Israel Report

February 2002         

Strip Arafat's Immunity

February 21, 2002
Two months ago, US Secretary of State Colin Powell argued, and many believed, that Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat had reached his moment of truth: He would either crack down on terror or he would be lumped together with the Talibans of the world. The result of this pressure was Arafat's cease-fire speech, followed by a period of relative quiet. Now Arafat, the ultimate escape artist, has essentially thrown back the moment of truth on Israel's doorstep. Will Israel simply absorb the current escalation, embrace some form of unilateral surrender, or crush the Palestinian Authority?

Living with the status quo must be ruled out as unacceptable from a moral, tactical, or strategic point of view. Israel has a duty to safeguard its citizens, and not to accept either terrorism against civilians or guerrilla war against soldiers. A tit-for-tat response, in which Israel kills a few Palestinian soldiers (called police) or terrorists, means victory for the Palestinian side, since democracies are - to their credit - more sensitive to casualties than dictatorships.

Strategically, the status quo is unacceptable, because it signals that Israel is either incapable or unwilling to defend itself. We do not live in a region that is very tolerant of such signals, and we know from experience that the result will be continuing attacks at current or more deadly levels.

One proposed way out that has tempted many is unilateral separation. The main problem with this approach, and with the proposal being cooked up by Foreign Minister Shimon Peres with Palestinian Legislative Council Speaker Ahmed Qurei, is that it grants Arafat his dream: a Palestinian state without having to make peace with Israel.

Building a fence - a milder form of the separation proposal - may make sense in some places, but it is hardly a panacea.

It is true that the solution being advocated by part of the Right - a full reoccupation of Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza Strip - is also not appealing. Israel has no desire or interest in ruling over Palestinians in the majority of the territories that will not become part of the State of Israel. What the Right never admits is that Israel's withdrawal from Palestinian cities was a legitimate achievement of the Oslo Accords. Attempting to move the clock back to the pre-Oslo situation is a highly unattractive option.

What is not widely recognized, however, is that there are other options aside from surrender, reoccupation, and the status quo. The first is for Israel to do what it implied it would do but has not done on a sustained basis: take over Palestinian areas temporarily for the purpose of collecting weapons and arresting terrorists. A rolling operation of this sort would not be simple, nor would its effects be permanent, but it could significantly decrease the Palestinians' ability to attack Israelis.

It is not easy to admit it, but Israel and the Palestinians are locked in a war of attrition. In such a war, anything that gives the Palestinians hope that Israel will collapse, or be forced into an untenable international position, encourages further attacks. Accordingly, it is hard to exaggerate the damage that even a fringe minority can cause by acting as if Israel's refusal to capitulate is responsible for the continuing Palestinian attacks.

At the same time, Israel's decision not to push the United States to join in a combined effort to threaten Arafat's power is also extremely damaging. The context of the current Palestinian escalation is Arafat's perceived immunity in the shadow of the coming American campaign in Iraq.

Israel has a legitimate reason to see the American effort to oust Saddam as taking precedence over practically every other concern. Accordingly, Israel has chosen not to challenge the assumption that now is not the time to threaten Arafat's ouster. The problem is that this assumption has proven self-defeating: Instead of producing quiet it has invited Palestinian escalation.

The ultimate antidote to the current escalation is for the US and Israel to lift the unconditional immunity granted to Arafat's leadership and exchange it for the conditional variety presented to the Taliban. Arafat will end the current offensive against Israel if the cost to his own power (not to the Palestinian people) exceeds its potential benefits. Both the military and diplomatic components are necessary to effectively increase Arafat's costs. Without heightened military pressure, diplomatic threats will not be credible; without diplomatic ultimatums, military actions are unlikely to be decisive.

©2002 - Jerusalem Post


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