Bush's Mideast Autopilot

February, 15 2001

Once again the front pages are filled with pictures of young faces on a black background and snippets from the funerals are interspersed between anguished commentary and subdued, melancholy music on the radio. The purpose of terrorism is to instill a fatalistic sense of inevitability and defenselessness. Yet those who claim that terrorism cannot be defeated are wrong; we will defeat terror because the Palestinians have left us with no other choice.

Thanks to Ehud Barak, Israelis now know that the Palestinians are not fighting to obtain a state in virtually all of Judea, Samaria, and Gaza - they turned that down at Camp David and Taba. Now they are fighting for the right to return to Haifa, Jaffa, Acre, and Lod. As Abdullah Horani, a veteran member of the PLO's executive committee, wrote last month in an open letter to Yasser Arafat, "Tell [the Israelis] that Jerusalem is part of the problem, but the refugees are the entire problem; and that Jerusalem is part of the homeland, while the refugees are the homeland itself." Palestinian leaders know that virtually all Israelis consider conceding the "right of return" to the Palestinians tantamount to national suicide.

The violent Palestinian attempt to press this claim can only have one of two purposes: to prevent any Israeli-Palestinian agreement or to raise the price of an agreement even further than the extreme concessions offered at Camp David and Taba.

Either way, the Palestinian attack must not just be defended against, or stoically tolerated, but defeated. The mantra heard both on the Israeli Left and in foreign ministries all over the world - that the violence only has a political solution - is exactly backward: Without defeating the Palestinian terror offensive, no political solution is possible.

Though military measures obviously are important in defeating Palestinian terror, two non-military prerequisites are at least as critical: Israeli unity and American honesty. Israeli unity is critical because it will signal that Israel has stopped blaming itself for the lack of peace and has shifted the burden where it belongs, on those who refuse to accept Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state. By now, the need for unity is well understood, and seems soon to be implemented on the political level. Less appreciated, however, is the damage caused by the American refusal to distinguish between victim and aggressor.

Commenting Tuesday on Israel's killing of a colonel in Yasser Arafat's bodyguard who masterminded Hizbullah-style attacks in Gaza, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said, "The use of Israeli helicopter gunships, Palestinian attacks against settlements and motorists, the use of mortars by Palestinians, and the targeted killings by the Israeli defense force today are producing a new cycle of action and reaction which can become impossible to control... Both the Israelis and the Palestinians need to do everything they can to stop the violence..."

It is not clear why the Bush administration would continue the failed Clinton policy of moral equivalence between terrorism and the fight against it. The policy of willful moral obtuseness was considered necessary by the Clinton team when the US was hip-deep in brokering an Israeli-Palestinian final-status agreement. Now that the Palestinians have chosen to blow up the negotiating table, there is no possible rationale for rewarding terrorism by placing it on par with self-defense.

President George Bush, while condemning the bus attack, missed an opportuniy to do himself and the region a tremendous favor by some plain speaking: Terrorism must be fought, and the US stands behind Israel in fighting terrorism. Such a simple statement would send a powerful signal: The US will no longer blame Israel for defending itself, it will blame the Palestinians for scuttling peace.

Moderate Arab states, while publicly criticizing such a shift in US policy, would privately breathe a sigh of relief. They know that the continuation or escalation of the Palestinian attack could well boomerang against them in the form of internal unrest. It is no coincidence that the Arab states are not rushing to save Arafat from the financial collapse that threatens his mini-war just as surely as Israeli military actions.

The Bush team has barely had time to find their offices, and it is tough to turn the American ship of state on a dime. We hope that the continuation of Clinton's counterproductive "cycle of violence" rhetoric is not deliberate, but a case of an unexamined policy continuing on autopilot. On this side of the ocean, however, real people are losing their lives waiting for new governments in Israel and the US to decide that Arafat's attack must be defeated, not accommodated.

©2001 - Jerusalem Post

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