Last exit before Armageddon

The U.S. still has a chance to broker a lasting peace in the Middle East. But to do so, it must go beyond merely denouncing terrorism and push through a political solution.

By Gary Kamiya

Published March 31, 2002 12:10AM (EST)

The Middle East just inched one step closer to a firestorm that could end up burning the United States, and the Bush administration did nothing to stop it.

On Friday, Israel did what it had signaled it would do after Palestinian suicide bombers killed 30 Israeli civilians in three days. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon declared Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat the "enemy," saying he had "established a coalition of terror against Israel," and Israeli tanks invaded Ramallah, the de facto Palestinian capital. As the United States appeared to signal its approval -- with the administration's supposed "dove," Secretary of State Colin Powell, blaming Arafat and saying that Israel had the right to defend itself from terrorism -- the Israeli army smashed into Arafat's compound, killing five Palestinians and taking 70 prisoner. Early Saturday morning, the U.S. backed a unanimous U.N. Security Council resolution urging Israel to withdraw from Ramallah, but still no senior administration official had demanded that Sharon stop the escalation.

Whether or not Israel will physically expel Arafat from the occupied territories -- it says it has no plans to kill him -- is unclear. But regardless of Arafat's fate, Israel will almost certainly undertake a significant escalation of its recent major incursion into Palestinian-controlled territories, in which Israeli forces carried out search-and-destroy missions aimed at killing or capturing Palestinian militants and their weapons.

The outcome of this operation is not difficult to foresee: The gruesome ritual of violence has become numbingly predictable. Hundreds of Palestinians, including many noncombatants, will be killed or wounded, as will a lesser number of Israeli troops. Many potential terrorists will be killed or captured, but many more will escape, and even more than that number will be radicalized. At some point, maybe in days, maybe in weeks or months, there will be another massive terrorist attack against Israel. The Israeli public will demand even harsher countermeasures. With Arafat either out of the territories or rendered completely isolated and impotent, the Israeli army will unleash its force once again on the Palestinians. There will be more terror attacks, and still more severe Israeli responses. Meanwhile, the Saudi peace plan that could offer a way out of the horror will sit on the shelf, waiting for that nonexistent day when terrorism will stop.

This is simply the reality, and all the American denunciations of terrorism in the world and all the Israeli missiles launched ever closer to Arafat's feet will not change it. Unless the United States accepts that there is no military solution to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, and abandons its reactive stance to boldly broker a peace deal based on the historic Saudi initiative offered at the Arab summit, more and more Israeli and Palestinian blood will flow.

The endgame of this scenario is all too clear to everyone except, apparently, the Bush administration. With Arafat out of the picture and the U.S., citing Israel's need to defend itself against terrorism, blocking any moves by the international community to intervene, Sharon will attempt to batter the Palestinians into submission. If "the bulldozer" fails to stop the terror attacks, his unity coalition will inevitably fall and will likely be replaced by a government led by Binyamin Netanyahu -- an even more extreme nationalist and right-wing leader who rejects the idea of Palestinian statehood, refuses to give up any land and has made no secret of his desire to totally vanquish the Palestinians.

But as the terrorist attacks that have followed the Al-Aqsa intifada -- and the Sept. 11 attacks -- have made clear, no state can absolutely defend itself against people who are physically in a position to carry out an attack and who are willing to die. There are too many Palestinians in the occupied territories and Jerusalem, the borders are too long and there are too many ways to smuggle weapons in. Therefore, it seems likely that the only way Sharon or Netanyahu can succeed in permanently ending the Palestinian threat -- short of a political solution, which neither seems capable of grasping -- is through a double strategy: First crushing the Palestinians militarily in all-out war, which could well involve tens of thousands of casualties, including thousands of civilians, and the destruction of entire cities and refugee camps; then "transferring" the entire Palestinian population out of the occupied territories and into neighboring states like Jordan or Lebanon. "Transfer" is a polite euphemism for ethnic cleansing, but large numbers of Israelis now say they support it because they are convinced that the Palestinians want to ethnically cleanse them right out of Israel and off the face of the earth.

It is unlikely that the United States would allow Israel to undertake such extreme measures, even if the Jewish state wanted to (which is also unclear). Which means that the most likely outcome is more of the status quo, only worse: more Palestinian suicide bombers and ever-harsher Israeli reprisals.

In other words: Short of a "total solution" to the Palestinian problem that would be too morally repugnant for the U.S. to countenance or the Israelis to undertake, or a complete change in the Bush administration's Middle East policy, what lies ahead is an endless, uneven war, with Palestinians blowing up Israelis and Israelis responding by blowing up three times as many Palestinians.

