Israel's pivotal role

Palestinians celebrate World Trade Center attacks and Israel balks at truce talks. Will this threaten the U.S.'s global coalition?

By Flore de Prineuf

Published September 17, 2001 3:14PM (EDT)

When Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat donated blood this week to help the victims of terrorism in the United States, Israelis mocked the televised event as a propaganda ploy.

It seemed too little, too late: Thousands of Palestinians had already taken to the streets and spontaneously exulted in the United States' misery despite official orders not to manifest joy. And his blood donation seemed particularly hollow on behalf of a man who practically founded modern terrorism as head of the PLO and, according to Israelis, continues to promote shooting attacks and suicide bombings in Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip almost daily.

But it was a sign of Arafat's determination to be counted as one of the "good guys" at a time when the United States is scanning the globe for friends and foes.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, for his part, jumped on the opportunity provided by Tuesday's catastrophic events to equate Arafat with America's prime suspect and arch-enemy Osama bin Laden and recommend that critics back off when Israel does what it can to crush local terrorists.

"Acts of terror against Israeli citizens are no different from bin Laden's terror against American citizens. Terror is terror and murder is murder. There is no forgiveness for terror and no compromise with terror," he said Sunday at a special parliamentary session. Earlier in the week, Sharon presented the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as part of the same global war on terrorism the United States has vowed to lead. "The fight against terror is an international struggle of the free world against the forces of darkness who seek to destroy our liberty and our way of life. I believe together we can defeat these forces of evil."

Ironically, both Palestinians and Israelis have pledged their support for the United States' war against terrorism, while continuing to trade barbs and bullets all week. But their quarrel, as petty as it may seem in the wake of Tuesday's devastation, still has the power to derail American efforts to put together an international coalition ahead of likely military strikes on terrorist organizations.

The paradox brings to mind the situation during the Gulf War, with a twist. Israel, in theory America's strongest ally in the Middle East, was already seen as a liability in 1990-1991 when the United States relied on Arab states for troops and bases in its war against Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Israel was asked to "keep quiet," stay out of the military confrontation and even refrain from responding to Iraqi missile attacks on its cities. Israel's low profile was designed to keep Arab states such as Egypt and Syria on board with the American plan. (To reward Arabs for their support, the United States then pressured Israel into attending a conference in Madrid that began to address the question of Israel's illegal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and laid the groundwork for the Oslo peace process.)

The situation today is a little different. "The U.S. doesn't need 500,000 troops in Saudi Arabia. It's minimally dependent on a coalition. It doesn't have to pay politically or financially for the support of Syria or Egypt," said Gerald Steinberg, head of the program for conflict management and negotiation at Bar-Ilan University. "These regimes depend for their survival on the success of the fight against radical Islam."

But the United States still desperately needs the political support of Muslim Arab states so that the war against Islamic terrorist organizations is not perceived as a war between the West and Islam -- a "clash of civilizations" that would alienate about a fifth of the world's population -- but rather a war between the civilized world and savages.

Arab leaders, threatened by their own radical Islamic groups at home, have already vowed to help. But observers fear that anti-Americanism, which is rampant in the streets from Cairo to Damascus, will break that allegiance -- particularly if Israel, America's protigi in the region, continues to shell Palestinian cities with American-supplied weapons. In the past few days alone, the Israeli Defense Forces have kept a debilitating stranglehold on Jenin, a town in the northern West Bank that has been a breeding ground for suicide bombers in the past; driven tanks through Jericho; and attacked the city of Ramallah using a combination of undercover units, paratroopers, border police and air force. At least 15 Palestinians died in various Israeli military operations, two Israeli civilians were killed in drive-by shootings by Palestinian gunmen and an Israeli soldier died in the fighting near Ramallah.

