In a stunning reversal of policy, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said on Friday night that he would agree to negotiate under fire with the Palestinian Authority and would no longer insist on seven days of absolute quiet as a precursor to such talks. Interviewed on Channel 2 television, Sharon said, "Yes, there will be negotiations to attain a cease-fire, even under fire." After months in which he refused to countenance such a step - stating repeatedly that to do so would constitute a reward for Palestinian terror - Sharon's latest zig-zag is as misguided as it is inscrutable.
The shift in policy capped off one of the bloodiest weeks in recent memory, in which more than 30 Israelis were killed and hundreds wounded by a string of Palestinian terror attacks across the country, from Jerusalem to Atzmona to Tel Aviv. The wave of terrorism - whose scope and intensity were indicative of a Palestinian decision to escalate the conflict - elicited a stronger Israeli response, with the IDF entering Tulkarm, Jenin, and Bethlehem to round up wanted fugitives. This led to heightened criticism of Israel's actions by Europe and the United States, and threats from the Labor Party to bolt the coalition.
Thus, if ever there were an inauspicious moment for Sharon to concede a major point of principle, last week was most assuredly it. By suddenly reversing course, Sharon has done precisely what he warned against all along - he has rewarded Palestinian intransigence, handing Yasser Arafat a major diplomatic victory while receiving nothing in return. Sharon has also demonstrated to his coalition partners, as well as to Israel's friends and critics abroad, that even his most non-negotiable of red lines are not really that red after all. This sets a dangerous precedent for the future, one that will almost certainly come back to haunt Sharon, both politically and diplomatically. By failing to stand firm on the principles which he himself enunciated and insisted upon, he risks inviting unremitting pressure on Israel in the future.
Such pressure is sure to come, as evidenced by the mounting criticism of Israel's military operations over the weekend. In Amsterdam, the Dutch Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying the European Union and the United States are "preparing a diplomatic initiative that will call on Sharon to implement an immediate cease-fire, as well as request that both sides return to the negotiating table," as if the obstacle to achieving a cease-fire were Sharon, rather than wanton Palestinian terrorism.
In Paris, French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine was even more scathing in his criticism, suggesting that Israel is out to kill as many innocent Palestinians as possible. The United States also joined the fray, with State Department spokesman Richard Boucher telling reporters on Friday, "It's important for the Israelis to think hard about their policies, think through the consequences of things like going into heavily populated areas with heavy military force, because those consequences can be tragic as well."
This barrage of unbalanced criticism comes on the eve of the visit of American special envoy Anthony Zinni, who is to arrive later this week. It also coincides with US Vice-President Dick Cheney's visit to the Middle East, in which he will reportedly discuss the possibility of an American military operation against Iraq with various countries in the region. Obviously, the pressure on Sharon to restore some semblance of quiet must be immense, with the US presumably trying to show the Arab states that it is not indifferent to the fate of the Palestinians. The problem with this approach, however, is that it is both short-sighted and ultimately ineffective.
While it might be easier for Europe and the United States to tighten the diplomatic screws on Jerusalem, the cause of the current crisis lies a few miles up the road, ensconced in an office in downtown Ramallah. Yasser Arafat has been waging an unrelenting war of terror against Israel for the past 18 months, seeking to kill as many Jews as possible and provoke an Israeli response, one that would bring about international intervention on behalf of the Palestinians. As last night's shooting attack in Netanya and bombing in Jerusalem demonstrated, Arafat has no intention of halting the violence any time soon. He continues to target Israeli civilians, thinking he can do so with impunity. The only way to stop the bloodshed, then, is to disabuse him of that notion. While sending envoys and hurling criticism at Israel may help to appease the Arab states, it will do little to convince Arafat that violence is not the answer. And that, unfortunately, is a recipe for further bloodshed.
©2002 - Jerusalem Post