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Jewish World Review March 27, 2001 / 3 Nissan, 5761

Mort Zuckerman

Mort Zuckerman
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The man of the moment -- WHO could have guessed five years ago that the Israeli prime minister meeting the American president in the Oval Office last week would be Ariel Sharon? Elected in a landslide after the Palestinians organized a war of attrition against Israelis–despite unprecedented peace offers from his predecessor, Ehud Barak–Sharon is now seen by his countrymen as the man who can end the violence, and not pay for peace with the devalued coin of concessions. Sharon's stature, ironically, is due in large measure to Yasser Arafat. If he proved anything during the arduous but ultimately fruitless negotiations with Barak, Arafat convinced even the doves in Israel that pre-emptive concessions and magnanimous gestures are simply exercises in futility. Israelis understand fully today that they must reject Arafat's view that agitation and guerrilla warfare can demoralize Israel into making more concessions–or spark such a violent Israeli response that it will alienate the West, which would seek to impose its own solution on Israel.

Sharon has turned the Arafat dialectic on its ear. He has made it clear that an end to the violence is a precondition for a return to negotiations. Negotiating in the midst of violence, Sharon understands, serves only to embed in Palestinians the belief that Israel will accept the condition of violence. Sharon's purpose is not to negotiate a final-status agreement. The object lesson of Camp David and the war of attrition Palestinians launched immediately afterward is that the Palestinian leadership is not ripe for a historic compromise with Israel. Sharon speaks for a huge majority of Israelis who believe it is impossible to conclude a peace agreement with those whose hostile intentions have recently been made so clear. What is the point of concessions, after all, if they are repaid only with hatred and bloodshed? What is one to make of the gleeful destruction of Jewish holy places? Or of the lynching of two Israeli soldiers in Ramallah as Palestinian men and women exulted? Sharon certainly knows: For now, tragically, the idea that the Palestinians would agree to share the Holy Land as peaceful neighbors must be rejected as hopelessly naive.

So Sharon will not play Arafat's game. He knows too well how that goes. Arafat ratchets up the violence while posing as Israel's victim. Then CNN's cameras, with their bias for capturing image after image of Palestinian victims, rush in. Sympathizers like the European Union scramble to Arafat's side. Sharon will have none of that. He will seek to apply pressures against terrorism that won't make for good TV and provoke still more hostility against Israel. That is why he is reducing, through closure, areas of contact between Israelis and Palestinians rather than increasing military force. In the end, of course, increased violence by Palestinians may force Sharon to deploy greater force. But that will be his last alternative.

Deterrence and disengagement. Sadly, the violence, since Sharon's election, has intensified. Almost every Palestinian organization today–Fatah, Hamas, Hezbollah, and Tanzim–is involved. And not only has the Palestinian Authority failed to stop them, it has freed some of the most dangerous terrorists from its jails. Israel has brought substantial evidence to American intelligence officials to support its contention that the PA stands behind the violence in many of the killings.

But just as his negotiations with Barak exposed the folly of concessions, Arafat's reliance on violence has unified Israelis in a way they have not been in years. The violence has brought together doves like Shimon Peres and nationalists like Sharon into a single cabinet, in response to an overwhelming vote that made it abundantly clear what the Israeli people wanted. More than ever, Israelis understand the importance of restoring the credibility of Israeli deterrence. And they believe Sharon understands that deterrence–and maybe only deterrence–is what will keep Israel secure.

Sharon's goal is simple. He wants to establish rules for coexistence in the framework of a long-term interim agreement. This is a lot less than what Barak offered the Palestinians, and they may be unwilling to accept it. What Israelis accept now is the following: There is an unsolvable conflict between two national communities within a small geographic area, each with incompatible national aspirations. This new realization crushed the hope that there could be an agreement between the leadership of the Israelis and the Palestinians. Arafat has the stature to sign such an accord, but instead of repudiating the violence, he has fueled it.

