By Avi Davis - October 19, 2001
The name Rehavam Ze’evi has never meant much to most Americans, but it should now. The assassination of the Israeli Minister of Tourism in his hotel room in Jerusalem will have a significant impact on the course of events in the Middle East and almost certainly on the U.S.-led war against terrorism.
That Ze’evi was targeted as a symbol of the Israeli right´s rejection of a future Palestinian state cannot be doubted. A consistent opponent of the Oslo Accords , for years he has warned of the likely development of a terrorist state on Israel´s doorstep and the need to expel Arafat before this happened. Yet there are many analysts already arguing that Ze’evi’s assassination is a sign, not that Arafat may still be using terror to achieve diplomatic goals, but that he may not be in control at all. They demand that everything now be done by the U.S. to shore up Arafat´s capacity to crack down on hard-liners.
That is certainly not the position in Israel. Across the political spectrum, from opposition leader Yossi Sarid to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, no one is talking about renewed accommodation with Arafat. On the contrary, the mood in Israel reflects a hardening of positions and an increasing gravitation of both the government and the public to the right.
Prime Minister Sharon, in a speech before the Knesset on Tuesday laid the responsibility for Ze’evi’s death squarely at the feet of Arafat, who, he claims, has done nothing to curb terrorism. The usually dismissive Yossi Sarid followed with a statement warning that the ´´land will burn with fire´´ if the Palestinian leadership does not move immediately to extinguish terrorism.
Such language cannot be heartening to the U.S. State Department. Desperately in need of a breakthrough in the Middle East conflict, its policy since Sept. 11 has shifted from comatose disengagement to active mediation between the parties. The reasons why are apparent. The commitment of moderate Muslim states to the U.S war against terrorism has been made contingent on movement toward Palestinian statehood. This was made abundantly evident when Tony Blair became the first British prime minister in years to welcome Yasser Arafat to Whitehall. This, at a time when George Bush, who previously had evinced not the slightest interest in the Palestinian cause, suddenly lent his name to the boosters for the creation of a Palestinian state.
Now the same Muslim states will be waiting to gauge the U.S. reaction to the heightened risk of escalation in the region. If the U.S., which only yesterday had won a concession from Sharon for the creation, with strict conditions, of a Palestinian state, is seen to be easing its pressure due to Israeli anger, Muslim diplomatic and logistical cooperation in the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan may grind to a halt. If, on the other hand, a U.S. drive for Palestinian statehood continues unabated, there may be an inevitable rupture in its relationship with the Jewish state. This could have serious consequences for the intelligence gathering efforts of the U.S. military, so highly dependent on the work of the Mossad, the primary expert on terrorism in the world.
In the end, the United States may be faced with not just a war in Afghanistan, but an explosion in the Middle East that could seriously hamper its efforts to eliminate international terrorism. Yet the U.S. should not expect Israel to tolerate the elimination of a democratically elected leader. Nor can it expect Israel´s reaction to be anything other than swift and brutal.
The answer, finally, is not in pressuring Israel to make even further concessions or coddling Arafat. It is in recognizing the Palestinian leader as a facilitator of terror and coercing him, with the aid of the same Muslim allies, to finally fulfill his commitments of eliminating terror in his own domain.
Rehavam Ze’evi was known affectionately in Israel as Gandhi, a remembrance of when, as a youth, he masqueraded as the Indian leader. It is a sad commentary on our times, that, like his nickname-sake, his death may also occasion the outbreak of terrible violence. Forthright U.S action and diplomatic pressure may yet avert it. It can only be hoped that someone in the U.S State Department recognizes that Ze’evi´s dire prediction of Arafat´s continued perpetration of terror is now a tragic reality.Avi Davis is the senior fellow of the Freeman Center for Strategic Studies in Los Angeles and a senior editorial columnist for the online magazine Jewsweek.com.