Ariel Sharon's policy since 11 September has been, roughly, "everyone has his Osama Bin Laden; ours is called Yasser Arafat". Immediately after September's attacks on the United States, Sharon hoped that Washington would back a decisive offensive against the Palestinian Authority (PA), and immediately sent his army into several autonomous Palestinian cities. A week later the (Labour) defence minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer said: "We've killed 14 Palestinians — without the world saying a thing. For Arafat, it's a disaster" (1).
The euphoria of the extremists did not last. Washington, far from backing this offensive, demanded that it end. Under pressure, Sharon was forced to withdraw his troops from the cities and stop the targeted killings of senior Palestinian figures; to agree to a meeting on 26 September between foreign minister Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat; and to apologise for the accusation made against President George Bush that he had sacrificed Israel and been an appeaser, like Britain's Neville Chamberlain before the second world war.
"Sharon has gone right off the rails," said the Tel Aviv press (2). On 2 October Bush made his own Balfour declaration, saying that the idea of a Palestinian state had always been part of the US vision, provided that Israel's right to exist was respected (3). Sources said that Bush intended to take up President Clinton's proposals, made at the end of 2000: Israel's withdrawal to its 4 June 1967 borders, minus the land needed for regrouping 80% of its settlers; recognition of Israel's Jewish character and the Palestinian state's Arab character; and the sharing of sovereignty in Jerusalem (4). Even worse for Israeli hardliners, US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld toured the Arab world early in October to communicate this plan, without consulting Israel beforehand or visiting it.
"Progress on the Palestinian question is essential if you want to keep the support of the Arab population for the fight against terrorism" (5), Egypt's president Hosni Mubarak told a European delegation. Most Arab regimes allied to the US have been juggling US demands and anti-American sentiments. At the time of the Gulf war, some of these countries joined in the war of President George Bush senior on Iraq: 10 years on, they did not even formally approve the bombing of Afghanistan decreed by George Bush junior (and we will not go into their reaction to potential US action against Iraq). From Washington's point of view, the strategic imperatives of 1991 were short term: those of 2001 long term. But an explosion on the Israeli-Palestinian front could ruin the US State Department's political and diplomatic efforts, and even destabilise more fragile Arab countries.
Such an explosion seemed imminent when, on 17 October, the Israeli minister of tourism, Rehavam Zeevi, was killed by militants from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in retaliation for the death of its West Bank leader, heir to the ageing George Habbash. This act of revenge was a serious political mistake. It gave Sharon the pretext for his dreamed-of escalation: within days the Israeli army had again entered all the autonomous towns, as a prelude to an assault on the PA and its chairman. Arafat was personally at risk — as Peres warned: "In his place, we'll have Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hizbollah" (6).
In 1991 Bush senior had forbidden prime minister Yitzhak Shamir from responding to Scud missiles arriving from Baghdad, and then dragged the unwilling Shamir to the Madrid conference. Ten years on, Bush junior hesitated really to pressure his Israeli ally. It was nearly five weeks before the Israeli army withdrew from the towns it had re-occupied. This adventure cost 90 Palestinian lives, bringing the intifada death toll to nearly 1,000 — more than 200 of them Israelis.
But Sharon did not stop there. On 23 November he had Abul Hanoud, a top Hamas leader, killed: he knew the Islamists would seek revenge and break the ceasefire that Arafat had persuaded them to observe. In the first days of December, 30 people were killed in Jerusalem and Haifa. Again, this act of revenge was catastrophic. The army targeted the PA, bombing police stations, Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah and his transport. One shell landed only 30 metres from Arafat's office. For several hours there was concern for his safety. Observers recalled the siege of Beirut in 1982 when Arafat managed to escape with his fedayin, under the protection of a multinational force; after that came the massacres in Sabra and Shatila, the work of Phalangist militia while the Israeli army looked on and did nothing. Perhaps Sharon is hoping to finish what he started 19 years ago.
This time Sharon must think he has Arafat at his mercy but, remembering Lebanon, he is making sure that this time Arafat has no escape route. He is demanding that Arafat punishes those responsible for the December attacks without delay, while simultaneously making this practically and politically impossible. Palestinian police are paralysed by almost uninterrupted bombing while Sharon is closing the door to diplomacy, depriving the PA of the popular support it needs to discipline terrorist organisations. Perhaps Sharon is even trying to start a Palestinian civil war. The carnage caused by the Palestinian suicide bombings has now obscured, both locally and internationally, many months of state terrorism by Israel. So Sharon has reduced to silence everyone who had wanted to keep open the chances of a peaceful solution, at least until these last weeks.
The French foreign minister, Hubert Védrine, has had the courage to say that attacking the PA, to weaken or even eliminate it, would be a fatal mistake. He feared that its elimination was a very real policy so "that Israel would face just a mass of hopeless Palestinians who would rally to Hamas. Then some Israeli officials would say to us: 'You see, it's impossible to have a state with these people facing us' " (7).
