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The Middle East: Snakes & Ladders


As a boy I used to play the rather menacing game of Snakes and Ladders. The ladders, at least in the Israeli version, enabled you to skip rows on your way to heaven. Snakes brought you down to hell. At the top of the game board, just before you approached heaven, there were two successive snakes: a big snake that plunged you back to square one, and a small snake that tumbled you down a few rows but left open the possibility of going up a ladder to heaven.

In the complicated game of the Middle East, the ladders lead to peace and the snakes to violence and war. And it is just not clear whether the current Intifada is a big snake that brings us all back to the square one of relations that existed between Jews and Arabs in 1948, or a small snake that is a temporary setback with an optional ladder to peace up the road. We lack the historical perspective to judge. Yet it looks like a pretty big snake to me.

Clouding our perspective, among other things, is a combination of two quite different realities—on the one hand, the banal domestic politics in Israel, and, on the other, a confrontation of historical dimensions between Israel and the Palestinians. Before Ariel Sharon’s fatal visit to the Temple Mount, it was Benjamin Netanyahu who was on Ehud Barak’s and Sharon’s minds, not Arafat. This visit, on September 28, 2000, was the opening event of the current uprising known as Intifada II. And it was the prospect of Netanyahu’s return to Israeli politics rather than anything to do with the Palestinians that explains why Sharon went there and why Barak did not stop him.

When Barak arrived at Camp David last July to negotiate a peace agreement, he and his government had just lost their majority in parliament. He believed that if he could get an agreement with Arafat, he could call elections and win. But emerging from Camp David without an agreement made him politically vulnerable. All the indications at the time were that Netanyahu, not Sharon, at the head of a united right-wing coalition, would have a good chance of beating him. The polls gave Barak an edge over Sharon, Netanyahu’s successor as the “temporary” head of the Likud Party. Following his defeat by Barak in the 1999 elections, Netanyahu had resigned from the Knesset and become, so he said, a “worried citizen,” awaiting his chance for a comeback.

Sharon’s appeal to the party was limited. He looked old and tired, and had little appeal for the more moderate voters in the “center.” Netanyahu’s loyalists could barely wait for the glorious, vengeful second coming of their leader. Sharon had every reason to fear Netanyahu’s return, knowing that Netanyahu could regain his hold over the Likud Party quite easily, thereby robbing Sharon of his last chance, at the age of seventy-two, of ever becoming the prime minister of Israel. And so Sharon acted. In order to block Netanyahu’s return he decided to do what he could to take over for himself Netanyahu’s support from the hard-core right, in which the Jewish settlers have a prominent part. This is like robbing a rival Republican candidate of the support of the Christian Coalition—a source of the kind of political enthusiasm that wins elections.

The Temple Mount was the perfect place for Sharon’s move. It was at the center of the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians: Barak was accused of giving up, or being about to give up, on Israeli sovereignty over the Mount. For Sharon to go there would look like a protest against the weak Barak; he would be proving his own courage by entering the Palestinians’ lion’s den. His message, as he saw it, was clear: no one can out-right me. Should the Palestinians protest—so much the better for his purposes. But, from all the evidence, he did not expect the sequence of events that followed his visit. I do not believe, as many Palestinians seem to do, that Sharon went to the Mount precisely in order to provoke them into doing what they eventually did. He had Netanyahu on his mind, not the Palestinians.

But of course tension had built up around the Temple Mount (or Haram al-Sharif, as it is called by Muslims). The place was charged with highly inflammable religious and ideological octane. For Barak to have allowed Sharon to go there, escorted by hundreds of armed Israeli policemen, showed the worst possible political judgment. Yet Barak did not try to stop him, because he, too, had Netanyahu, not the Palestinians, on his mind. Barak understood Sharon’s act as aimed against Netanyahu, a threat common to them both. He did not want to make it possible for Sharon to accuse him of “preventing a Jew” from going to the top of the holiest of Jewish holy places. And Barak at the time believed, quite rationally, that he had a much better chance against Sharon than against Netanyahu.

But then, how crucial was Sharon’s visit for the events that followed? To many outsiders I have talked to, especially in Europe, electing Sharon as prime minister looked like appointing the village pyromaniac to head its fire brigade. Like many Palestinians, these outsiders believe that Sharon, by his exceedingly provocative visit, was a prime mover in bringing about the outbreak of the second Intifada. This is not the way most Israelis view it.

