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From the August 2003 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 50, No. 8)

Middle East

Whistling in the Dark

Ofer Shelach, Yediot Aharonot (centrist), Tel Aviv, Israel, June 9, 2003

Israeli soldiers prepare to leave the Gaza Strip
Israeli soldiers dismantle a checkpoint in the Gaza Strip as they prepare to withdraw from the area, June 29, 2003 (Photo: Roberto Schmidt/AFP-Getty Images).
Nobody thought that it would be different. For a while now, maybe since the beginning, we knew that the war with the Palestinians would eventually come to an end only when both sides collapsed side by side, exhausted from the bloodshed.

We knew that it would continue until the very last man in the last refugee camp and in the last settlement admitted that there is no point in talking about a historical victory or a martyrs’ march to Jerusalem. Nobody really believed that something truly ended or began at the June 4 summit in Aqaba.

“Victory is attainable,” Ariel Sharon said yesterday at the Likud party convention, on a day when five Israelis were killed. Commentators said that a big victory had indeed been reached in Jerusalem yesterday—but not in the Gaza Strip.

The old hawk Sharon “spoke to the nation over the whistles of his party members,” “he showed that he overcame strong internal opposition,” commentators said as they provided political analyses offering a sophisticated disguise to the embarrassing spectacle that had taken place.

It seemed victory was within reach, as it was one, two, almost three years ago. As it was even before the first Intifada, the first suicide bombing, the first attack on an Israel Defense Forces post, before the siege of [Yasser] Arafat’s compound, before the first curfew, and the first arrest. Such a long time ago.

As the objective for fighting becomes foggier and more blurred for both sides, winning becomes more important too. Day after day, funeral after funeral, winning becomes the only goal for yesterday’s bloodshed.

Nobody, on our side or theirs, can define this victory. People who are completely blind continue to talk about a change of perception and the determination that will prove to the other side that they have to change their views. Nobody understands that the other side is just as determined, as strong, and as frustrated as they are.

In opinion polls taken on both sides, the people support a solution that is based on an agreement, but they also believe in continuing the violence, which is the only language the enemy understands. Nobody in the two beaten nations is really listening anymore.

We’re all blowing whistles, not really against the prime minister or against Arafat, but mostly because that is what one does if one walks in the dark and doesn’t know which way to go; he whistles, if not to get rid of the fear, then to pretend that he’s not alone.

“The best shows in town” is what the Likud party conventions are known for. And indeed, there isn’t another political party in Israel that has the emotional intensity and liveliness that Likud has.

But how pitiful the convention seems when people come to discuss ideology. Because this is the nature of the bloody conflict that we are trapped in: It has stripped from the leaders the blankets of words that they wore just yesterday.

Take for example [Israel’s Finance Minister] Binyamin Netanyahu, who had rushed to Washington after the opening of the [Hasmonean] tunnel [in Jerusalem’s old city in 1996, when he served as prime minister—WPR] to sign a peace treaty with Arafat. Now, he demands, “No to a Palestinian state” and “No reward for terror.”

And there is [Israel’s Defense Minister] Shaul Mofaz, who astonishes us with his slogans of zero tolerance in pursuing security, while his army has been destroying terror cells for three years but is still unable to deal with a single
terrorist unit.

Here is Sharon himself, who once called out, “Who wants to eliminate terror?” [during his speech at the Likud party convention in 2001, when he ran for party leader against Netanyahu, before being elected prime minister—WPR].

This is the same Sharon who now defends agreements and statements, when just yesterday he would have raised his wrath against anyone who dared to commit to them.

Yesterday was a day of bloodshed, as was today, and from the nature of the situation, more blood will be shed on both sides. The terrorists who attacked the Erez army checkpoint [in northern Gaza] and Hebron [on June 8] didn’t care about the price that their people would have to pay. Some will die by the gun, others by losing their livelihood.

Yesterday, the American wise man, U.S. President George W. Bush, echoed Shimon Peres in a bygone era, calling on both sides to continue negotiating despite the killings. Tomorrow, maybe the day after that, Bush’s determination will come to an end as a result of the past few months, and he will once again leave us alone with our troubled souls.

The noise that you hear now is not the sound of an orchestra accompanying the ceremony [in Aqaba]. It’s just a bunch of terrified people who are whistling in the dark.

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