Playing Into Sharon's Hands
By ROBERT MALLEY
AMMMAN, Jordan -- To hear the Israeli government tell it, the reason behind the enduring conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people is one man — Yasir Arafat. Hence, Israel's approach to the problem is confining the Palestinian leader to his Ramallah headquarters, destroying the symbols of the Palestinian Authority he leads and gradually reoccupying its territory.
The United States also says the onus is on Mr. Arafat and passively looks on — occasionally dispatching its special envoy when the situation looks better, keeping him home as soon as events take a turn for the worse. Today, this is what passes for policy. But one has only to consider the growing number of victims on both sides to realize that far from being a path to peace, this approach is an almost certain recipe for catastrophe.
There is an oddly abstract quality to the current reaction to Palestinian belligerence, as if that belligerence were devoid of context. Of course, it is not. The Palestinian people will have to think long and hard about how their actions led them to the edge of the abyss. But regardless of how the current intifada began, it has by now become a mutually reinforcing cycle of Palestinian violence and terror on the one hand and devastating Israeli military attacks on the other.
As evidenced by the increasing number of Palestinians protesting even halfhearted efforts by Yasir Arafat to detain his militants, for the Palestinian Authority to crack down on its own people while Israel maintains its aggressive military action is politically and practically implausible.
Of course, the United States is justified in pressuring Chairman Arafat to act against Palestinian terrorists. But so, too, must it admonish Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to cease those policies that inflame the Palestinian public and paralyze its security services: the targeted assassinations, home demolitions, suffocating closures and creeping reoccupation. By his actions, and not without considerable help from the Palestinians, Mr. Sharon has done all in his power to make it unfeasible for them to meet their obligations. For Mr. Arafat to play into Mr. Sharon's hands in this, alas, has come to be expected. But for the rest of us?
There is a broader political context as well. The intifada is the latest chapter in a conflict that opposes two peoples living on the same land and struggling over it. Any end to violence will depend on taking steps to end the conditions that helped produce it — the pervasive and persistent military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Secretary of State Colin Powell's speech last November, evoking the prospect of a Palestinian state, was forceful, eloquent and insufficient. What is needed is a clear vision plus the will to implement it. Otherwise the arithmetic, to paraphrase a former Israeli security chief, is gruesome in its simplicity: kill a terrorist when political hope exists and have one terrorist less; kill a terrorist in the absence of such hope, and create 10 terrorists more.
Inherent in the current approach is the notion that a weakened Yasir Arafat will be either forced to do right or forced out. But one need not defend Mr. Arafat to grasp that his humiliation and virtual house arrest make it less likely that he will stop the violence. And one need not defend his failings to recognize what his fall would mean. Unwilling to make hard decisions, creative with the truth and at best vacillating in his attitude toward the use of violence — Mr. Arafat is all that, and then some. But he is also the embodiment of the Palestinian nation and of its aspirations.
He is the first Palestinian leader to recognize Israel, relinquish the objective of regaining all of historic Palestine and negotiate for a two-state solution based on the pre-1967 boundaries. And he remains for now the only Palestinian with the legitimacy to sell future concessions to his people. For him to be crushed by Mr. Sharon — whose unswerving goals have been, for the last 30 years, to vanquish Mr. Arafat, and more recently, to undo the foundations of the Oslo agreement — under the world's passive gaze, would send a distressing message to all Palestinians, guarantee a succession that is in the interest neither of peace nor of Israel, and produce a generation of scarred and vengeful Palestinians.
The true test of any policy is whether it is working. Palestinian terrorist attacks in Jerusalem and Hadera, Israeli military operations in Ramallah, Tulkarem and Nablus, and ever mounting loss of life on both sides ought to be enough to convince the Bush administration that this policy does not work. Still, the belief in Washington appears to be that engaging in more of the same — escalating pressure on Mr. Arafat, giving a muted response to Mr. Sharon's destructive tactics and adopting a hands-off policy on the ground — somehow will yield the desired outcome. The killings occurring daily are omens of an even greater disaster waiting to happen. As the Mideast inexorably drifts toward chaos and more bloodshed, the United States can either take action or take a pass. Can this really be that difficult a choice?
Robert Malley is director of the International Crisis Group's Middle East program. He was special assistant for Arab-Israeli Affairs under President Bill Clinton.