The crossroads

The murder of an Israeli extremist by Palestinian extremists pushes both Sharon and Arafat to the brink -- and threatens to doom the peace process.

By Flore de Preneuf

Published October 18, 2001 7:18PM (EDT)

When Palestinian assailants shot three bullets into the face and neck of Rehavam Zeevi as he was walking back from breakfast to his room at the Hyatt hotel in Jerusalem Wednesday morning, more than a right-wing Israeli minister was lost. The killing threatened to derail promising movements toward Middle East peace.

Just hours after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon publicly declared he was ready to accept a Palestinian state if it met Israel's security requirements and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat reaped fresh international support for his cause, the killing of an extremist by extremists threatened to unleash a new round of bloody attacks and counterattacks. It cast a large question mark over Israel's policy of relative military restraint toward Palestinian civilians and targeted assassinations of Palestinian militants -- and an equally large question mark over Arafat's desire or ability to bring the killers to justice. It seemed likely to further destabilize Sharon's unity government -- with consequences that could push Israelis and Palestinians into even more polarized positions.

In an address to the Knesset, Israel's parliament, Sharon held Arafat personally responsible for the killings. "Only despicable terrorists can dream of assassinating an elected official in a democratic state," Mr. Sharon said. "Full responsibility falls squarely on Arafat, as someone who has controlled, and continues to control, terrorism."

In a move that recalled the American ultimatum to the Taliban over sheltering bin Laden, Israel laid down the law to Arafat. "The time for words has ended and the time for deeds has come. Israel demands the extradition of those responsible for today's assassination, and expects this to be carried out immediately," read a statement issued to Arafat after the Israeli security cabinet convened late Wednesday night. "We also demand that the terrorist organizations operating in the Palestinian areas be disarmed and dismantled. Arafat must not shelter them any longer. Failure to meet these demands ... will leave us no choice but to view the Palestinian Authority as an entity supporting and sponsoring terror and to act accordingly."

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a radical Palestinian group, said it had pulled the trigger on Zeevi in revenge for the deliberate killing of its leader Mustafa Zibri on Aug. 27 by an Israeli missile fired from a helicopter gunship. The Popular Front, a secular Marxist organization which opposes Arafat but has joined various militant factions in the current uprising, is responsible for bombings in Jerusalem and other Israeli cities in the past year.

The murder of Zeevi, a sharp-jawed hard-liner known ironically as Gandhi, in the carpeted safety of a hotel corridor, sent shock waves through the Israeli establishment and general public. Apart from Wednesday's killing and the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 by an Israeli extremist who opposed the leader's peace-building policies, there have been no other political assassinations in the Jewish state's history. (Israel's ambassador in Britain, Shlomo Argov, was seriously wounded in a 1982 assassination attempt, an event that served as a pretext for Israel's invasion of Lebanon.) Among Israelis, there was a sense that an unacceptable line had been crossed.

Arafat, who controls part of the West Bank and Gaza -- the exact nature of his control is a point of controversy -- sought immediately to cool tempers. The Palestinian Authority put out statements condemning all assassinations -- "even in the case of Rehavam Zeevi, the radical one" -- urging Israel to drop its policy of targeted killings and reaffirming its commitment to implementing a tentative cease-fire brokered last month. Arafat ordered that Zeevi's murderers be arrested. A Popular Front spokesman in the West Bank was apprehended (he was later released), while Palestinians bracing for possible Israeli retaliatory strikes evacuated police stations and government offices.

But Israeli officials across the political spectrum, who are accustomed to Arafat making only token moves against terror, demanded that he hand over the killers to Israel -- something Palestinians have always refused to do -- or face harsh consequences.

Just how both Sharon and Arafat would respond to the murder was unclear. Both leaders were under extreme pressure -- forced to navigate once again between the demands of extremists and diplomatic realities.

Looming down the road was the most disturbing possibility that the advent of a more conservative Israeli government, and/or a major Israeli military response, would strengthen the position of Islamic and nationalist Palestinian extremists and weaken Arafat's grip on power.

"We will wage an all-out war on the terrorists, those who collaborated with them and those who send them," vowed Sharon in his special address to the Knesset, Israel's parliament.

But Sharon's options are limited. Despite his rage at the Palestinian Authority, an "all-out war," the solution of choice for extreme right-wingers (like the late Zeevi) who criticize Sharon for being too soft on the Palestinians, is out of the question when the West is leaning on Israel to cool down the Middle East conflict and allow the campaign against bin Laden in Afghanistan to run its course without inflaming Muslims around the world. At the same time Arafat, a man many Israelis consider the head of a terrorist statelet, has suddenly become the West's darling because he commands a measure of respect in the Arab street -- and because he is not bin Laden. A secular leader who has shown willingness in the past to compromise and has recognized Israel's right to exist, Arafat represents the only viable alternative, however flawed, to Islamic extremist groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad. By saying that bin Laden does not speak for the Palestinian people, Arafat has won fresh promises from the West to help right a historical wrong by granting Palestinians a full-fledged state.

