Israel is at war, fighting a guerrilla campaign being waged against the Jewish state, within and without the "Green Line", by Yasser Arafat and his Palestinian Authority. The killing of a young soldier by the Syrian-backed Hezbollah within Israel, at the Lebanese border, last week indicates that this "northern sector" too may soon become a second "front". Saddam Hussein is building a "Jerusalem Army" to aid the Palestinians, and his threat last week to attack the "Zionist entity", in revenge for the American-British bombing of radar sites near Baghdad, expresses yet another possible destabilization which could lead to a wider war.
In this radically dangerous context, it is clear why Ariel Sharon is seeking to construct a broad-based national unity government. It is indeed odd, perhaps paradoxical, and for some even unsettling, so soon after their repudiation by the electorate, to see Ehud Barak possibly turn up as defense minister, and the "father of the (now dead) peace process", Shimon Peres, as foreign minister. While coalition appointments must be approved by Labor's Central Committee, and Barak, or Peres, or both, may yet be forced to stand down, impending political and military decisions of fateful national import mandate broad-based governmental, and public, support.
This war must be won, and this will take strong measures, and strong nerves. Israel, however prudently she proceeds, will have to resist immense international pressures (the engendering of which is part of Arafat's strategy) in order to prevail.
Hence Sharon's instinct and politics here are correct. So long as he retains control, and neither Barak nor Peres (if current negotiations succeed) put sticks in the spokes of the new government's wheels, the stunning policy sea-change represented by Sharon's massive electoral victory, key to winning the war, will be respected. Importantly, the new George W. Bush Administration has so far been playing a supportive role in relation to Israel and the Sharon government. Iraq, not the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has been its focus; it has accepted Israel's view (seconded now by both Barak and Clinton) that the extreme Camp David II proposals are no longer on the order paper; and it delivered protests over the Hezbollah and Israel bus attacks to both Beirut and Arafat, respectively.
The situation will get worse before it gets better; there are no "quick fix", rapid solutions. Arafat is adding Hezbollah-style road-side bomb, rocket, and mortar attacks to his usual terrorist tactics. His hope here is that Israeli retaliation and growing Palestinian casualties will either trigger UN and European political, or Iraqi and/or Syrian (and, should things fall apart, even Egyptian) military intervention. The dangerous Lebanese front, in particular, could become unstable and lead an inexperienced Bashar Assad into a miscalculated response. And, given its 70% Palestinian population, one should not discount the destabilizing impact of a crisis on Jordan as well.
The corrupt Palestinian Authority's possible financial and political collapse could be another route to the "internationalization" of the conflict. Despite billions of dollars of European, UN, American, Arab, and even Israeli aid (much evidently in Swiss bank accounts), the PA faces supposedly imminent bankruptcy. Wealthy Arab states which initially pledged massive support, are in fact reluctant to see their promised aid go down the PLO rat-hole.
And while Arafat is still calling the shots, the ensuing chaos of such a collapse might well so delegitimize him that one or another of the young Turks (like Fatah-Tanzim head Marwan Barghouti), or one of the Syrian-backed anti-Fatah PLO factions, could challenge Arafat's leadership (or try to eliminate him, like the recently assassinated corrupt head of Palestinian Authority radio and TV).
Again, let us be clear--Israel is at war. Since 1993, Arafat has played the Israeli pro-peace left, and the Americans, like a violin, without complying with a single stipulation of the Oslo Accords, he has used the now-failed "peace process" to strengthen his control over the Palestinians and to arm their "militias" (like the now-notorious "Tanzim"). His maximal goal today remains what it was when Egypt set up the PLO in 1964: first weakening and then, by triggering a larger war, destroying the "Zionist entity". Israel's recent election clearly shows that her people now realize this, and a broad-based Sharon-led unity government will have the resources and political stamina effectively to respond to it.
Meanwhile, it is a new day here in Diaspora too, and in this crisis we, as much as our Israeli brothers and sisters, need to put our former peace-process divisions behind us. We need to educate our young people, especially on our embattled campuses, in the justice of Jewish Israel's cause, and the historical and political realities of Israel's Middle East "neighborhood". And we must do everything we can, through our community institutions and with Israel's representatives, to convey Israel's case to the public, to all people of good will.
Above all, as Israel faces her most serious crisis since 1973, we must forge our own Jewish unity into a powerful tool in defense of embattled Israel.
(Prof. Krantz is Editor of ISRAFAX, and Director of the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research)ISRANET DAILY BRIEFING