September/October 2000

Arafat's Victims

(October 2) - The period of the Days of Awe, framed by Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, has been likened to a trial in which the Jewish people must defend itself before God, who is a merciful judge. The prayer book leaves little to the imagination, warning that in these very days God decides who will live and who will die, and spelling out the path of repentance that can, even at the eleventh hour, elicit a positive verdict.

The violent riots of the last few days clarify that the peace process has reached a similar stage in which the stakes are life or death, and not in a metaphorical sense. But while God works in mysterious ways, the reason for the deaths of the 29 Palestinians and two Israeli border policemen who lost their lives since Friday is painfully simple and clear: Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat is once again attempting to negotiate with violence.

The supposed reason for the Palestinian riots - Likud leader Ariel Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount on Thursday - should be dismissed outright. First, it is inconceivable that the visit of anyone anywhere excuses deadly violence, unless one accepts the notion that the Palestinians are hopelessly violent people who cannot be held to normal standards of civilized behavior.

Second, the violence began with the bomb that killed an Israeli soldier in Netzarim the day before Sharon's visit. Third, and most significantly, violence of the scope recently seen - the worst rioting since 1996 - is effectively an act of will by the Palestinian leadership, for which Sharon's visit at most provided a convenient rallying cry.

Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount backfired, both because he is being widely blamed for provoking violence and because the hundreds of police needed to secure him illustrated the difficulty Israel has in exercising its sovereignty over the area. Even though most Israelis, including perhaps Prime Minister Ehud Barak, agree that the Temple Mount must remain under Israeli sovereignty, now many middle-of-the-road voters will have trouble believing that Sharon is capable of being a sincere participant in the peace process.

The United States, however, made a cardinal error by joining in the chorus of blaming Sharon. By saying, "Sharon's visit to the site caused these tensions," the State Department clearly implies that the violence was justified, no matter how strenuously it claims otherwise. Nothing could invite future violence more than any American understanding expressed for it, because a major goal of the violence is to elicit international sympathy for Palestinian demands.

Similarly, Israeli Arab MKs are making a mistake by openly expressing understanding for violent rioting by Palestinians and by Israeli Arabs. The Israeli Arab community cannot have it both ways: It cannot increasingly act with the Palestinian leadership against Israel and wage a successful battle for inclusion and respect within Israel.

The vast majority of Israeli Arabs, it is fair to estimate, want and deserve to improve their lot within Israel. By showing more interest in demonstrating solidarity with the Palestinian Authority, some Israeli Arab leaders are harming both their own constituents and the peace process. Few trends could be more poisonous to support for the peace process within Israel than the specter of Israeli Arabs becoming an arm of a future hostile Palestinian state.

Nor is this violence in the Palestinian interest, mainly because Palestinians are doing most of the dying. The gruesome televised pictures of the death of a 12-year-old Palestinian boy and an ambulance driver who tried to save him indicate the depths to which the Palestinian use of violence for political gain will sink.

In any case, the ultimate responsibility for all the deaths among all sides lies with the party that has chosen to use violence as a negotiating tactic.

In fact, terming the violence a "negotiating tactic" might dignify it too much. Many analysts believe that Egypt could not have made peace with Israel before claiming victory in the Yom Kippur War. Now Arafat is presumably torn between those who count the intifada as the Palestinian "War of Independence" and those who believe more blood must be let before accepting the peace agreement that is now more or less on the table. If so, the question becomes how many Palestinians and Israelis must die - not to change the terms of an agreement - but for Arafat to conclude that the time has come to make peace.

© Jerusalem Post 2000

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