Recognizing this sea change in international relations, Sharon has gone out of his way in recent days to look reasonable in Western eyes. On several occasions he publicly expressed openness to some kind of a Palestinian state on the condition that it be demilitarized and that Israel control its borders. Sharon's vision for a Palestinian state, which is much more modest in territory and autonomy than his predecessor Ehud Barak was prepared to offer, was still too much for right-wing Israelis to swallow -- but U.S. pressure forced them to address the issue. The murder of Zeevi, who has been suddenly raised to the stature of a national hero, is certain to poison the political atmosphere and postpone substantive debates.

Zeevi and Minister of Infrastructure Avigdor Lieberman, his partner in a small right-wing faction representing hard-line settlers, had announced two days ago they would formally resign from Ariel Sharon's government on Wednesday, depriving Sharon of the support of seven members of the Knesset and a great deal of political legitimacy on the right. Although Lieberman suspended his resignation after Zeevi's death, the political storm the duo started is likely to keep gathering strength in the coming days.

Israeli commentators pointed out that when Zeevi walked out of the right-wing government headed by Yitzhak Shamir in 1992, he inadvertently brought about the election of Rabin, the peace-maker and signatory of the Oslo accords. This time around, a defection by the extreme right could spell the beginning of the end of Sharon's broad-based unity government and bring about the reelection of former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, a savvy younger politician who has carved out a position as an ultra-hawk, to the right of the right-wing Sharon.

Zeevi, known mostly for his virulently anti-Arab views, including the belief that all Arabs be "transferred" from Israel, the West Bank and Gaza to neighboring Arab states, was an almost mythic figure and a fixture on Israel's political scene. A 75-year-old retired army general who was part of Israel's "Mayflower generation," he fought -- like Sharon -- for Israel's independence in 1948 and continued to act for the rest of his life as if Israel was actively at war. "He was one of the great warriors. He loved this country. He fought for this county. He knew all the country's paths and he never changed his opinions from the first day," said Defense Minister Fuad Ben-Eliezer, walking through the Knesset corridors before an official mourning session was held Wednesday.

A state funeral is planned Thursday afternoon. Zeevi's body will first lie in state on the plaza of the Knesset, and will then be buried on Mount Herzl, in a cemetery reserved for Israel's military heroes.

On the day of his death, even Zeevi's political opponents had good words to say about the sixth-generation Jerusalemite, saluting in him a good rival, a polite man and voracious reader with an exceptionally good command of Hebrew.

But headlines in Wednesday's paper -- printed before Zeevi's murder -- pointed to his more substantial legacy as a professional troublemaker and, in some people's view, a disgrace to Israeli politics.

Zeevi's influence, measured in terms of Knesset seats or political wheeling and dealing, was not as important as the special place he held in the hearts of Israeli extremists. Zeevi's name was synonymous with the idea of "voluntary transfer," a euphemism (and oxymoron) for the expulsion of Arabs from Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. Zeevi believed that Arabs living between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River -- i.e. all of Israel, which he regarded as biblically given to the Jews -- should not be expelled by force, but rather urged to follow their best interests and leave. The idea -- like a kinder, gentler repetition of the 1948 refugee crisis, when during and after the first Arab-Israeli War about 700,000 Arabs fled or were driven from their homes -- had ethnic-cleansing undertones: Zeevi saw transfer as a way of eliminating Arabs and the demographic threat they represent to the Jewish state. Of course, it was odious to Palestinians.

To Issam Makhoul, an Arab member of the Knesset who struck a discordant note among the numerous Israelis waxing poetical about Zeevi's "love of the land," it was "a disaster for Israeli democracy to have a representative of this idea [transfer], not only in the Knesset but in government."

"He was a racist, an extremist and very fundamentalist in his views of occupation and settlements," said Makhoul. He recalled Zeevi "taking the podium to threaten us [Arab members of Knesset] and saying: 'Remember 1948, remember we are strong and we can get rid of you.'"

On other occasions, Zeevi called President George H.W. Bush a liar and an anti-Semite (when the U.S. asked Israel to stop building settlements in the occupied West Bank in the wake of the 1991 Gulf War). He also referred to former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk as a "Jew boy."

