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From the January 2002 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 49, No. 1)

Mideast: No Peace, No Process

Good Terror, Bad Terror

Gisela Dachs, Die Zeit (liberal weekly), Hamburg, Germany, Oct. 25, 2001

A new word just entered the Hebrew vocabulary: escapism, meaning the flight from reality. The Israelis, traditionally addicted to the news, are now tuning in to Spanish soap operas. Politics no longer dominates every conversation. The retreat into the private world does not stem from indifference, but from the realization that there will be no easy way out of the dead-end street of violence.

Options, in fact, are limited. For the first time in the country’s 53-year history, a cabinet minister has fallen victim to a Palestinian attack. [Israeli Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon adroitly took advantage of the American president’s words. He compared [President] Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority (PA) with the Taliban regime, which has offered terrorists a “refuge.” In their largest military offensive since the signing of the Oslo accords in 1993, Israeli tanks pushed deep into the West Bank and into Palestinian cities. But it still looks very unlikely that this wide operation aimed at the killers of [former Tourism Minister] Rehavam Ze'evi will result in a lasting occupation of the so-called territory A, much less in driving out the Palestinian political leadership. “If we depose the PA, there will be a bloodbath in the Palestinian areas,” warns Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. It is not in Israel’s interest to recapture the territories now controlled by Arafat. No one here has forgotten the war in Lebanon, which resulted in the army getting stuck there for almost 20 years. Sharon, who led the troops right into Beirut in 1982—at that time to kick the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leader out—knows this best of all. And Washington would scarcely permit the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to go into full escalation right now.

After Sept. 11, the immediate hope in Israel was that the offensive against Afghanistan would give them more maneuvering room in their own fight against terrorism. But now the coalition opposing Bin Laden is the reason that Sharon cannot get rid of his archenemy Arafat. If that happened, the Arab world would deny the Americans any kind of support.

For now Washington is embracing Syria and Iran, while European politicians have explained to the Israelis that there is good terrorism and bad terrorism, and that as a result the attacks in Tel Aviv and New York cannot be compared. To translate: Those who are fighting against the Israeli occupation are the good terrorists. Quite a few Israelis would go along with that. Even [former Prime Minister] Ehud Barak once said that, if he had been born Palestinian, he would have joined a militant liberation group. Last year, Barak risked his position as prime minister in order to end the occupation of the Palestinian territory once and for all. The Camp David Summit failed, and Arafat returned, not to new negotiations, but to the Intifada instead. Following the change of government, the Israelis wrote off the PLO chief as a negotiating partner. From then on, Arafat was no longer a part of the solution—he was a part of the problem.

Many people have been thinking about a world without the PLO leader. But who might take his place? Hamas’ Sheik Ahmad Yassin from the Gaza Strip or some other Islamic fundamentalist? Security experts caution that if Israel interferes, it could be held responsible for a new political order in the occupied territories. “The Palestinians have to realize for themselves that they will not be able to construct a state with Arafat,” says one expert. He recalls the boomerang effect when Israel, in the 1980s, used its influence to play power politics in Lebanon. The result was the rise of Hezbollah.

So, there is the Arafat option. Internationally, the PLO leader was rehabilitated by the events of Sept. 11. Unlike the situation in the Gulf War, when he embraced [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein, this time Arafat chose the “right side.” Subsequently, [British Prime Minister] Tony Blair received him in London and President Bush repeatedly mentioned the idea of a Palestinian state. With that, Arafat may be able to bolster his wobbly internal stature. Opinion pollster Khalil Shkaki in Ramallah says that Arafat’s Fatah party is no longer the strongest political force. A year into the Intifada, Hamas and the other opposition groups have been able to take over the leadership role. Given that these extremists are regarded heroes, it is hard to oppose them.

Arafat continues to rely on his games: He promises to make arrests, and in fact he does put many suspects behind bars—only to allow them to go free a few hours later. What the Israelis call “revolving-door policies” are described by Yasser Abed Rabbo, the Palestinian Minister of Information, as an “emergency solution.” Arafat had to turn the leaders of various militias loose, because their followers threatened to open fire on Israeli settlements.

If that were to happen, it would undermine Arafat’s efforts to maintain a cease-fire. Without any chance of success in his efforts toward achieving a Palestinian state, Arafat will never risk the outbreak of a civil war, say those who know him well.

The only success the Palestinians can point to one year into the Intifada is the increasing isolation of Israel. It is not the suicide bombers, the snipers, or their mortars that have helped them, but instead the TV footage of tanks, and Sharon’s bad reputation. His name, around the world, is bound up forever with the massacres at the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps [in Lebanon]. And Ha’aretz, the Israeli daily, complained: “The international pressure put on Arafat after the killing of Ze’evi has, as expected, disappeared in light of the pictures of Israeli tanks rolling into Bethlehem and Ramallah, and the footage of the funerals. And, once again, Israel is perceived to be the aggressor in the present spiral of violence.”

The Palestinians themselves are not that concerned about the latest Israeli military moves. “We are suffering, but as a result the Israelis will not achieve their goal. Our fight against the occupation can not be stopped,” said Mustafa Barguti of the [Ramallah-based Palestinian NGO] Palestine Monitor. He asks provocatively: “What can the Israelis do next?”

Barguti is alluding to Prime Minister Sharon. For Sharon must deal not only with Washington, but also ensure domestic political support. Sharon’s position is not simple: His promises to provide quiet and safety went unfulfilled. The right-wing camp, above all Benjamin Netanyahu, who would certainly like to be prime minister again and who promises to deal harshly with Palestinian terror, says that Sharon’s hard-line course is too moderate. And the Labor Party attacks the prime minister from the other side: It threatens to leave the National Unity Coalition if Sharon does not pull the tanks back soon.

The left, after a phase of crippling agony, seems to be slowly waking up again. In fact, in the last few weeks, prominent members of the Labor Party wanted to present the public their ideas for a unilateral separation from the Palestinians. But then came Ze’evi’s assassination. The plan calls for Israel to withdraw from most of the West Bank, set up a security border, and then offer the Palestinians negotiations over the remaining points of disagreement—with one condition: that they abstain from violence. That would not provide protection against terror, but it would still be one way to preserve Israel as a Jewish and democratic nation.

Geographer Arnon Sofer estimates that, even today, only 51 percent of the people living between Jordan and the Mediterranean are Jews. By 2020, that area will contain 15.2 million people, of which just 6.4 million will be Jews. “If the Green Line disappears,” says Shimon Peres, “then the future of Israel will be like that of Lebanon, which was once a Christian country in a Muslim region and disappeared. We, too, will disappear if we do not move wisely.”

Sharon talked with Sofer not long ago. But he backs away from a unilateral separation. The prime minister prefers to maintain the uncertain status quo. For even if no new Jewish settlements are built in the West Bank, the existing ones will continue to grow. For the Palestinians, however, this is a reason to continue with the Intifada. “We have time,” they like to say. They point to their high birthrate and believe that it is the Israelis who are under the most pressure to find a solution soon.

Despite the killing of Ze’evi, more than half of the Israelis still believe in pursuing negotiations. A clear majority, however, supports the government’s “liquidation” policies as well. People do not want to give up their hopes for an agreement with the Palestinians. Nor do they want to give up their hopes for a victory over terrorism. But right now it does not look like either is possible.

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