Israel Report

March 2002         

Israel's Moment of Truth

March 22, 2002
We are living through a case of human experimentation gone awry, as if this time the results will be different. In a span of 24 hours, 10 Israeli citizens have been murdered in suicide-massacres on a bus and a central Jerusalem street. Israel will not give in to this barbarism, but it will not end unless it is confronted rather than appeased.

In the six months since September 11, we have gone through a complete cycle that started with appeasement, switched to confrontation, and then back to appeasement. The cycle began with the sense that, at the moment the United States was gearing up to crush al-Qaida and depose the Taliban, Israel was told to restrain itself in order not to inflame the "cycle of violence." The height of this first attempt to appease Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat was US Secretary of State Colin Powell's November speech placing the state of Palestine at the center of America's vision for the Middle East. Then came envoy Anthony Zinni's previous mission, which was greeted by suicide-massacres in Jerusalem and Haifa on December 1 and 2.

At this point, while Prime Minister Ariel Sharon happened to be in Washington, US President George W. Bush switched tacks. Bush dropped the evenhandedness under fire that he had inherited from the previous US administration and began to unequivocally back Israel's right to self-defense. The effect of Bush's switch was immediate and powerful. On December 16, Arafat gave his first public call for an end to terrorism against Israel.

Arafat's speech was not followed up by any serious actions against terrorist organizations, but a period of relative quiet followed. But even though the number of terror attacks went down, and Israel cut back its military operations substantially, there was not a single terror-free day, let alone the week that Israel was demanding before entering into negotiations.

While it is commonly argued that Israel triggered the escalation that followed by killing Fatah-Tanzim leader Raed Karni, this claim does not stand up to examination. The underlying explanation is not any particular incident, but the continuation of a pattern that has existed for some time: Arafat turns down the flames under pressure, then turns them back up when the pressure subsides.

The reason for this is simple. Regardless of all the commitments he has made - from Oslo to Sharm, Mitchell, Tenet, and Zinni - Arafat has decided that the terrorism will continue until Israel withdraws under fire. With each cycle of terrorism leading to pressure, a "cease-fire," then more terrorism, Arafat hears more voices of desperation, more calls to internationalize the conflict, negotiate under fire, or withdraw unilaterally. Each time Arafat comes closer to "proving" that pressure and force do not work, and Israel's only choice is to give in.

Now it is Israel's turn for a moment of truth. The government must face the fact that Arafat will not implement the Tenet or any other cease-fire plan as a result of inducements, such as relief from Israeli military pressure or a meeting with Vice President Richard Cheney.

Sharon must decide that he is willing to oust Arafat from power. This decision must be taken despite the risk to his two most critical relationships: with Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and George Bush. Sharon must tell Peres that he would very much prefer moving ahead together, but is determined to do so with or without him. Sharon must tell Bush that he has given restraint and diplomacy every chance to work, but that Israel cannot afford any more failed experiments, each of which costs dozens of Israeli lives and leads to further escalation.

Of the two, Bush will be more easily persuaded. The current American slide into enticing Arafat was not born of any belief that it would work, but out of a realization that Israel was acting tough enough to complicate American diplomacy, but not tough enough to win. If Sharon and Peres were together to tell Bush that Israel is ready to free the Palestinians from Arafat's coalition of terror, the United States would back Israel. Even without Peres's support, the clear US interest would be the success of Israel's campaign.

It would obviously be preferable for Israel and the United States if this moment of truth could be postponed until after the US had ousted Saddam Hussein from power. But Arafat and Saddam know this as well, and they are unsurprisingly unwilling to cooperate with such a timetable. They know that it is impossible for the United States to project an image of invincibility while turning a blind eye to the pummeling of its ally, Israel. Arafat will keep escalating as long as the prospective campaign against Saddam gives him immunity from the US and Israel. As much as Israel wants to clear the way for Saddam's ouster, allowing her citizens to be slaughtered with impunity will not help.

©2002 - Jerusalem Post

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