King Alexander of Greece died, in 1920, of blood poisoning after a pet monkey bit him. His successor became involved in a bloody war with the Turks in which a quarter of a million people died. It was a monkey bite, wrote Churchill, that caused the death of those 250,000 people. For most Israelis, Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount was nothing more than a monkey’s bite that led to the violent death of hundreds of Palestinians and scores of Israeli Jews. They think that the Palestinians, from Yasser Arafat down, were determined to unleash violence, either in the belief that through violence they could force a better deal from Israel, or in the more extreme conviction that it is better and more honorable to get whatever they could through violence than through diplomatic negotiation—the way the Hizbollah forced Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon. These Israelis think that while Sharon, by going to the most sensitive spot in the conflict, may have acted recklessly and thus played into the hands of Arafat, Intifada II would have happened anyway, with or without his visit to the Temple Mount.

In the view of most Palestinians, Sharon’s provocative visit, escorted as he was by hundreds of armed policemen, was a decisive factor in bringing about the chain of events that led to the so-called al-Aqsa Intifada. To them it was proof that Israel, through its military might, was determined to assert power over the holy sanctuary—the Palestinians’ most important religious and national symbol—and to claim sovereignty over it. It was precisely this sovereignty that the Palestinians challenged during the negotiations at Camp David in July and precisely that sovereignty that Barak would not entirely give up. The Palestinians believed that Sharon, with the tacit blessing of Barak, wanted to provoke the Palestinians on the Mount.

On the day following Sharon’s visit, the Friday of prayer, the protest by Palestinians on the Mount was met by a ferocious Israeli police action, which led to four deaths. And this made everything that followed almost inevitable. Virtually all the Palestinians I have talked to believe that the protest was spontaneous, neither ordered nor encouraged by Arafat and the Palestinian Authority. According to their version of events, Sharon’s visit to the Haram al-Sharif was the “decisive factor,” as the historians call it, in bringing about the al-Aqsa Intifada. A good test of whether an event is a decisive cause of another is if it enables one to reliably predict what happens next. The Palestinians I have talked to say that they could indeed have predicted ahead of time that Sharon’s presence at the Haram al-Sharif, escorted by such a huge police force, would bring about just the sort of violent events that took place.

I wonder. There seem to be some cracks in the Palestinian version. For example, al-Ayam, the semi-official daily of the Palestinian Authority, reported on December 6, 2000, that Imad al-Falouji, the Palestinian minister of communications, said that the Palestinian Authority began preparing to launch a new intifada from the moment the negotiations at Camp David broke down. The instructions to get ready for conflict, he says, came from Arafat himself. Al-Falouji’s retrospective statement doesn’t decisively confirm the Israeli version, as many who have cited this statement have claimed. Nor does a statement by Ehud Olmert, the mayor of Jerusalem, confirm the Palestinian version. Olmert, in opposing the candidacy of Sharon for the premiership, asked rhetorically: Who in his sound mind would vote for the person who started this bonfire—namely, the Intifada?

What then is the truth about the relation between Sharon’s visit and Intifada II? To answer this we should go back to May 1996, when Netanyahu, an opponent of the Oslo accords, assumed power. By September of that year it became clear to the Palestinian leadership that he was dragging his feet and not carrying out the agreement, especially in his refusal to withdraw the Israeli army from various agreed-upon locations in the West Bank and Gaza. The Palestinian leaders forcefully pointed this out to the Palestinian public, which was already deeply embittered and frustrated by the Israeli occupation.

But the Palestinians were also fed up with the corruption of the Palestinian Authority—among other things, they saw, as one observer put it, its cats licking up all the real estate milk. So bitterness from above joined bitterness from below—though not quite the same bitterness. And when in September 1996 Olmert, Jerusalem’s mayor, opened an ancient tunnel that borders on the Temple Mount, with the blessing of Netanyahu but without informing the Islamic authorities in the city, there was an extremely violent protest, which was violently suppressed. About one hundred Palestinians and fifteen Israelis were killed.

A similar pattern could be discerned in September 2000, following Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount. In both cases there was unilateral action by Israel in a religiously sensitive place, against the background of political bitterness and a widespread sense that a dead end had been reached by the leaders on both sides. Sharon’s visit came at a time of increasingly frustrated expectations and harsh daily life among the Palestinians. It does not seem likely that the day Sharon left the Temple Mount the top Palestinian leaders gave orders for a new intifada, orders that were immediately followed by young Palestinians who started throwing stones on demand. It seems more likely that the bitterness among the top leaders coincided with bitterness among the Palestinians in the streets. Moreover, the active Palestinians pursuing the Intifada mainly come from the one fifth of the population that is between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four, a group with a very high rate of unemployment. This fact, in itself, can explain much of the unrest, with very little need to appeal to the planning and guidance of the Palestinian Authority—two things the Authority is not good at anyway.

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