On Sunday, Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat proclaimed his latest "cease-fire," about the ninth depending on how one counts. On Monday, David Rubin was driving home with his three-year old son, when their car was raked by Palestinian gunfire. Rubin was hit in the leg and a bullet grazed his son's neck.
Another centimeter or another second and both father and son would have been dead. Despite reports of arrests here and there, security officials told this newspaper that Hamas is planning "chilling" attacks on a scale beyond the many atrocities it has committed to date. Neither the US nor Israel has seen anything from Arafat like the comprehensive military actions it would take to prevent the next mass murder.
In this context, the subtle dilution of the message from the US is worrisome, even deadly. While President George W. Bush has, since the suicide bombings in Jerusalem and Haifa on December 1-2, been unequivocal in his support for Israel's right to self-defense, cracks are already appearing in the statements of Secretary of State Colin Powell.
On the one hand, Powell has said all the right things about what Arafat should do: "Attack" the infrastructure of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, end incitement, and act rather than just talk. Powell's skepticism toward Arafat may run deeper than he admits in public, since he reportedly told European officials that "if Arafat wants to commit suicide, we won't stand in his way."
On the other hand, Powell continues to be much more reluctant to defend Israel than his boss. For example, he was asked this week why the US has not been criticizing Israeli responses to terror since December 1. This was a perfect invitation to echo the president, vice president, and secretary of defense, all of whom emphasize that Israel not only has the right but the responsibility to defend her citizens, just like the US. Instead, Powell responded, "We have, I believe, spoken on both sides of this issue.. We have also indicated that... actions taken by one side or the other have to be considered in light of we're still going to be here tomorrow and the day after. And I hope that reality is reflected into actions that both sides take."
What is all this blather about "both sides"? Why does Powell have such trouble saying the words "self-defense"? Is Israel defending itself from a terrorist onslaught or not? Is Arafat harboring terrorists or not? How would Powell like it if Israel's response to the American campaign against the Taliban was, "Both sides need to consider the day after tomorrow"?
At first the US, following the State Department's lead, did think too much about tomorrow in Afghanistan and refrained from bombing the Taliban's front lines and then urged the Northern Alliance not to take Kabul. The war was won in Afghanistan when the US changed its mind and realized it must first win the war before worrying too much about tomorrow.
Here, too, tomorrow begins when Arafat either falls or squashes terrorism - his own and that of his competitors-cum-allies. As in Afghanistan, that tomorrow does bear much thought and should not be ignored or dismissed.
But as in Afghanistan, putting the cart before the horse materially harms the effort to get to that tomorrow.
Many are skeptical, to say the least, of the chances of Arafat ever taking meaningful action against all terrorism, not just the suicide bombings that are inconvenient for him at the moment. It is fair to guess that Powell is among these skeptics. But if Powell believes that Arafat will not act against terrorism unless he is faced with losing power (and perhaps not even then), why does he not make the choice for Arafat as stark as possible?
Powell is not only refraining from saying that Arafat, like the Taliban, must choose between terror and power - he is defending Arafat against Israel's claim that he is "irrelevant." Powell and the Europeans have gone out of their way to emphasize that Arafat is the "legal and moral" leader of the Palestinian people.
The message of this chorus is that Arafat must fight terror, but even if he does not, nothing can shake the foundations of his legitimacy as the Palestinian leader. Nothing could be more contrary to the Bush Doctrine prohibiting the harboring of terrorists. Nothing could be a more sure-fire recipe for failure, and for more Israeli and Palestinian deaths.
©2001 - Jerusalem Post