Israel Report

March 2002         

Arafat vs. the War on Terror

March 11, 2002
Much has been made of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's dropping his demand for seven terror-free days before implementing the Tenet cease-fire plan. But Sharon was not the only one to make concessions to terrorism; by sending envoy Anthony Zinni back to the region, US President George W. Bush dumped his own requirement that Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat fight terrorism before US mediation efforts resumed. These twin concessions pose serious questions - not just for the situation here, but for the global war on terrorism led by the United States.

It is little appreciated that, despite the recent renewal of fighting in Afghanistan, the greatest challenge to the principle of the war on terrorism is not there, but here. The reason is that, while there is practically no support or sympathy for the Taliban or al-Qaida outside the Arab world, there is substantial understanding for the Palestinian cause - even as Israelis are being murdered on streets, in seminaries, outside synagogues, and in coffee houses. Terrorists are being fought in Afghanistan, but the struggle over the legitimacy of terrorism is being fought in Israel.

Few will say, of course, that terrorism against Israelis is legitimate. But many Israelis, and American and European officialdom, believe the only way to address Palestinian terrorism is to give Palestinians at least some of what they want. And these same voices tend to categorically rule out confronting Palestinian terrorism the way the Taliban and al-Qaida have been - militarily, without a "diplomatic horizon." Early on in the current war on terrorism, some Western officials (including the US State Department) clumsily tried to make a distinction between the terrorism that the US faced and the "political" terrorism that confronted Israel. Bush put a stop to this, at least in the US, with his speech to the United Nations baldly rejecting the notion of the "good terrorist." But neither the United States nor Israel has managed to reconcile its support for certain Palestinian goals on the one hand, while opposing their means on the other. What has not sunk in is that as long as Palestinian goals are not threatened, and indeed are advanced, by the means they have chosen, they have little reason to abandon those means.

On the military front, Israel may have turned a corner with its successful operation in Tulkarm, in which hundreds of armed Tanzim fighters surrendered to Israeli forces. It was the first time Israeli forces entered a Palestinian refugee camp without allowing Palestinian forces to escape first, and yet those forces were crushed with relatively few casualties on either side.

However, repeating this type of operation is only part of the solution. Those who say that ending this onslaught requires a diplomatic component as well are right, but not the component that is usually advocated. The US and the Labor half of the government seem to assume that the diplomatic side is the carrot to the military stick. What is missing is the diplomatic stick. Rather than repeatedly promising Arafat a state, as if he is hard of hearing and saying it again would make a difference, the US and Israel must make clear that engaging in terrorism will cost Arafat his power. Keeping Arafat under house arrest and bombing his empty headquarters are evidently attempts to send such a signal. But as long as half the government and the US are not willing to threaten Arafat's regime, the threat is simply not credible.

It is fair to guess that Bush sent Zinni back into this mess, despite his earlier pledges, because Vice President Dick Cheney's trip to the region was in danger of being overshadowed by the rising violence here. Bush's concession to terror, however, will be seen as a sign of weakness that hurts Cheney's efforts to convince Arab states the US will not falter this time in removing Saddam Hussein. In Afghanistan, Bush learned that what mattered to both the Arab "street" and Arab governments was not what the US was doing, but whether it would win. Kowtowing to Palestinian terrorism is not a winning move.

If Bush wants to help Cheney's mission, he must stop letting himself be pushed around by Arafat. Powell's criticism of Israel and returning Zinni sent exactly the wrong signal. Bush can repair the damage, but only by making it clear that if Arafat does not fully implement the crackdown on terrorism required by the Tenet plan, the US will put him in the same boat as the Taliban and Saddam Hussein.

©2002 - Jerusalem Post


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