"Arafat is guilty of everything that is happening here," Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon declared on television Monday night. "Arafat has made his strategic choices: a strategy of terrorism." In sync with these fierce words, Israeli forces launched attacks close to the Palestinian leader's house and destroyed his helicopters, an onslaught that the US government conspicuously failed to condemn.
So, in the wake of the recent suicide bomb attacks launched by Hamas, the sky is now the limit for Israeli reprisals: the killing of Arafat and, not so far down the road, perhaps forced expulsion of tens of thousands of Palestinians from the West Bank. In other words, untrammeled military repression by Israel's forces, and a deaf ear by the United States to all Palestinian calls for fair dealing. Write FINIS to all efforts over the past thirty-four years to secure a just settlement in Israel and some measure of satisfaction for Palestinian aspirations.
But isn't that exactly what Israelis like Ariel Sharon have wanted all along? Can anyone claim with a straight face that Sharon and those like him actually want a just peace that would see an end to Israeli settlements on the West Bank, the rise of a Palestinian state in any guise other than pathetic little bantustans ringed by Israel's security forces?
There are those in Israel who outlined clearly in November Sharon's plan to force matters exactly along the lines they have now taken.
Alex Fishman is the main commentator on security matters for Israel's largest mass-circulation paper, Yediot Ahronot, a publication with right-of-center politics. Fishman is known for his excellent contacts in the military. On Sunday, November 25, Fishman issued a prediction based on the November 23 assassination by Israel's security services of the Hamas leader Mahmoud Abu Hanoud. It was featured in a box on the newspaper's front page.
It began, "We again find ourselves preparing with dread for a new mass terrorist attack within the Green Line [Israel's pre-1967 border]." Since Fishman was entirely accurate in this regard, we should mark closely what he wrote next. "Whoever gave a green light to this act of liquidation knew full well that he is thereby shattering in one blow the gentleman's agreement between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority; under that agreement, Hamas was to avoid in the near future suicide bombings inside the Green Line, of the kind perpetrated at the Dolphinarium" discotheque in Tel Aviv on June 1.
Fishman stated flatly that such an agreement did exist, even if neither the Palestinian Authority nor Hamas would admit it in public. "It is a fact," he continued, "that, while the security services did accumulate repeated warnings of planned Hamas terrorist attacks within the Green Line, these did not materialize. That cannot be attributed solely to the Shabak's [Israel's security service] impressive success in intercepting the suicide bombers and their controllers. Rather, the respective leaderships of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas came to the understanding that it would be better not to play into Israel's hands by mass attacks on its population centers."
In other words, Arafat had managed to convince Hamas to curb its suicide bombers. This understanding was shattered by the assassination of Abu Hanoud. "Whoever decided upon the liquidation of Abu Hanoud," Fishman continued, "knew in advance that that would be the price. The subject was extensively discussed both by Israel's military echelon and its political one, before it was decided to carry out the liquidation. Now, the security bodies assume that Hamas will embark on a concerted effort to carry out suicide bombings, and preparations are made accordingly."
Ever since September 11 Israel's leaders followed with deep trepidation the building of the coalition against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The months of studious indifference displayed by the Bush Administration toward the crises in the Middle East suddenly gave way to President Bush's abrupt, post-September 11 statement that he had always nourished the dream of a Palestinian state.
Consequently, the prime task of the Israeli government and of its supporters here has been to turn back any serious pressure for accommodation with even the most modest of Palestinian demands. In parallel, the faction mustered around Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Defense Policy Board chairman Richard Perle has been to push for the United States to reopen direct hostilities with Iraq and settle accounts with Saddam Hussein once and for all.
The Wolfowitz-Perle group knows perfectly well that any serious new confrontation with Saddam would probably be a prolonged and bloody affair. There is no Northern Alliance ready and eager for US intervention in Iraq. The Shiites in the south remember well what happened in 1991, when they rose against Saddam and the United States stood by while he methodically slaughtered them. The Kurds know that a post-Saddam regime might move against them, with similar US indifference. If the United States acted as supervisor and guarantor for an invasion by Ahmed Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress, the military and diplomatic consequences would be both messy and far-reaching.
It's clear that the Wolfowitz-Perle group is equable in the face of such uncertainties, since whatever the ghastly consequences for ordinary people in Iraq, the one outcome that would be certain is that Israel would be confirmed in its status as the United States' prime ally and supporter in the region, even as the post-September 11 coalition with Islamic countries falls apart. Small wonder they rapturously echo Sharon's denunciations of Arafat as a man of terror even though they, being smart people, probably don't need Alex Fishman to explain how the game is actually being played.
These are the stakes. They're far larger than the present tragicomic efforts to assemble a coalition to run Afghanistan, and there isn't much sign thus far that President Bush understands that comic-book advisories such as "You're for us or against us" do not, in this situation, really apply.