Good diplomacy, it is said, occurs when all other options have been exhausted. The only feasible option today is disengagement–to put as much space as possible between the two sides. Until there is supportable evidence that the Palestinians are really prepared to end the conflict, this is what we are left with. But disengagement will be complicated because of the intertwining of these two peoples in such a small place. Nevertheless, what is needed is an agreement that would involve a strategic Israeli withdrawal from most of the territory, in return for a protracted truce and, ultimately, the kind of nonbelligerence that Israel agreed to with Egypt in 1975. This would give the Palestinians a more viable, contiguous area, one that could be recognized and run as a truly independent state. It would require the Israelis to dismantle many of the smaller settlements in the territories outside of the areas closer to the major Israeli cities, where some 80 percent of the settlers now live. One Israeli newspaper reports that Sharon is already prepared to consider eliminating settlements in Gaza that are surrounded by thousands of hostile Palestinians.

Learning lessons. The whole objective is to establish boundaries and borders–to reduce the daily friction that has created so much conflict. The Palestinians may well not agree, and there is no reason to suppose at this point that they will. If that doesn't change, Israel may have to consider drawing its own territorial lines. But it must find a way to do this in a manner that Palestinians will not interpret unilateral dismantling of isolated settlements as a sign of more Israeli weakness. The Israelis will have to wait until the violence abates and the credibility of their deterrence is re-established.

And as for Jerusalem, it would seem appropriate to revisit the arrangements made by Moshe Dayan, after the Six-Day War in 1967. Under the protocols drafted by the legendary defense minister, the Arabs administered the shrines on the Temple Mount while the Jews exercised police power in all of Jerusalem. This remains the best and most tolerable arrangement.

The Palestinians have consistently taken an all-or-nothing approach and thus enshrined their reputation as a people who, in Abba Eban's telling phrase, never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. This was so in 1947, with the United Nations partition, and was repeated in 1979, with the Camp David Accords. In each case, the Palestinians insisted on everything and wound up with nothing. This time, instead of establishing a state, they are faced with the collapse of the Palestinian Authority. Will they ever learn?

One thing, at least, seems clear: President Bush and his aides can learn much from the failures of the Clinton administration in the Middle East. Clinton's policies brought insecurity for Israel and diminished credibility for the United States. One lesson is that Washington cannot remain evenhanded in the traditional sense, criticizing both sides equally, regardless of the true balance of blame or praise that should be accorded in specific instances. The United States does not enhance its credibility by blaming the party that has gone the extra mile for peace equally with the party that has chosen war over compromise. Instead, both sides must be measured by an equal standard, such as criticizing aggression by either side and defending the right of each to self-defense. It did not help that the Clinton administration refused to appropriately condemn Palestinian violence in the face of their violation of two cease-fires mediated by Washington. Self-defense and aggression, and terrorism and the response to it, are not equivalent.

The Clinton administration failed to force the Palestinian side to implement the conditions and obligations it assumed under Oslo, such as confiscating illegal weapons, ending incitement, and the like. This was never taken seriously by the Clinton administration–and, to some degree, by some Israeli governments. It set the stage for the Palestinian choice of violence over negotiations that we saw after Camp David. The Palestinians concluded then that violations of their commitments to resolve the conflict through peaceful means would have no real consequences. Indeed, Palestinian intransigence came to be seen by the United States not as an obstacle but as a given. It actually reduced the pressure on Arafat to compromise when he saw that violence paid.

The new American administration must ensure that violence is not rewarded, so that Palestinians do not think they can get a better deal by fighting. Sharon will have to do for the Palestinians what Ronald Reagan did for the Soviets. As the author Jonathan Rauch has pointed out, Sharon will have to demonstrate that only long-term failure can result from a long-term war of attrition. The Palestinian economy will wither, and the quality of life for Palestinians will decline even further.

Ronald Reagan believed the United States would not win the Cold War as long as Moscow believed it would win. He pushed the Soviets to help them understand that, for them, the Cold War was not a winning proposition and that they were wrong to think that they could fight forever and that their adversaries could not. Sharon and Reagan assumed their nations' highest positions of trust late in their lives. Reagan, finally, saw his view vindicated. Time will tell whether Sharon will be similarly blessed.

JWR contributor Mort Zuckerman is editor-in-chief and publisher of U.S. News and World Report. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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© 2001, Mortimer Zuckerman