Washington is not saying anything of the sort. US pressure on Israel in September and October, leading to (verbal) warnings in November, has been transformed into permission, with the White House saying: "Israel has the right to defend itself" (8). It is as though the suicide bombings of 1-2 December obliterated the memory of the speech Bush made on 2 October, and the one that Secretary of State Colin Powell gave on 19 November when he expanded on the vision of a "viable Palestinian state" neighbouring Israel, and called on Israel to end both the occupation and settlement building (9).
Have the rapid, decisive successes in Afghanistan gone to Bush's head? Was Powell disgraced for opposing the possible start of military operations on other fronts, notably Iraq? Has Bush succumbed to the belief that Arafat's political or physical disappearance would be enough to re-establish order in Palestine? Or is he already thinking about the next elections and worrying about the opposition of the pro-Israel lobby, which supposedly caused his father's downfall?
Whatever the reasons, the reversal of the Bush line is hard to square with the stated goals of the US since 11 September. Anti-American sentiments in Arab countries may not have produced big demonstrations after the attacks on Afghanistan, but such demonstrations could easily happen if there were a new tragedy in Palestine. Most Arabs are indifferent to what happens to Osama bin Laden; they know that al-Qaida is only concerned with one holy land: Saudi Arabia. But Arafat, despite the vagaries of his actions, is still a powerful symbol of Arabness.
Letting Israel destroy the PA would be also to destroy all hope for the project of a viable Palestinian state. It would also make the idea of a new international conference obsolete before it opened. Just as the Gulf war led to Madrid (the starting point for negotiations that led to Oslo), the war in Afghanistan should be followed by a new initiative to relaunch the interrupted Taba talks of January 2001.
That is exactly what Sharon intends to prevent. He does not care what comes after the PA. He believes that the main thing is to get rid of any nationally or internationally recognised partner, and therefore all possibility of negotiation about the creation of a Palestinian state. This suicidal policy is doubtless the result of Sharon's own ideology, as he is viscerally opposed to Palestinian statehood, although he was forced to mention the words earlier. He is also afraid of losing his extreme right and, even more, of giving his rival Binyamin Netanyahu a chance. Sharon's chief of staff Shaul Mofaz and his deputy Moshe Yaalon are developing their own particularly hard line, which the leftish Labour member of Knesset, Yossi Beilin, has denounced as a "quasi putsch" (10). The Labour presence in the government serves as a guarantee, abroad and at home, for Sharon's irresponsible policies; it creates confusion among ordinary Israelis who, until the events of December, were keener to return to the negotiating table than resume hostilities (11).
Faced with disaster if Sharon's plans succeed, the international community has been maintaining silence, with rare exceptions. The countries that joined in the US war against Iraq, supported bombing Serbia, and now endorse the Afghan war are allowing, even encouraging, one of the most world's most powerful armies in the world (certainly the most powerful in the Middle East), to turn its response to Hamas attacks into a crushing of Palestine and its leaders.
This does not just concern the Palestinian people, the main victims. The future of Israel is in question. Only the Likud, and its religious and far-right allies, could fail to see that neither community would win an Israeli-Palestinian civil war. We risk far more of the atrocities committed this last year: the killing of Palestinian children or the lynching of Israeli soldiers in Ramallah, the anti-Arab pogrom in Nazareth or the destruction of Joseph's tomb at Nablus and suicide attacks inside the Green Line.
Demographers, including Israeli expert Arnon Sofer, point out that in 2020 the Palestinians will be in the majority between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, and will represent 32% of the population within the Green Line (12). That is why the rapid creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel would, in the long run, guarantee Israel's survival and its Jewish character.
(1) Agence France Presse, Paris, 14 September 2001.
(2) Maariv, Tel Aviv, 5 October 2001.
(3) New York Times, 2 October 2001.
(4) According to the proposal of President Clinton, what is Jewish would belong to Israel and what is Arab to the Palestinian state, including the Haram al-Sharif (Aqsa complex). The Western Wall would remain under Israeli sovereignty. This formula ratified Israeli settlement of the eastern part of Jerusalem.
(5) Le Figaro, Paris, 28 September 2001.
(6) Yediot Aharanot, Tel Aviv, 1 October 2001.
(7) AFP, 3 December 2001.
(9) AFP, 19 November 2001.
(10) Le Figaro, 16 October 2001.
(11) According to the Gallup poll published by Maariv on 23 November 2001, 55% of Israelis were for negotiating a final settlement, 20% were for declaring war on the PA, and 19% were for maintaining the present status quo. After the Hamas attacks, those in favour of negotiating went down to 32% (Haaretz, Tel Aviv, 4 December 2001).
(12) Newsweek, New York, 13 August 2001.