July/August 2000

'New' Middle East?

By Evelyn Gordon

(July 18) - If anyone wonders what life in Israel might look like should Prime Minister Ehud Barak return from Washington with an agreement, it might be instructive to look at our northern border.

The pullback from Lebanon, for those who may have forgotten, was supposed to effectively end our state of war with that nation. No agreement was signed, but it was common knowledge that the Lebanese had no real quarrel with us other than our presence on their soil. With that gone, there should have been no barrier to de facto peace, if not the de jure variety.

The reality looks a little different. On the Lebanese side of the border, throwing stones at Israeli troops has become the new national hobby. According to recent press reports, organized tours to the Fatma gate set out daily from the northern part of the country. About 300 people come in midweek, and about 1,500 on weekends. Tractors replenish the piles of stones when needed so that the tourists can do what they came for: throw them at Israeli soldiers.

Furthermore, this behavior is openly encouraged by Arab intellectuals. Even Columbia University professor and Palestinian intellectual Edward Said made the pilgrimage to the fence to throw stones.

But what is happening north of the border seems trivial when compared to the southern side, where the IDF has been recruiting and training volunteer "emergency teams" among Israel's northern townships. These volunteers receive strict open-fire orders: No shooting back at anything that comes over the border - even incendiary bombs - unless it results in Israeli casualties.

Welcome to the New Middle East. Here, in all its glory, is that utopia which acquiescence to Arab territorial demands can obtain for us.

And it looks rather frighteningly like the old Middle East. Not the Middle East of the pre-Oslo intifada days, or even that of the early years of the state, before the Six Day War - but the Middle East of the prestate Jewish yishuv, where we relied for our defense on that famous farmer with his hoe in one hand and his gun in the other. Israel, we are told, has the strongest army in the Middle East: It can afford to take risks for peace. Yet now, that army apparently no longer believes it can defend our northern border. In the New Middle East, it has to train civilians to do the job.

Proponents of a summit deal might argue that the Palestinian situation is different. Unlike with Lebanon, we are aiming for a signed agreement with the Palestinians - one in which they will pledge to abjure violence. Unfortunately, most of the differences between the Palestinians and Lebanon point in the other direction.

To start with, we have never had a signed peace agreement with the Lebanese. One could therefore hope that if we had one, they might honor it. But we have had several signed agreements with the Palestinians over the last seven years - and this experience teaches that a Palestinian promise to abjure violence is not worth the paper it is printed on.

The Palestinians also pledged to abandon violence in the original Oslo Accord of 1993, and in every agreement they have signed with Israel since. This has not prevented armed conflict between the Palestinian Police and the IDF in the past, and it is even less likely to do so in the future, now that the 40,000-member "police force" has openly begun military training - ranging, according to press reports, from division-level exercises locally to sending senior officers overseas to train with foreign armies.

Even more important, our dispute with Lebanon is now truly of minor dimensions: a few meters here and there along the border. But the Palestinians are still claiming the right of return to Jaffa and Lod. This is a dispute of major proportions, which constitutes a far greater pretext for further violence - and no territorial concession in the West Bank will make it disappear.

Finally, if Barak does concede over 90 percent of the West Bank to an independent Palestinian state, the potential danger is much greater - because the new border, unlike that with Lebanon, would run on high ground directly overlooking, and directly alongside, our major population centers.

But perhaps, after all, that is wise: It creates more potential recruits for our civilian "emergency teams."

© Jerusalem Post 2000

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