Jewish World Review April 17, 2002/ 6 Iyar, 5762

Wesley Pruden

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A pregnant pause
for breath-catching | Knock on wood (almost any Saudi head will do), but that flash on the horizon might be a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel to the Middle East.

Or it might not.

Ariel Sharon said that he expects his troops to be out of all West Bank cities, except for Ramallah and Bethlehem, within a week, and he'll be out of those places just as soon as either (1) he arrests the Palestinian terrorists barricaded there, or (2) the Palestinian Authority - i.e., Yasser Arafat - hands them over.

Israel, he said, has no appetite for staying in what he called "cities of terror," but he is determined to get the 200 or so Palestinian fighters who have taken over the Church of the Nativity, a place Christians hold in reverence because it may or may not be built on the site of the stable where Christ was born, and the terrorists in Ramallah, who the Israelis believe include the killers of Rehavam Zeevi, the Israeli tourism minister who was slain last October.

"They must leave their weapons behind," the prime minister said of the Ramallah and Bethlehem gunmen. "They have to come out. They will be identified. Those who have no connection with terror will be released immediately. Those who are connected and had to do with terror and murder will be arrested."

The Bush administration yesterday floated the idea of a Middle East "peace conference" of foreign ministers representing Israel and the leading Arab nations, including Yasser Arafat's "representatives," but not the Palestinian chief himself. And it couldn't be called a "peace conference," which might raise false hope among the truly credulous, so it might be called a "process conference." Once named, the diplomats can get to the really important stuff, such as the shape of the table and which side gets how many pitchers of ice water.

There is accumulating evidence that nearly everyone in the Middle East thinks a process conference is a good idea, or at least the least bad idea. The Israelis might even be willing to use Crown Prince Abdullah's famous "peace plan" as a point of departure, as long as everyone understands that the plan, such as it is, is a piece of fiction that can't have anything to do with whatever positive comes out of the conference, if anything does.

Some of this is 80-proof argle-bargle, but nothing is ever as it seems in that miserable part of the world. What is abundantly clear is that the Israeli incursion into the Palestinian cities has accomplished much of what the Israelis intended, reducing the Palestinian capacity to inflict terror, and this changes the dynamics. The Palestinian terror infrastructure has been badly damaged, if not yet destroyed, and the arrest of a meek Marwan Barghouti, the top Arafat button man, and his nephew, Ahmed, in a house north of Ramallah, is the biggest catch of the Israeli campaign. Mr. Barghouti is the head of the Fatah militias, the source of a great deal of the Palestinian savagery.

The Israelis now expect a much diminished level of suicide savagery, not only because the head of the snake has been badly mauled if not yet decapitated, but because the Arabs finally are in a mood to mumble uncle. The daily Hezbollah shelling into Israel will continue, and the occasional suicide bomber will inflict sudden death, but at retail. The Israelis are confident that there won't be a repeat of the Seder massacre, at least for now. The goal of using the Palestinians to destroy Israel has not been abandoned, but the Palestinian surrogates need time to catch their breath. George W. Bush can use the breath-catching interlude to plan the expedition to Iraq.

The Israeli campaign accomplished Israeli goals, but it has had the unintended effect of saving Yasser Arafat for the short term, making him a hero, though still not a leader who can accomplish anything for the Palestinian masses, so cynically used by the Arab tyrants. The deaths of dozens of Palestinians in Ramallah and Jenin was a negligible price for them to pay. The sick strategy of using women and children as suicide bombs demonstrates exactly how much value the tyrants put on a human life, even the human life of their own people. From the Arafat point of view, the more Palestinians killed by the Israelis, the better, because every death makes him a greater hero in that famous "Arab street."

He is relieved once more of the responsibility to actually make the lives of his people better. Schools, roads, clean water, electric lights, sewers and all the marks of civilization can be put off for another time: some day, not today. Whatever hope there may be for the Palestinian people will be redeemed by someone else. The G-d who helps those who help themselves is not, alas, an Arab deity.

JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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