by Neill Lochery - June 25, 2001
Israel's patience with Yasser Arafat and the Palestinians is fast running out. The recent U.S.-brokered ceasefire has -- predictably -- failed to end the violence, and as a result Israel is urgently reviewing its policy of self-restraint. Among the political and security elite in Israel, attention is turning to Plan B -- the military option. The debate taking place behind closed doors in Tel Aviv on this issue is of a very different nature than previous ones, with Israel considering instigating a serious escalation of the conflict.
The key word among the Israeli military elite is frustration. The current violence is not viewed as a popular uprising but rather as a low-scale war, one in which Mr. Arafat controls the intensity of the exchanges. An increasing number of key players in Israel feel the time has come for Israel to seize the initiative from Mr. Arafat and set the tone and scale of the battle. In practical terms, they argue Israeli forces should re-enter areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority to collect weapons, arrest those suspected of carrying out attacks against Israel and destroy certain buildings that are being used by Palestinian snipers. Following the completion of the operation, Israeli forces will pull out, as has happened in recent operations in Gaza.
Such actions were deemed impractical by Israeli planners as recently as this January, so what has changed?First, Israel's standing in the international community has been bolstered by its policy of self-restraint imposed by Ariel Sharon, the Prime Minister. Israeli citizens, however, have paid a high price for this with the increased number of casualties sustained as a direct result of the policy. Those who see Israel's self-restraint as a viable medium- to long-term policy understand little of the pressures on Mr. Sharon -- even from many on the Israeli left -- to act.
Second, the policy of self-restraint has completed the work of the former Israeli PM, Ehud Barak, in exposing Mr. Arafat and the PA to the world. Mr. Barak exposed the myth that the PA wanted to end the conflict through diplomatic means during last year's Camp David summit. For his part, Mr. Sharon has shown the world that the Palestinians are not interested in ending the violence. There is no practical need for Israel to further illustrate this fact when the price of doing so is being paid in the blood of its own people.
Third, it is clear that the major hole in the peace process initiated at Oslo in 1993 remains the notion that Israel has effectively handed control of its security to the very man and organization that wish to destroy it. It has become apparent to even the most optimistic members of the peace camp in Israel that Mr. Arafat is not going to do Israel's work for it. The notion put forward by leading academics that Israel could rely on Mr. Arafat, at the very least not to authorize attacks on Israel, is in tatters. Undercover operations by Israeli forces have been aimed not only at rooting out members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, but also key members of Fatah and Mr. Arafat's own bodyguard entourage, who are accused of taking part in operations against Israel.
Taken together, these three factors present a compelling case to most Israelis for a robust response to continued Palestinian attacks. Mr. Sharon has been preparing for a major confrontation with the Palestinians, which he has viewed as inevitable, for some time. Under cover of Israel's diplomatic offensive, Mr. Sharon has been ready to draw fire for such actions as the incursions into Gaza by Israeli attacks, the use of U.S. jets to bomb key targets in the West Bank and the incursions by Israeli special forces into Palestinian-controlled areas. Though these operations have come to a halt under Israel's self-imposed ceasefire, Mr. Sharon has in effect laid the groundwork for an escalation of the conflict by gradually increasing the scale of Israeli military action.
Mr. Arafat, by not implementing the ceasefire, has provided Mr. Sharon with the opportunity to use a higher degree of Israeli might to tilt the balance of the conflict in Israel's favour. The main restraining force on Israeli action is not its own population, but the international community. Realists in Israel understand that world leaders will cry foul when Israeli forces enter PA-controlled areas -- even given the provocation of continued Palestinian attacks. The level of the criticism, however, will be much lower than had Israel acted before it attempted to unilaterally end the violence. Israel has given itself more room to manoeuvre and the previously unthinkable is now on the agenda.
Israel's Plan B may be the only option left to return an acceptable level of security to its citizens and armed forces. The long-term consequences of this restoration of security are more difficult to predict, but a wider Middle East war remains a real prospect.Neill Lochery is director of the Centre for Israeli Studies at University College in London.
©2001 - National Post