Let us leave aside for a moment the moral issues and simply examine this outcome from the cold-blooded perspective of strategic American interests. Is this outcome something that would benefit the United States?

The answer is obviously no. Even from the perspective of the ascendant hawks in the administration, like Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and Vice President Dick Cheney, a bloody, unresolved semi-war between Israel and the Palestinians is completely counterproductive, indeed dangerous. Not even the most fervent personal and ideological support for Israel and antipathy for the Palestinians -- feelings that run deep in key positions in the Bush administration, as the Israeli journalist Aluf Benn has reported in Salon -- can overcome the fact that an open wound in the Middle East threatens to infect the United States.

The administration's desire to invade Iraq has already been dealt a severe blow by the Arab leaders, who have made it clear that the Palestinian issue trumps Iraq. But even more damaging to American interests is the growing anti-American hatred throughout the entire Arab and Muslim world that would assuredly follow such a conflict. In their triumphalist daydreams, the likes of Wolfowitz may imagine a world in which Israel and the United States, fresh from demonstrating our mutual might with a military victory over Iraq, call the shots to a cabal of cowering Middle East despots who may whimper but respect the lash. But those are the hallucinations of zealots. The reality is that it is in the United States' interest to have good relations with the Arab and Muslim world, not nakedly dominate it directly or via our Israel proxy. Anyone who doesn't see that somehow missed Sept. 11.

So why is the U.S. clinging to its bankrupt policies? Why is it locked into a position in which moralistic condemnations of "terror" trump everything else -- history, context, strategy, even American self-interest?

It has become clearer and clearer that the Bush administration drew completely the wrong conclusions from Sept. 11. Instead of seeking to address the root causes of Muslim rage, it wrapped itself in the patriotic mantle of "zero tolerance for terrorism." This played well to a wounded and shocked nation seeking moral certainties (and revenge). But it is hopelessly inadequate as a road map to the moral and historical complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- indeed, to most armed conflicts in which terrorism plays a significant role.

One can condemn the suicide attacks on Israeli civilians while acknowledging the fact that not all terrorism is created equal: while some acts of terror are anomic, nihilist violence, others can be a (singularly brutal) component of war. Most people would place the terrorism of the African National Congress against South Africa's racist white regime, for example, in a different category from the state terrorism of Pol Pot during Cambodia's Year Zero. Few supporters of Israel regard Israel's existence as morally undermined by the acts of terror against the British and the Palestinians, like the blowing up of the King David Hotel or the massacre at Deir Yassin, that helped bring it into being: The end justified the means. Similarly, few Americans shed many tears over the hundreds of thousands of German and Japanese civilians we killed in so-called "strategic" bombing during World War II -- bombing which often had little military purpose other than to inflict maximum death on as many civilians as possible, so as to weaken the enemy's will to fight.

The truth, as Anthony H. Cordesman, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, argued in a recent New York Times op-ed piece, is that "the situation has essentially become asymmetric warfare rather than Palestinian terrorism and Israeli counterterrorism. Each side has escalated the violence using the methods available to it. For the Palestinians, this is suicide bombing and smuggled arms. For Israel, it is tanks and attack helicopters."

Viewed in this context, the answer to stopping the violence is not merely to condemn terrorism, but to address the issues that have led to this war. Israeli rage at Arafat is understandable. The corrupt and power-drunk Palestinian leader has indeed winked at terrorism, if not actively ordered it. But even if Arafat demanded that it stop, he would be unable to enforce that demand -- unless a real political solution, such as that offered by the Arab peace plan, was at hand. Without a political agreement, not merely a cease-fire leaving the unacceptable status quo in place, the militants in Hamas and Islamic Jihad and the Tanzim and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades would see no reason to lay down their arms -- and the Palestinian Authority no reason to try to force them to.

To understand why the militants have no motivation to observe a cease-fire without a political dimension, one has to understand the deterioration of the Palestinian situation since Oslo in 1993. The Oslo Accords did not bring peace to either side, but to the Palestinians they brought disaster. Israel still retains de facto control of the occupied territories, even though the incompetent P.A. supposedly runs part of them. Israel still uses the lion's share of the water in those territories, which are cut into isolated cantons crisscrossed with security roads and fortress-like settlements. It continues to strangle the economies in the West Bank and the hellish Gaza Strip with endless closures, preventing Palestinians from seeking their serf-like work in Israel, where they are paid far less than Israelis. Above all, it has continued to pour settlers and settlements into the West Bank, creating "facts on the ground" intended to prevent Israel from ever abandoning the Biblical lands of Judea and Samaria.

