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The Middle East: Snakes & Ladders

1.

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.

But why did the incident of the tunnel end in a few days while the end of the current Intifada is nowhere in sight? Part of the explanation is that after the tunnel episode the Israeli army drew the conclusion that it had not been adequately prepared, and its leaders then decided to get ready for a future clash. The measures it took—including extensive use of snipers for more deadly attacks—led to its “success”; and that success in the early days of the current Intifada became one of the reasons why it has not ended and why it has now escalated to the point where the Palestinians use mortars and the Israelis fire from gunships.

To explain this, we must take account of the fact that the violent clashes between Israeli forces and the Palestinian protesters and police were much more extensive after Sharon’s visit than after the tunnel crisis. The numbers of Palestinians killed grew daily: five on the first day, ten on the second, and then eight, six, seven, six each day—as compared with two Israeli Jewish deaths during the first week. The discrepancy in the number of wounded is even more dramatic, and it created among the Palestinians a strong sense that they were at a worse disadvantage than before. The Israeli army was now much better prepared and protected; and the ratio of casualties was clearly worse for the Palestinians than it had been during the tunnel crisis. The pressure from Palestinian leaders to respond more forcefully to Israel gradually changed the nature of the uprising; what began as a youth crusade of stone-throwing accompanied by sporadic shooting turned into armed ambushes and semi-military operations, along with increasing numbers of car bombings and suicide bombings by the Palestinians, whether planned by the Palestinian Authority or by Hamas and other groups.

The Palestinians also wanted to extract all the sympathy they could get from press and television, whether in the Middle East or in the rest of the world. Their hope was, and still is, to internationalize the conflict and bring about the intervention of outside peacekeeping forces, as in Kosovo. But for that they would have to be perceived as essentially passive victims who protest by throwing stones and do not engage in savage killing. The horrific picture of the father who could not protect his child from being killed by Israeli snipers was precisely the image the Palestinians wanted to convey. On the other hand, however, there was the strong urge for revenge, and this resulted in the equally horrific picture of a Palestinian mob lynching two Israelis soldiers who ventured by mistake into the town of Ramallah. Paradoxically, the extremely tough and effective state of preparedness of the Israeli army is one of the reasons why the clashes did not stop in a matter of days, as they had in the previous clashes of September 1996.

2.

I believe we are now seeing a full-fledged feud between the two communities, with daily murderous assaults in revenge for the previous day’s injuries and insults. A feud is a backward-looking conflict, more a sacrificial ritual than a political action looking toward the future. Quite apart from the questions of how it all started, and with what political rationale—if there was indeed any rationale—what is taking place now is a feud more than it is anything else. Feuds breed fatalism, and fatalism helps to increase support in Israel for Sharon, for it takes the form of a conviction that peace with the Palestinians can never be achieved. If a cease-fire rather than peace is all that can be hoped for, then for Sharon a cease-fire is nothing more than a period of relief in a long and bloody feud.

Both Israelis and Palestinians would of course vehemently deny that they are engaged in a feud. “The other side—maybe; but not us.” The Israeli argument is simple. A feud, they would say, means a symmetrical cycle of violence, one attack avenging another, but there is no symmetry here. If the Palestinians were to stop the violence tomorrow, there is no question that Israel would stop its violence at once. But if Israel stops the violence tomorrow, there is no chance the Palestinians will stop theirs. This I believe is largely true. But the argument neglects the basic asymmetry between the Israelis and the Palestinians. As things stand, a cease-fire would greatly favor Israel; it would leave the Israelis with their heavily patrolled West Bank and Gaza settlements and their punitive border controls; and it would leave the Palestinians without a state. So as defenders of the status quo ante, the Israelis would be more willing to stop the feud than the Palestinians.

The Palestinians rest their case on what they believe are two asymmetries: an asymmetry in power, in favor of Israel, and an asymmetry in moral standing, in the Palestinians’ favor. They stand for justice, Israel for injustice. As they see it, they are engaged in fighting an occupation, not in a feud. Calling their resistance to occupation a feud, they would say, simply undermines their struggle by imposing on them the stereotype of tribal desert primitives launched on a futile course of endless blood revenge.

To this, there seem to me two answers. First, to call the conflict a feud is to implicate both sides. Secondly, one could wish the feud was of the kind fought by desert tribes. Real desert feuds, like those among the Bedouins, are not part of a culture of victimhood. They involve no self-pity or self-righteousness; they do not sentimentally depict one’s own side as the sacrificial lamb, an epitome of innocence. Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, the spiritual leader of the Hamas movement, embodies this samurai-like attitude. He is a bitter enemy of Israel, but not a sentimentalist. He is an exception, though. By and large the two communities are saturated with the culture of victimhood.

