Israel goes after Arafat

Mideast: Israel is justified in calling its campaign a war against terror, but that does not mean it is wise. Like most military ventures, it will have un-looked-for consequences.

April 07, 2002|By THE ECONOMIST

So the Organization of Islamic States has determined that Palestinian suicide attacks on Israel do not amount to "terrorism." But how else to describe the murder of a dining-roomful of elderly Jews at their Passover supper in Netanya? And this attack, which killed 26 people, was only one of scores of atrocities. Over the past two years, but with mounting intensity since America sent Anthony C. Zinni to negotiate a cease-fire, Palestinian "martyrs" sent out from the West Bank have waged a campaign of mass murder against Israeli civilians wherever they gather: sitting in cafes, emerging from synagogue, lining up outside a seaside disco.

As intended, these attacks have sown terror and destroyed normal life in the Jewish state. Whatever else you think about Ariel Sharon's decision to send his army back into the Palestinian areas of the West Bank, the Israeli prime minister is entitled to call his new campaign a war against terror.

America agrees with that view. In his speech last Thursday, President Bush signaled a deeper engagement with the crisis, saying that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell would travel to the region. The president also restated calls for Israeli restrains -- while affirming Israel's right to defend itself.

Most Arab leaders, and many European ones, find this self-defense proposition impossible to accept. At last month's Beirut summit, Arab leaders extended Israel a grudging hand of peace but also voiced admiration (and pledged support) for the intifada, which they see as a just war whose deserving end -- casting off Israel's occupation -- justifies the appalling means.

Even European governments that are willing to call Palestinian terrorism by its proper name reject Israel's right to make any military reply, least of all by invading territory it signed over to Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority under the Oslo accords.

These governments are in a sort of denial. They see that Arafat remains essential to peacemaking and so refuse to admit what he is up to. Under Oslo, Israel gave up occupied land in return for Arafat's promise to prevent attacks. Since the collapse of President Bill Clinton's peacemaking at Camp David, Arafat has reneged on this promise. He probably did not plan the intifada. And it was not possible for his policemen to stop every suicide bombing. But in recent months, blaming Sharon's provocations, they have not seriously tried. Arafat repudiates the occasional atrocity. But when he calls for "a million martyrs" to liberate Jerusalem, the martyrs know what he means. He has, in short, pocketed what Oslo gave him and relaunched a liberation war, hoping that this might deliver the gains that diplomacy failed to. Once he poked Israel hard enough, Israel was bound to snap back.

He has poked, and Israel has snapped. But this does not make Israel's new war wise. Like most military ventures, it will have unlooked-for consequences. It could set alight Israel's border with Lebanon and destabilize Arab countries, such as Egypt and especially Jordan, that have made peace with the Jewish state. It could cause the permanent withdrawal of the peace offer extended at the Beirut summit. And it has already confounded America's hope of Arab support for a renewed attempt to unseat Saddam Hussein.

Beyond this, Sharon's "Operation Defensive Wall" will almost certainly fail to achieve its declared aims. One is to uproot the Palestinians' terrorist "infrastructure." But this consists in the main of a supply of bitter men and women willing to kill and be killed on Palestine's behalf.

Another declared aim is to "isolate" Arafat. But the deadly comedy that Sharon has staged around his old adversary's Ramallah headquarters has had the opposite result. Having lost much luster for his incompetent administration of the embryonic Palestine, Arafat is suddenly again the beleaguered symbol of his people's aspirations. Whatever Sharon may say, the rest of the world continues to deem him Israel's indispensable interlocutor.

If this war's declared aims are doomed to fail, what about the undeclared ones? The Americans, and the Labor part of Sharon's "unity" Cabinet, seem to hope that Israeli military pressure will persuade Arafat to accept the cease-fire terms he has so far refused from Zinni; and that this will in turn lead, via America's Tenet (security) and Mitchell (confidence-building) plans to the path of negotiation.

A nice idea, but too neat by far. First, far from buckling under Sharon's pressure, Arafat may choose only to harden his conditions for accepting a cease-fire. So far in this intifada, the Palestinians have endured extraordinary hardships, including the loss of lives and livelihoods, without flinching. Arafat cannot easily risk calling a stop with nothing to show for all his people's sacrifices.

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