Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer have repeatedly warned the Palestinians that if they started firing missiles at Israel, it would result in a disproportionate response.
This, of course, begs the question why the 1,794 terror attacks last year did not result in such action. It also sheds much light on the process we are in: the Palestinians testing the limits of their immunity from a massive and "disproportionate" response.
The two rockets fired from the Gaza Strip into the fields of Kibbutz Sa'ad and Moshav Shuva on Sunday were clearly a test to see how the government would react. More broadly, however, the current wave of terrorism and the missile launches are designed to force it to choose between two unpalatable alternatives: absorbing a further Palestinian escalation without decisive response or responding massively in a way that isolates the country and increases support for the Palestinian Authority.
This predicament is in turn created by the good news-bad news situation in which we find ourselves. The very good news is the US is gearing up to help the Iraqi people remove Saddam Hussein, and US success in this effort will produce significant strategic benefits for us. The bad news is, in the interim, the US and Israel have sent signals to Yasser Arafat that both are reluctant to settle accounts with him just yet.
The coming campaign in Iraq has thus, ironically, created a window of immunity for Arafat. This window is created by the American desire for "industrial quiet" on the Israeli-Palestinian front. Unfortunately, the result is to restore a form of American evenhandedness that will have the exact opposite effect.
Before the massive suicide bombings in Jerusalem and Haifa on December 1-2, the Bush administration practiced a policy of evenhandedness whereby every Palestinian atrocity would be condemned, but coupled with calls for Israeli restraint. President Bush finally came to the conclusion this policy (which had been inherited from the Clinton administration) was backfiring. The Bush team seemed to realize that as long as the US was calling for Israeli restraint - and sometimes criticizing Israeli defensive measures as "provocative" or "excessive" - the Palestinians would keep escalating in the hopes of forcing a confrontation between the US and Israel.
Bush was right. When the US dropped evenhandedness the pressure on Arafat increased dramatically, resulting in his "cease-fire" speech and a marked reduction in attacks. Suddenly, it seemed that Arafat's moment of truth had arrived, and he would be forced to choose between support for terror and his own power.
Now a new balance, a status quo of sorts, has arisen. The US is no longer evenhanded in that Israel is not criticized for going in and out of Area A as necessary. Bush expresses understanding for the cordoning off of Arafat in Ramallah and agrees he has been further tainted by his new relationship with Iran. And yet Sharon's US visit last week indicated the US is not ready to embark on a post-Arafat era right now and is not interested in Israel removing Arafat from power.
The result is that, despite receiving much greater US support, Israel finds itself in a predicament similar to the bad old days of evenhandedness. Once again, Arafat feels the way out of his isolation is to allow an escalation of attacks, in the hope Israel will respond in a way that drives a wedge between Jerusalem and Washington.
This is not a good situation for the US, let alone Israel, because it provides Arafat with an incentive to escalate. The only way out is the way Bush discovered in early December - backing our right of self defense, thereby removing any benefit to Arafat from provoking us.
The US break with evenhandedness worked initially, but its effect wore off before its impact could become decisive. The next epiphany that must be reached is that any threat to Arafat that stops short of a total loss of power will not produce the desired result. It would have been nice if something less than a threat to Arafat's regime would have worked, but that is clearly not the case. As long as the US and Israel keep that threat explicitly off the table, Arafat has a palpable incentive to find new, more spectacular ways to murder Israelis. If Bush wants quiet, he must tell Arafat if the current attacks continue, let alone escalate, the US will not hesitate to remove its umbrella from his regime.
©2002 - Jerusalem Post