November/December 2000
An Israeli tank advances near Beit Jala

Israeli Endgame

The accolades came in fast and thick the night Ehud Barak was elected Prime Minister of Israel in a landslide over Benjamin Netanyahu. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman hailed the neophyte politician as a "statesman" who could bring an end to the country’s "national nightmare." Similar gush was heard from the Clinton Administration, which had dispatched its political hit team of Carville, Greenburg & Shrum to defeat the evil Bibi and, it was assumed, Give Peace a Chance.

That was 17 months ago. Since then, Mr. Barak has done just about everything people like Mr. Friedman and Mr. Clinton have wanted him to do. He made a good-faith offer to Syria to return nearly all the Golan Heights. He withdrew the Israeli army from its outposts in southern Lebanon. He went to Camp David and reportedly made Yasser Arafat an offer beyond anything the Palestinian strongman could have expected, given previous Israeli conditions. The offer is said to have included 90% of the West Bank and half of Jerusalem.

And where has this got him? Syria imperiously rebuffed the Golan offer because it amounted to a mere 99% of its demands. Hezbollah has been launching attacks into northern Israel on the claim that a sliver of Lebanese territory remains in the "occupiers’" hands. (Even the U.N. disagrees.) The Palestinian leadership did not waste much time in tagging the new Prime Minister as "Barakyahu." When the opportunity presented itself in the form of Ariel Sharon’s allegedly provocative visit to the Temple Mount, they launched their latest bloody "uprising." Now Israel is facing up to a real horror: terrorist bomb attacks within Israel proper, something that didn’t happen in the "nightmarish" Netanyahu years.

Internationally, too, the situation has worsened. An Israel that found itself ostracized under Mr. Netanyahu’s government is now nearly a pariah state, routinely accused of the excessive use of force, war crimes and even genocide. This despite the fact that Israeli soldiers have in the present crisis acted only defensively or reactively, going so far as to warn Palestinians in advance where helicopter gunships are going to strike. Meanwhile, the Clinton Administration that did so much to bring Mr. Barak to power has offered only halfhearted support for Israel, terrified as it is that in so doing it might offend Mr. Arafat. Not that it helps: Mr. Arafat has now taken to denouncing the U.S. for providing Israel with military support.

All this came to a head on Tuesday, when Mr. Barak, facing a vote of no confidence, was forced to call for new elections, probably to be held within the next six months. Current opinion polls show that Mr. Barak would lose narrowly to Mr. Sharon or otherwise be trounced by Mr. Netanyahu, should the former prime minister choose to throw his hat in the ring. As it is, Mr. Barak may not even make it that far: members of his own party are disgruntled and may challenge him for the leadership.

So what’s been learned from all this? Mr. Friedman is confused. The current fighting, he says, "makes no sense." The Israeli strategy is "whacky" and the Palestinian one "insane." Saying the world’s gone mad is, of course, what people often do when their predictions prove wrong. Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright thinks the peace process can "move ahead" as soon as the violence ends. But she, of all people, should know that you can never go home again.

Israelis, however, do seem to be learning something. They are learning that the international support generated by territorial concessions can last only as long as it takes the Palestinians to gin up another grievance—and there’s an endless supply of those, from hassles with permits to the "right of return" for refugees. They are learning that Palestinian demands are non-negotiable, calling into question the utility of negotiation. They are learning that to have formal relations with their neighbors counts for little, as the recall of Egypt’s ambassador last week showed. They are learning, in short, that after more than a half-century of existence they are still fighting a war of independence. So Israelis will soon go to the polls and change the composition of government. That they alone among their neighbors can do this is not a fact much commented on in the Western press (much less in the Arab one). But as little Israel again comes under siege--from Hamas terrorists, Tanzim militiamen, Hezbollah guerrillas as well as sanctimonious Westerners—it bears notice that this little country remains free, and brave and, it now seems, a little wiser.

  ©Wall Street Journal, November 30, 2000

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