Israel Report

SeptOct 2003         

Three Years of Arafat's War

By Gerald Steinberg - September 25, 2003
Rosh Hashana marks three full years of Arafat's war - and tragically, the beginning of the fourth. The recent events and bungled decision that returned Yasser Arafat to center stage, at least for a few days, suggest that little has changed.

Three years ago, many of us already knew that the Palestinian leaders had turned their backs on any agreement and were preparing for a campaign of terror and violence. The resulting brutality in which almost 900 Israelis have been murdered and thousands of lives destroyed, was too inhuman to imagine, but in retrospect not surprising.

Yet the possible and even likely scenarios discussed three years ago were even worse than the bitter reality. With Arafat's circle promoting the violence, including well-organized mass rioting and insurrection in the Israeli Arab sector, a regional confrontation was certainly possible. The rhetoric of jihad and the carefully manipulated images of confrontation on Al-Jazeera and CNN were designed to draw the Arab states and their armies into a conflict with Israel.

Saddam Hussein was using the Palestinian issue to claim Arab leadership, and Hizbullah - supported by Syria and Iran - also sought to compete for a leading role in the attack on the Zionists and Jews. Jordan would have been destabilized, and in Egypt the corrupt and failed government might have diverted pressure by confronting Israel.

The success in deterring a wider regional war is more than a minor consolation. Saddam is now out of the picture, the Iraqi military threat to Israel has been eliminated, Syria's army is rusting, and the corrupt regime crumbling. Hizbullah is, at least for now, weakened and threatened with irrelevance, and Iran's nuclear ambitions may still be stopped at the last minute.

In addition, Arafat's goal of "internationalizing the conflict" to create a Palestinian state without a peace agreement is not in the cards.

We can also derive comfort from the strength and resilience of the Israeli public and the support from the Diaspora. Three years ago Palestinians, as well as many of our own leaders, expected middle-class secular Israel to buckle under the terror attacks. Extrapolating from the Lebanon war, including the mass demonstrations leading to unilateral retreat, a similar response was predicted in the face of Palestinian violence and suicide bombings.

But we are still here, three years and nearly 900 murders later, united and with a renewed commitment to Zionism, national sovereignty and cultural revival in our homeland. And the Jewish communities around the world are standing with us, through solidarity missions and direct involvement in combating the great lies and demonization.

Furthermore, in contrast to this week's headlines, Arafat's influence continues to disintegrate, albeit gradually. Three years ago when the war began, Palestinian talking heads quickly captured all the media fronts. Journalists and diplomats blindly repeated the mantra condemning Israel for "war crimes" and violations of human rights, while embracing Hamas and Arafat's terrorists as "freedom fighters."

Some have learned nothing, but others have opened their eyes to reality. The queue of high-level European diplomats waiting for another photo opportunity with Arafat has dwindled significantly; he has to make do with singing Italian football teams and minor consular officials.

The opposition in the US and Europe to Arafat's forced removal from the scene is couched in strictly pragmatic terms, while there is general agreement that his policies are the central sources of terrorism and the main obstacles to peace.

It took the Bush administration two long years to accept this reality, and the European love affair lasted an extra year, but now even the Arabophiles in Brussels and Paris admit (behind closed doors) that Arafat is a dangerous dinosaur incapable of ending terrorism.

The media and some parts of the "diplomatic community" have also become more mature and somewhat more knowledgeable about the conflict in the past three years. The automatic assumptions that history - and terror attacks - began in 1967, or that ending Israeli settlements and "the occupation" would lead to mutual acceptance and peace are no longer accepted universally or at face value. (Terje-Roed Larsen, the utterly ineffective Norwegian diplomat and UN special envoy, is an exception who appears mentally incapable of discarding simplistic myths and antiquated slogans.)

On university campuses students are leading counterattacks against academic corruption that promotes trendy Israel-bashing and anti-Semitism. And some donors and volunteers affiliated with NGOs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch demand an end to the immoral propaganda war against Israel.

But none of this "good news" justifies complacency on the Israeli side. The latest series of terror bombings were reminders that this deadliest of wars is not over. And for all his accomplishments, Prime Minister Sharon's inability to seek and take advice still leads to costly diplomatic mistakes. The failure to offer a coherent alternative to the road map or complete the separation fence last year are examples of difficulties that should have been avoided.

So as we prepare to enter the Jewish year 5764, neither self-congratulation nor despair are appropriate. We have made important gains in the past three years, but face continuing challenges. Our goal as a people for this year should be to show the strength and wisdom needed to avoid foolish mistakes, and do what is necessary to create sanity and stability, if not yet peace.

The writer is director of the program on conflict management and negotiation at Bar-Ilan University.

©2003 - Jerusalem Post


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