Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Current Crisis is ‘test of Wills’ That U.s., Israel Must Not Fail

April 3, 2002
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

The current vicious war between Israel and the Palestinians is best understood as a test of wills. Who will buckle first: the Palestinians, the Israelis or the Americans?

Thus far, the violence has not altered the calculations of the protagonists nor the U.S. approach. Before reaching conclusions about what can be done, we had better understand the reasons why.

The Palestinians argue that without this war they will not gain their state, or more precisely, the state they want.

The negotiating record from the Camp David Accords to Taba is clear enough: Arafat wants to re- establish the June 4, 1967, line, take control of the Old City of Jerusalem and return a considerable number of refugees to pre-1967 Israel, primarily in the Galilee.

He could not get this from Barak and he certainly will not get it from Sharon, but he cannot justify a cease-fire that leads to less, especially after Palestinian losses.

Instead, Arafat is going for broke: a war violent enough to provoke international intervention on his behalf because he threatens the pro-American regimes and the American war on terrorism.

Secure in his personal safety net, Arafat seeks the benefits of martyrdom without having to undergo the rigor of the actual experience. Palestinian willingness to die is his leverage, and he will not restrain the violence until he gets his deal. Thus far, he has preferred to risk ruin rather than change his tactics.

Most Israelis, once bitterly divided over peace proposals, are now united in the view that Arafat is no peace partner. Sharon’s government is also determined to avoid the mistakes of Lebanon: Likud and Labor must stay together, with due deference paid to the United States.

Military and political prudence caution against a reoccupation of all the Palestinian areas or the elimination of Arafat. There are also other worrying fronts, Lebanon not least.

It therefore falls to the politicians to manage the Americans while the generals reduce the Palestinian offensive capability. Unless Arafat is replaced, Israel can only experiment with tactics that may lead him to prefer a cease-fire as his military capacities wane. This is a war of attrition that Israel can win, except that democracies do not always do well with attrition.

That leaves the Bush administration.

Washington correctly understood from the outset that Arab-Israeli peacemaking requires leaders who want a deal and want U.S. help in reducing their risks in making one.

The Mitchell Plan and the Tenet Plan were both efforts to locate the minimum political and security levels where the sides might find a common interest. But lack of result should not be confused with lack of effort. Powell tried in summer 2001, Bush and Powell and Zinni in the winter and now Cheney in spring 2002.

After Sept. 11, Arafat was even given a discount on joining the war on terrorism: He had only to make a “100 percent effort” while the United States endorsed for the first time a “viable Palestinian state.” Yet, in each case, Arafat simply would not deliver while the violence increased.

Nor have the other Arab states been of much help. The Saudis, balancing carefully as usual, suddenly endorsed peace with Israel under terms close to Arafat’s; simultaneously, they led a reconciliation with Iraq intended to block U.S. military action against Saddam.

Egypt and Jordan, who have in the past persuaded Arafat to take the best deal he could get, were sidelined in the process. This is a poor return on American activism and nothing advocated by the president’s critics suggests a risk-all initiative would change the game.

There remains the oft-proposed American-led “plan” to be imposed on the parties. If this is more than a synonym for U.S. pressure on Israel, then it will encounter the same problem — Arafat’s compliance. And for Washington to take this route risks rewarding the very terrorism the United States now opposes worldwide.

What America must do now is to remind Eygpt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia that Arafat’s game may take them all over the edge, when the essence of their policy should be to prevent him from doing so.

The U.S. road map away from the abyss runs through Tenet, Mitchell and a quick resumption of final-status negotiations that promise a Palestinian state that is no danger to Israeli security.

If Arafat cannot embark on this journey, then another leader will be found in due course. Meanwhile, as long as terrorism is his method, the United States will stand with Israel to block it. This is a test of wills neither of the democracies can afford to fail.

Recommended from JTA