Sharon's reckless aggression endangers Israel

April 16, 2002|By Nicholas D. Kristof

WHO WOULD have imagined that anyone could turn a vacillating dictator like Yasser Arafat into a hero, while also sowing discord between Israel and its greatest ally?

Ariel Sharon has managed to do both. And by defying President Bush's appeals and using helicopters paid for with U.S. tax dollars to destroy Palestinian homes and lives, he is also undermining U.S. credibility in the region.

Now there is also a growing risk of a larger war. Israel is understandably outraged by Hezbollah rocket attacks from Lebanon and is contemplating striking back - at Syria. An Israeli Cabinet member said last week that Israel was seriously considering hitting Syrian targets, and acknowledged: "The magnitude of the conflict may be a huge one."

Mr. Sharon is, of course, brutally provoked by Mr. Arafat's duplicity and dalliance with terrorism, and one can't help sympathizing with his need to satisfy an Israeli electorate that understandably demands a response to bombings. Yet Mr. Arafat is such a catastrophe as a leader that it falls upon Mr. Sharon to display enough wisdom for both.

Unfortunately, Mr. Sharon has made a career of responding to Palestinian outrages by pursuing rash military solutions that ultimately harm Israel rather than bolster it.

In October 1953, for example, Palestinian infiltrators murdered a young Israeli woman, Susan Kanias, and her two small children. The young Mr. Sharon led a commando group on a retaliatory raid against the Palestinian village of Qibya.

Mr. Sharon's unit blew up buildings in Qibya and killed 69 Palestinians, many of them women and children who were apparently hiding inside. In his memoirs, Mr. Sharon describes the killings as mostly accidental and as a "tragedy."

That 1953 Qibya reprisal was emotionally satisfying to Israelis victimized by terror, as today's incursions are, but it did nothing to reduce terrorism. The number of Israelis killed in terrorist incidents increased in 1954 and nearly doubled again in 1955.

In fairness, criticizing Mr. Sharon's harsh tactics is easy. The harder question is what Israel should do to defeat terrorism. The answer, which Colin Powell is trying to deliver, is straightforward: The only way out will be a political deal creating a Palestinian state.

It will be even harder now than a year ago, when Mr. Arafat's intransigence helped kill the deal. In Gaza last week, Hamas radicals told me that Mr. Arafat had mistakenly strayed into the peace camp but now realized that Israel understood only brute force. And a senior Israeli general said: "No one has thought there was a military answer until now, but we are beginning to think about it."

Moreover, while no one is focusing yet on the incursion's impact on the Palestinian economy, it is devastating. The middle class is evaporating into the kind of economic tumble that a World Bank study of civil conflict two years ago found has often helped ignite domestic rebellions.

"The closures on Gaza and the West Bank mean that today more than half the [Palestinian] population is living under the local poverty benchmark, which is $2 a day," said Mark Malloch Brown, the head of the U.N. Development Program. "This was an economy that was growing at 10 percent a year, the tax collection system was working pretty well, and now it's been driven back to Third World poverty levels."

The intellectual underpinning of Mr. Sharon's argument is the notion that we must never negotiate with terrorists.

It's a lofty ideal, but in fact we negotiate with terrorists all the time. That's how a cease-fire was reached this year in Sri Lanka, and it's the basis for peace talks to end rebellions in Sudan, Congo and Angola.

The world simply isn't so tidy as to provide a blanket solution to terrorism. Sometimes, as in Afghanistan, there is a military answer. In other cases, such as Pakistan, there is a political answer. In some places, there are both: The Philippines has worked out peace deals with two rebel groups but is using military power to try to destroy a third.

Our principle should not be "Never negotiate with terrorists" but rather "Don't reward terrorism." Unfortunately, by turning a menace like Mr. Arafat into a hero all over the Arab world, Mr. Sharon is creating incentives for terrorism and undermining Israel's long-term security.

Nicholas D. Kristof is a columnist for The New York Times.

Columnist Thomas L. Friedman is on vacation.

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