Waiting for one initiative to end the toll of six wars

May 30, 2002|By Thomas L. Friedman

WASHINGTON - It's clear now that the Israeli-Palestinian clashes that erupted in the spring of 2002 qualify as the sixth Arab-Israeli war - going down in history with the 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973 and 1982 wars.

The 2002 war doesn't have a proper name yet (the Suicide War?). But like all previous Arab-Israeli wars, it is having a proper aftermath - shaking up Arab, Israeli and Palestinian politics as much as the five previous wars did.

Let's start with the Palestinians. Well before this war there was already bubbling Palestinian criticism that their "Al Aqsa intifada" had no clearly defined goals and that Yasser Arafat, instead of developing them, was just surfing on his people's anger and trying to direct it away from his own misrule. Yes, Mr. Arafat is still the most nimble survivor of his own mistakes. But this time he has really hurt the Palestinian cause, and Palestinians know it.

First, by provoking Israel with repeated suicide bombings, Mr. Arafat triggered an Israeli retaliation that didn't just destroy Arab cities - as he did in Amman in 1970 and Beirut in 1982. This time he provoked the destruction of Palestinian cities.

Second, by encouraging this Suicide War - after rejecting a clear-cut U.S. plan for a Palestinian state - Mr. Arafat has badly damaged Palestinian ties with America. President Bill Clinton met with Mr. Arafat more times than with any other foreign leader. Today, Mr. Arafat couldn't get to see President Bush if he signed up for a White House tour.

Third, this Suicide War has alienated the only party that can deliver the Palestinians a state - the Israeli silent majority. The whole history of the peace process can be reduced to one point: If the Palestinians convince the Israeli center that they are ready to live side by side in peace, they will get a state; if they don't, they won't. Everything else is commentary.

The aftermath of the Suicide War on Israeli politics has been equally profound. "It has ended the deep political debate between the left and the right that has dominated Israeli politics since 1967," said Moshe Halbertal, a Hebrew University philosophy professor and fellow of the Hartman Institute.

Indeed, the idea of the Jewish right that Israel could maintain a colonial occupation of the West Bank, and continue to seize Palestinian land for more settlements has been exploded. But the idea of the Israeli left that Mr. Arafat would build a decent government and civil society that would end the conflict with Israel on the basis of a two-state solution has also been undermined.

As a result, Israel today, instead of being divided around two ideas, is united around two ideas: A clear majority of Israelis is ready to smash the Palestinians as long as they persist in suicide bombings, and an equally clear majority of Israelis is ready to consider the Saudi peace initiative - full withdrawal in return for normal relations if the Palestinians end the violence.

The big impact on Arab leaders is their realization that the explosion of Arab satellite TV stations and the Internet means they can no longer control public opinion. The tabloid media have inflamed the Arab street with images of the West Bank fighting. No, this won't topple any leaders soon. But popular discontent over the Arabs' weakness in the face of Israel is melding with popular discontent about the weakness of Arab economies and dictatorial regimes in ways that are worrying moderate Arab leaders and making them eager to get this Palestinian show off the air.

Bottom line: The region is more ripe than ever for a big U.S. initiative. Unfortunately, none of the leaders - American, Israeli or Palestinian - seems willing to step up to what's needed. That is, to create a transition structure in the West Bank and Gaza - a new mandate under U.S. or NATO supervision - that would oversee the gradual building of a responsible Palestinian Authority and the gradual unbuilding of settlements.

If we shirk that task, we'll just be setting the stage for the seventh Arab-Israeli war.

Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays in The Sun.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.