A year into the Al-Aqsa Intifada, which has claimed about 800 lives, three-quarters of them Palestinian, "public opinion in the Muslim and Arab world is enraged," said Khalil Shikaki, a Palestinian pollster and political analyst. The conflict, reported in bleak anti-Israeli terms by Arabic satellite TV organizations such as Al-Gezzira, the CNN of the Middle East, has done its share to radicalize Arab societies and explains in part the discrepancy between the condolences offered by Arab leaders and the sentiment of "just reward" expressed in the streets after the Twin Towers toppled and the Pentagon burned. "We've been seeing radical support in the streets for the intifada for months," said Yossi Alpher, an Israeli strategic analyst. "And clearly anger for Israel overflows into anger for the United States."

Not that Islamic radicals were happy with the peace process either. (The Islamic organization Hamas detonated bombs in Israel in 1996 to derail the talks, not to egg them forward.) But Islamic fundamentalists have always excelled at exploiting the Palestinian story of occupation, exile and suffering for their benefit. "The issue of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is part of the whole baggage of Islamic fundamentalists versus the rest of the world. Fundamentalists use it to discredit the West and Western designs against the Arab world," said Shikaki. "The ups and downs of the peace process provide a context [for terror]. It's hard to cultivate hatred without scenes of Israeli atrocities." Stabilizing the Israeli-Palestinian front would "deprive Islamic fundamentalists of that platform," said Shikaki.

Israeli analysts, however, reject that linkage. Steinberg sees radical terrorism primarily as a function of fundamental hatred of the West. According to him, Israel, lower down on the list, rates as a target only because it represents Western penetration in the Middle East. "The Palestinians are largely irrelevant," said Steinberg. "No state and few people are willing to confront Israel on this issue."

Furthermore, Sharon has made clear that Israel is not willing to pay a diplomatic and security price for Arab participation in the American coalition. When President Bush called Sharon on Friday and exhorted him to allow Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres to meet with Arafat to discuss the implementation of a truce, Sharon refused point-blank. On Sunday, he somewhat softened his position, saying the meeting could take place after 48 hours of absolute quiet but not while Arafat was making no effort to halt terror against Israel.

"A coalition against terrorism must fight every kind of terrorism, including Arafat's," said Sharon. "A meeting with Arafat at this time, while he is actively using terrorism at its fullest strength and has taken no preventive steps, will legitimize Arafat as a 'good guy.' This would be very dangerous as it would give Arafat a chance to continue terrorism without us being able to take action against him."

Indeed, Tuesday's terrorist attacks in the United States have all but destroyed the distinction in world public opinion between terrorists and "freedom fighters," a distinction Arafat had succeeded in establishing for the Palestinian cause over the last decade. At the same time, diplomatic obstacles to an all-out Israeli war against the Palestinians have also given way to sympathy for the Israeli predicament. Sensing an important change in the diplomatic climate and fearing for his personal survival, Arafat has been desperate to please Americans this week. In his typically thuggish way, Arafat tried to suppress evidence of pro-bin Laden sentiment in the streets by having his minions threaten the lives of cameramen who would dare transmit the negative images. He has also ordered Palestinian terrorist groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad to halt their activities against Israel or face a brutal crackdown.

"The factions that support violence are willing to give Arafat a chance not to embarrass him given the catastrophe in Washington and New York," said Shikaki. "But Arafat can enforce a cease-fire only if Israel shows flexibility."

Sharon, whose unity government would probably collapse if peace talks were renewed, doesn't want to let Arafat get off so lightly. "Sharon believes that now is indeed the time to wipe out Arafat and everything he represents," wrote Shimon Shiffer, a political commentator in the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth.

Other Israelis, particularly on the left, believe instead that the intense international pressure against terrorism offers a rare opportunity for Arafat to impose an unpopular cease-fire and put an end to a yearlong costly and fruitless intifada. "This is an opportunity for Yasser Arafat to change his ways and conduct," said Yossi Sarid, a left-wing member of the Israeli parliament, interviewed on the Voice of Israel radio on Sunday. Just like the Gulf War 10 years ago helped end the first Palestinian uprising, the current crisis offers a ray of hope: The prospect of peace in the Middle East.

Flore de Prineuf

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