In April this year, shortly after Zeevi was appointed tourism minister in Sharon's government, he publicly urged the Israeli army to bomb Arafat's house in Gaza -- a statement which other government officials subsequently had to apologize for.

And in July he made the headlines again when he compared Arabs who come to Israel to look for work to "lice." More than a million Arabs are citizens of Israel; in addition, he contended in an interview on Israel army radio, about 180,000 Palestinians live in Israel illegally. "They arrived here and are trying to become citizens because they want social security and welfare payments," Zeevi told the radio. "We should get rid of the ones who are not Israeli citizens the same way you get rid of lice. We have to stop this cancer from spreading within us."

Despite his extreme views, many Israelis hailed Zeevi as a man of integrity who stood by his beliefs. "He was convinced that his political views were the views of the founding fathers," said Moshe Arens, a Likud member and a former defense minister. "For him, Ben-Gurion had not finished the job. His whole mentality was pre-1948," said Daniel Ben-Simon, an Israeli journalist for the leftwing Ha'aretz newspaper. For Sharon, who opened the special Knesset session Wednesday with a personal eulogy, Zeevi was "a Zionist in every limb of his body."

Zeevi was such an ardent believer in the Zionist cause, the return of Jews to what they see as their biblical homeland, that he named one of his two sons "Palmach" (after the vanguard force that fought for Israel's independence) and one of his three daughters "Massada" (after the plateau near the Dead Sea where Jews staged a heroic last stand against Roman armies).

In his Knesset speech Sharon vowed, "We will fulfill his legacy. May God avenge his blood." But Israel's thirst for both security and revenge is problematic, as even small-scale retaliatory actions have shown recently.

When Palestinian gunmen shot and wounded Jewish visitors to the Cave of the Patriarchs, a religious site in Hebron two weeks ago, Sharon ordered that the Israeli army seize two Palestinian-controlled neighborhoods from which the gunfire originated, killing at least six Palestinians in the process and severely affecting the lives of thousands of residents. When 10 days later, under pressure from Western governments, Sharon ordered troops to withdraw, he caused an uproar among his right-wing followers (it was this decision that prompted Zeevi's resignation), and a mini-putsch in the army (in an unprecedented move, the chief of staff publicly criticized the government and said the troops should have stayed).

Sharon has also come under fire from the United States for his policy of "targeted killings," a polite word for the assassination of Palestinian militants, which Israel resumed this weekend, killing at least one and possibly two Hamas members in separate attacks. At a time when Americans are themselves on a busy search-and-destroy mission for the culprits of the Sept. 11 attacks, many Israelis feel their assassination policy is justified and a matter of self-defense -- and find American criticism grossly hypocritical. The revenge killing of Zeevi, however, shows that it can have deadly consequences.

"We tell Sharon and his gangs that the blood of our people is not cheap and if he continues targeting the figures of our people, his political and military figures will be targets for us," warned the Popular Front in a statement distributed to news agencies.

In the past year of fighting, Israel has killed roughly 50 Palestinian fighters and bystanders in such attacks. Zibri, who took control of the Popular Front, a group famous for airplane hijackings in the 1970s but which was fairly low-profile until the current Intifada, was the most prominent Palestinian eliminated by Israel. Israeli officials say the Palestinian Authority's unwillingness to arrest terrorists and prevent attacks forces them to take matters in their own hands. Since terrorists roam in Palestinian-controlled territories where Israeli troops in theory have no business and would not be able to conduct legal arrests, they argue that proven terrorists and "ticking bombs" must be eliminated -- preferably in missile strikes delivered from helicopter gunships.

Necessary or not, these assassinations have not deterred other Palestinians from attacking Israel. Indeed, it is a staple of Hamas propaganda that every militant that Israel murders gives birth to 10 new terrorist vocations among Palestinian young men. A fringe left-wing Israeli group commented Wednesday on the perverse effects of assassinations that can turn even a figure as controversial as Zeevi into a national hero: "Today Israeli society is in shock because of the murder of its Minister of Tourism Reha'am Ze'evi," wrote Gush Shalom in a press release. "Never before was it more clear than now that even a leader of a relatively small extremist group becomes a national hero and martyr when he is assassinated."

Yossi Sarid, the head of the left-wing Meretz opposition party, warned that tit-for-tat killings could drag Israel into a bloodbath: "We have to be careful not to be drawn into a sea of blood." The best outcome, he said, would be for Arafat to arrest terrorists himself. "If [the Palestinians] fail the test," he said, "the land will burn, the fire will rage, and no one will be able to put it out."

Flore de Preneuf

Flore de Preneuf is a Jerusalem writer and photographer.

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