If Israel had undertaken all of these restrictive policies simply out of legitimate security concerns, while undertaking good-faith negotiations on the political issues, one might conceivably accept their validity. But that is not the case. Sharon, the man who led the settlement-building policy intended to prevent Israel from ever withdrawing from the occupied territories, has never seriously attempted to make a realistic peace with the Palestinians, one that involves relinquishing the territories occupied after the 1967 war. As the Israeli journalist Doron Rosenblum wrote in Ha'aretz, "even if we take the Arafatian wickedness and stupdity into account, we will find that during this past year there was not even one single opportunity for dialogue, for calm, for minimal creativity in the direction of some sort of agreement or understanding that was not intentionally scotched by Sharon, and this when he did not initiate an intentional provocation."

But many Israelis -- including even Benny Morris, one of the so-called "new historians" who helped puncture many of Israel's most cherished myths -- no longer believe that the Palestinians want peace. Arafat's rejection of Ehud Barak's Camp David offer caused the scales to fall from their eyes: If the Palestinians could turn down an offer that included more than 90 percent of the West Bank and control of most of East Jerusalem, they must not be interested in peace but in an endless struggle to destroy Israel itself. Many American supporters of Israel share this view.

Such a reaction is understandable, but in my view misguided. It assumes a kind of primordial hatred of Israelis by Palestinians, or hatred of Jews by Palestinians, that neither the historical record nor the contemporary situation, bleak as it is, bears out. As the noted Israeli journalist and historian Tom Segev commented, it is naive to expect a 100-year-old conflict to be ended with one roll of the dice. Mistrusts are too deep, lack of mutual understanding too strong. But those can be overcome -- in time, and with good-faith efforts. In his forthcoming book, "War Without End," the British journalist Anton LaGuardia noted that one of the things that led Arafat to walk away was simply a desire for Israelis to apologize -- to acknowledge their responsibility. On such seemingly trivial matters the attempts at reconciliation between two suffering peoples with tragic histories can founder. But hope is not dead yet, nor hatred too strong.

Yes, there are some Palestinians who reject Israel's right to exist and desire not peaceful coexistence with Israel but existence without either Israel or Jews. But reading the words of Palestinians -- from shopkeepers to intellectuals -- one gets the sense that most do not feel this way. They are deeply angry and bitter at Israel and Israelis, it is true, but that anger has not yet frozen into permanent, self-destructive hatred. Yes, they cling to wraithlike dreams of fields and olive trees and sunlit orchards that vanished 54 years ago in the fire of war and terror -- as what person who lost his native realm would not? The same dream, based not on actual memories but on ancient history, led to the founding of Israel -- but it is still possible for them to step out of the shadows of memory, to forgive and move on. What most Palestinians want is a measure of justice, embodied in a real state, not a Bantustan; acknowledgment by Israel of its share of responsibility for their tragic plight; and a chance for a better life.

Those are things that even now Israel could still be persuaded to give them -- if it was assured that the sacrifice and the admission would truly bring peace. But as the semi-war continues, the rejectionists and anti-Semites and deadly fundamentalists are gaining in power on the Arab side -- just as racist, anti-Arab hyper-nationalists and religious fanatics are gaining on the Israeli side. If the U.S., the only country that has the power to stop this madness, refuses to step in, the cycle of violence will grow to the point where the pessimists are proven right -- and then not only that region will suffer, the whole world will be in danger. Time is on no one's side.

The solution is clear. The U.S. must step in immediately to broker a peace plan along the lines provided by the Saudi initiative. Israel would completely withdraw to its pre-'67 borders. On the most contentious issues -- the right of return and Jerusalem -- the U.S. should propose splitting the difference, giving the Palestinians slightly more than they got at Camp David on Jerusalem and its all-important Temple Mount area, but holding the line on the refugees. The Palestinians would get East Jerusalem as their capital; Israelis would have access to the Western Wall. In exchange, the Palestinians would give up their demand for unlimited right of return: Refugees would be resettled elsewhere and paid compensation, as in Barak's proposal. The Arab states have clearly signaled that they are prepared to compromise on the right of return, and with their support Arafat would have the authority to make this momentous and needed break with Palestinian mythology.

To give Israel assurance that giving up the occupied territories and East Jerusalem would bring peace, an international peacekeeping force should be deployed. Any attacks on Israel would be met with an immediate and devastating international military response.

Sharon, of course, would reject this plan unless he was forced to accept it -- so the U.S. must force him to accept it, threatening to withhold the $3 billion a year it provides Israel if necessary.

Time is running out. Supporters of Israel and of the Palestinians alike -- and those of us who wish both sides well -- must urge the Bush administration to act. The alternative is unthinkable.

Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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