is that the terrorism directed toward Israel is only superficially about Palestinian independence. At its core, it is about the old passion for killing Jews.
Once there is an independent Palestinian state, Israel will be accused of countless other sins - among them hindering the economic and political development of the new entity. While many Palestinians do, indeed, yearn for freedom and a just society, the hardline killers desire the complete destruction of Israel. Nothing less will do.
For the profoundly unscrupulous Arab governments of the region, the Palestinian cause has been a cherished convenience. All home-grown ills could be blamed on the need to sacrifice for the Palestinians - although the Palestinians never received sufficient aid from other Arabs to build decent lives. The image of Palestinian poverty and deprivation has been essential to the Arab world's myth-making.
Now Arab insistence and rhetoric have backed the myth-makers into a corner: For the region's decayed regimes, continuing Palestinian misery and powerlessness remain preferable to a Palestinian state. But the United States and even Israel now seem to accept the inevitability of Free Palestine. The Arabs have gotten their public wish, but will regret it in private.
The Arabs still need someone to blame for their failures. And they will continue to blame Israel and the United States. The Arabs will find countless faults with Israel's implementation of any accords. Then they will attack the accords themselves as unjust.
The Arab world is as addicted to blame as any junkie was ever addicted to heroin.
There may be some meaningful efforts to place new limits on terrorist operations from the soil of states such as Jordan and Egypt. But the terrorists will find ways around any restrictions. They are so consumed with the vision of Israel annihilated that many will never be able to tear themselves away from the delicious comforts of hatred, blame and slaughter.
The best hope for peace would be a regime change in Syria and the expulsion of all terrorist organizations from Lebanon. That may happen. Operation Iraqi Freedom provided the spark that could ignite the entire region, leading to the eventual collapse of one illegitimate government after another.
Anti-Israeli terrorism will never cease entirely - it's simply too alluring to the spiritually dispossessed of the Arab world - but the transformation of surrounding governments into states even moderately observant of human rights, the rule of law and the popular will would seriously hamper terrorist operations.
The other great disappointment will be visited upon the Palestinian people themselves. Most Palestinians would welcome a chance to better their lives - or at least the lives of their children - and to determine who will lead them through free and fair elections.
But the other Arab states will never permit it - at least not until they change themselves. The last thing any of the surrounding regimes wants is a successful, economically thriving, rule-of-law, freely elected Arab government in their midst. The example to their own people would be unbearable.
It's critical to Arab leaders that a Palestinian state remain corrupt, malleable and governed by gunmen - even if the gunmen wear tailored suits to the conference table.
Arab states want the Palestinians to remain needy clients, not to become apostles of change. The situation in Iraq is worrisome enough to Damascus, Cairo and Riyadh.
Elections will be the first real test. Other Arab states will do all in their power to insure they don't happen freely and fairly. A leader like Yasser Arafat is ideal from the perspective of other Arab governments: He's impeccably dishonest, careless of the welfare of his people and contemptuous of individual rights. He's not only willing to be bought, he's willing to be bought cheap.
Any brave Palestinian who attempts to stand for election on a platform of genuine reform had better have the world's best bodyguards.
Israel will get through all this. Israelis know what is at stake, and they will adjust to new realities as necessary. Israel even may be a bit less embattled as long as the celebrations continue in the West Bank, Gaza, Paris, Berlin and other anti-Semitic hotbeds.
The real losers in the new state will be, as always, the Palestinians. They deserve freedom and a real chance to build a decent civil society. But the Europeans don't really care, the Arabs care about all the wrong things, and the current Palestinian leadership cares only about its own continued tenure in power.
A Palestinian state is on the way. Palestinian freedom will remain a dream.
Ralph Peters is a retired military officer and the author of "Beyond Terror: Strategy in a Changing World."