September/October 2000
Arafat's Strategy

By Charles Krauthammer

Friday , October 20, 2000

"What we have witnessed in the Palestinian territories these past few days obliges our negotiators to raise the level of demands in the negotiations. . . ."

-- Hani Al-Hassan, PLO Central Committee, Oct. 12, 2000

Once again, the great sphinx looms over the Middle East. Yasser Arafat has everyone baffled. Yes, after Arafat started a war just weeks after being offered a generous peace, most Westerners awoke to reality. Even the New York Times's Thomas Friedman, searching as ever in Arafat for "statesmanship and real peaceful intentions," discovered that "Mr. Arafat, it's now clear, possesses neither." (This, on Day 16 of the killing.)

But the bafflement remains. What does Arafat hope to achieve with this violence? Israel's defeat?

Isn't that totally irrational? How are his rock-throwing mobs and newly trained 40,000-man militia going to defeat the Israeli military machine?

Well, look what happened this year in Lebanon, say the Palestinians. (The best place to follow what Palestinian leaders say to their people in Arabic is at www.memri.org, where indispensable translations are provided by the independent Middle East Media and Research Institute.) A ragtag guerrilla army in an almost open field drove the Israelis into a retreat so disorderly that they left many of their Lebanese allies behind, Saigon-like.

On the West Bank, moreover, the Palestinians enjoy additional advantages: a crowded urban battlefield where conventional armies are almost useless, an aroused population, and a sympathetic world press watching every move.

The Palestinian strategy is open and clear:

* Use violence to bring international pressure on Israel.

* Keep Israel mobilized, draining its resources and exhausting its will.

* Bleed Israel as in Lebanon, but this time in the very suburbs of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

* And thus force Israel back to the negotiating table from a position of weakness.

Arafat doesn't oppose negotiations. He just opposes negotiations where he lacks the upper hand. The aim of the violence is to gain the upper hand, force Israel to sue for peace and then dictate the terms of a final settlement.

Among the Arabs, writes defense analyst Ze'ev Schiff, "there is an increasing feeling that they have hit on the formula for bringing Israel to its knees." How? "Ongoing, low-level war that combines massive terrorism, guerrilla warfare and the international media. . . . This strategy will expose Israel's Achilles' heel; an extreme sensitivity to loss of life and the kidnapping of its soldiers."

The current fighting could last for months, even years (as did, for example, the Arab Revolt of 1936-39). Gun battles and casualties. International condemnation, boycotts and oil threats. Suicide bombings, kidnappings, terrorist attacks from Lebanon on the northern frontier.

How long before Israel sues for peace? Remember: Israel found the first intifada (1987-93) so intolerable that it sued for peace with the Oslo accords. And that intifada--rock-throwing mobs, but few guns and no suicide bombings--was a picnic compared to what Israel faces today.

If Israel is brought to its knees, what terms does Arafat dictate? That's easy. He'll demand three things:

First, Jerusalem.

Second, a return not to the 1967 borders, but to the borders drawn by the 1947 U.N. commission for the partition of Palestine. That Israel is much smaller and barely viable. Arafat tried out that demand last year without success. Should he gain the upper hand, he will insist upon it.

The third is the coup de grace, to be administered were Israel to be totally prostrate. Indeed, it is so devastating that Arafat could forgo the first two and accept the terms Barak offered him at Camp David--with but a single additional provision: the return to Israel of the descendants of the 700,000 Palestinians who left Israel in 1948-49.

With a million Israeli Arabs already in open revolt against the Jews, imagine adding another 3 million to 5 million to Israel's population. With fewer than 5 million Jews in Israel, that single provision is demographic suicide. It means the end of Israel as a Jewish state. Within weeks, such a state would be absorbed, like East Germany, by Arafat's Palestine.

No muss, no fuss, no blood. Victory. Most Israelis, at such a point shorn of power and the means of self-defense, would leave, deciding quite rationally that it is better to live as a minority in the tolerant West than as a minority among hostile Arabs.

Notice: Just a single line in a new agreement is all it takes to liquidate the world's only Jewish state. Notice, too, that Arafat and his lieutenants never fail to include the "right of return" when demanding their "just rights" as the price for peace.

Smug Westerners think Arafat is an old fool. He "never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity," Abba Eban once said. Well, Arafat sees his opportunity now--for fulfillment of maximal Palestinian dreams. The means is this war, and the world is behind him. Only a fool would forgo such an opportunity. Arafat knows exactly what he is doing. The fools are those who think he doesn't.

© 2000 The Washington Post

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