September/October 2000

The New Reality

(October 16) - It is sad to think how far matters have fallen in such a short time. Three months ago, the Camp David summit held expectations for an agreement that would end the Arab-Israeli conflict. Today's summit in Sharm e-Sheikh, by contrast, will be hard-pressed to end the Palestinian attack against Israel, let alone revive the negotiating track.

For Israel, Camp David embodied the ultimate strategic goal: to finally end Oslo's train of piecemeal concessions and require the Palestinians to reveal whether they would deliver their end of the bargain - peace. For Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, Camp David meant a very different destination for the Oslo train. From Arafat's perspective, at the end of the tracks was not an agreement but the opposite - a chasm which he would attempt to bridge - not by negotiations, but by violence.

In fact, the idea that Arafat's resort to violence was a negotiating tactic may itself be too optimistic, in that it implies that he eventually wants to reach an agreement with Israel. The last weeks' events bring this premise into question, and raise the strong possibility that Arafat has no interest in an agreement at all, preferring instead that his state be born into conflict with Israel.

It is not clear that Prime Minister Ehud Barak or Israel's leadership in general has fully absorbed the implications of this radical turn of events.

Some, such as Communications Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and Likud MK Dan Meridor, have stated in no uncertain terms that Israel must "change cassettes" and start thinking of Arafat as a military adversary rather than a negotiating partner.

Privately, Barak may well have come to this conclusion, but there is still little evidence that the government's "cassette" has changed accordingly.

The first sign of recognition of the new reality was Barak's call for a "national emergency" government. This is a critical step that should be completed immediately after the summit at the latest, regardless of the summit's outcome.

But Israel's approach to the summit itself should also reflect the new reality. Israel is the aggrieved party, the party that went the extra mile for piece and was rewarded by riots and lynchings. Israel should not go to Sharm to pay for a return to negotiations that the Palestinians do not want, and which they unilaterally destroyed. On the contrary, it is Arafat who must reverse what he has wrought - particularly the release of the ringleaders behind Hamas suicide-bombings.

More broadly, Israel must develop its "Plan B" - how to behave now that the Palestinians have traded negotiations for what military analysts call "low-intensity conflict" and what most people would call war.

The IDF's limited, pinpoint, response to Thursday's lynchings in Ramallah and the burning of a synagogue in Jericho was the correct first step in the new strategy that has been forced upon Israel. The continuation of this strategy should be ready for swift implementation should the attack against Israel continue: exacting maximum damage to the Palestinians' military infrastructure.

Though the Oslo agreement limits Palestinian forces to 30,000 weapons, of which only 245 may be heavy machine guns, the Fatah Tanzim alone - just one of the Palestinian militia forces - is estimated to possess 70,000 weapons. The Palestinians have also illegally amassed rocket-propelled grenades, anti-tank, and anti-aircraft weaponry. Israel and the United States mistakenly turned a blind eye toward this growing arsenal so as not to disrupt the negotiating process, but once that process is abandoned these weapons are legitimate targets for destruction.

The other plan that must be in place is Israel's response to the now practically inevitable unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood.

Such a declaration would formally release Israel from Oslo's restriction against legally changing the status of territory. Accordingly, Israel agenda for "unilateral day" should be to assume full control of the majority of Judea and Samaria where Palestinians do not live, according to lines that maximize Israel's ability to defend itself.

The Palestinians have long argued that all Israel understands is force. The Israeli corollary to this assumption is that all the Palestinians understand is facts on the ground. The hard-learned lesson of the last seven years is that Israel could well have to return to the policies of the previous 26 years: that of slowly creating facts on the ground that increase the territorial price of the Palestinian refusal to negotiate peace.

© Jerusalem Post 2000

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