September/October 2000

Realities of War

By Charles Krauthammer

Friday , October 27, 2000

As Israel awakens from the mirage of the past seven years and to the nightmare of the murderous ethnic war it has invited into its very heart, it searches for a way out. Yasser Arafat has now scorned the Sharm el-Sheikh agreements brokered by President Clinton and refused to order a cease-fire. He repeats his demands for Jerusalem and the "right of return" of the Palestinian refugees, which means the demographic extinction of Israel.

What to do?

First, self-defense. The Palestinians have armed gunmen shooting into Israeli neighborhoods all over the country. USA Today reporter Jack Kelley witnessed Palestinian ambulance drivers shooting at Israelis and bringing buckets of stones and Molotov cocktails to the rioters. Keith Richburg of The Post reports that Islamic terrorist leaders meet daily with Arafat's lieutenants to plan and coordinate violence.

This is no spontaneous uprising. This is war. In war you fight back, or you die.

The tragedy is that fighting back means that yet more Palestinians will die. But that is hardly Israel's military objective. When Palestinian civilians got their hands on two Israeli reservists who had made a wrong turn into Ramallah, they tore them limb from limb. However, when Israel retaliated with helicopter attacks that blew up half a dozen buildings in densely populated areas, not one person was killed. Why? Because Ehud Barak gave Arafat three hours' warning, precisely so that he could evacuate the buildings.

The last thing Israel wanted was this war. The last thing Israel wants is casualties. Israelis know how Arafat uses "martyrdom," especially children's deaths, to advance his aims. But when a mob attacks Israeli checkpoints, the soldiers know exactly what awaits them if it is overrun--lynching, and mutilation, as the world saw in Ramallah. They have to fight back.

The danger, of course, is that tit-for-tat is simply going to turn Israel into Lebanon. Or Vietnam. That hardly seems a rational plan.

Indeed, it isn't, although it does seem to be the plan of Israel's hapless Prime Minister Barak. He is allowing Arafat to determine the level of escalation. Which is why Israel's second objective, beyond self-defense, should be to make Arafat pay a penalty for starting this war.

Arafat knows he started it. Israel knows he started it. The United States knows he started it. And we all know why: to be able to dictate terms whenever the fighting stops. There is no downside for him.

Making him pay does not mean mowing down demonstrators--although some telegenic massacre to rally the world to his side would be Arafat's fondest wish. No. Israel's response must be calibrated but powerful: Retake some of the territory--the sparsely inhabited so-called "Area B"--that Israel gave Arafat under the Oslo agreements.

Not reoccupy his cities. Not attack his population centers. But let him know that when he chooses war, Israeli territorial concessions become as null and void as Palestinian promises of nonviolence.

Before the fighting, Arafat had 40 percent of the West Bank, and Barak promised him 92 percent at Camp David. If Israel were now to cut his little Palestine in half, he might think twice about continuing this war--or starting another one when it suits his negotiating needs.

Israel would have no more intention of keeping these barren hillsides than it did the recently evacuated wastelands of southern Lebanon. The objective of such a strategy is not territory but deterrence. Advance and sit. Arafat will have no economy, no transportation, no normal life until he stops the killing. Then he and Israel can talk again.

But is that not conceding the doves' point that in the end peace talks are the only way?

Well, yes. For 52 years, Israelis have been ready to talk peace. But the idea of a final peace is for dreamers. We've just been there. Barak offered Arafat a generous final peace--and Arafat told him to go to hell. Right now, the best one can aspire to is an armistice.

This is not a counsel of despair. It is a return to realism. There was an armistice in 1949. In 1956. In 1967. In 1973. And Israel survived.

Of course everyone wants that final peace, but that will happen only when the Arabs decide that Israelis are not weak, are not temporary (like the Crusaders: a century or two is temporary in that neighborhood) and have a right to be there. One day's exposure to Palestinian media calling for death to the Jews tells you how far we are from that day.

And until that day dawns, Israel's only alternatives are counterstrike and deterrence to force an armistice--or start building boats for the sail back to Europe.

© 2000 The Washington Post

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