There is indeed a great disparity in power between Israel and the Palestinians. Israel controls 20,700 square kilometers of its own country plus some 3,400 of the West Bank, including its many settlements, over which it has full control (so-called Area C, in the Oslo-accord lingo). To this must be added 1,400 square kilometers of “Area B”—a region of Arab towns and villages that Israel controls militarily but not administratively.

The Palestinians have full control over 1,500 square kilometers (Area A), including Gaza and the six largest West Bank cities, among them Nablus and Bethlehem. They have jurisdiction over 2.9 million people, Israel more than 6 million. As of last year the average personal income of an Israeli was $17,000, as compared with $1,350 per Palestinian. Israel’s GNP is $100 billion, the Palestinians’ $4 billion. Almost half of the latter comes from the outside, either earned by Palestinians who work in Israel or remitted by Israel from taxes collected from Palestinian workers, or donated from abroad. Israel has a regular, powerfully equipped military force of 195,000 (including border police); the Palestinians have a force of 35,000, equipped mostly with rifles. As of April 3, according to the Associated Press, 375 Palestinians had been killed since In-tifada II began, as compared with 64 Israeli Jews.*

These figures notwithstanding, both Barak and Sharon believe that while Israel would show great strength in a full-fledged war, it will eventually become weak in a low-intensity “war of attrition.” Israel so far has won all of its all-out wars and lost all of its wars of attrition, such as the war of attrition with Egypt between 1968 and 1970, and most recently the conflict in southern Lebanon. The usual explanation is that Israel has become more and more sensitive to casualties, less and less a society in which the population stands ready to be recruited for a long-term guard duty.

The dread of a prolonged war of attrition is one of the reasons Israel’s military leaders are behaving very harshly toward the Palestinian population; they use extensive measures of collective punishment through a policy of border and road closings and sieges of Arab towns and villages. In applying these repressive measures Israel systematically violates a great many human rights. The reliable Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, B’Tselem, thoroughly documents human rights violations, including many cases of mistreatment of civilians, both in and out of prison. The Palestinians claim that their stone-throwing and other tactics are weapons of the weak. While they wish they could swap their stones and rifles for Israel’s tanks, they regard their struggle as a political struggle against an occupation, and not as a senseless feud.

3.

If there is one thing that gets on the Palestinians’ nerves, it’s the talk about Barak’s “generous offer” at Camp David. Palestinians—all Palestinians—regard this expression as a deep contradiction. Just why they do needs explaining.

Palestinians view the Palestine that existed during British rule between 1918 and 1948 as theirs—100 percent theirs, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River. They see themselves as the indigenous population of this region and hence the natural owners of the entire land of Palestine. Any part of the land that they yield as part of an agreement is, for them, a huge concession. Recognizing the State of Israel as defined by its 1967 borders—the so-called green line—and thus yielding some 77 percent of British mandate Palestine is to them by itself a colossal concession, a painful historical compromise. By recognizing the Israel within the green line they give up their claim to redress what they see as the wrong done to them by the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. If they accept any deal that recognizes Israel they will have succeeded at most in redressing the wrong done to them in 1967, when Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza. Thus to ask them to compromise further after what they already regard as a huge compromise is, as they see it, a historical outrage. To call any such compromise “a generous offer” is to them sheer blasphemy.

The Israeli perception is of course diametrically opposite. And by “the Israeli perception” I do not refer to the idea of “Greater Israel,” according to which the entire biblical land of Israel belongs to the Jews, who are the historical indigenous population that was forced out of the land but never gave it up. What I mean by the Israeli perception is something very prosaic and unbiblical. Following the two wars that were forced on Israel, in 1948 and 1967, Israel conquered and held on to the entire land from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River. So the Israelis say that any territory we yield to Palestinians is, to us, a concession. And if Barak was willing to offer them almost all of the territories occupied since 1967—an offer that no previous Israeli leader was willing to entertain, let alone to make—it is entirely apt to see this as a generous offer.

Palestinians who are close to the Palestinian delegation at Camp David deny that Barak made a pragmatic, generous offer. “What is so generous,” they ask, “in Barak’s offering us 87 percent of the West Bank, when 80 percent of the settlers are left where they are, while 100,000 Palestinians are annexed to Israel along with them? What is so generous in demanding to keep control of 20 percent of the Jordan Valley, and what is so great about Barak’s bizarre suggestion that in the Haram al-Sharif Palestinians shall have control above the ground and Israel underneath? And when you add to this Barak’s mean-spirited, patronizing, and arrogant behavior toward Arafat and the Palestinian delegation at Camp David, then you see that generosity has nothing to do with it.”

With regard to Barak’s initial bargaining position, all this may or may not be true. But even if it is true, and Barak is not the generous person his propaganda would have us believe that he is, it is irrelevant. What is relevant are Clinton’s proposals to “bridge” the differences between the two sides; and these—unlike Barak’s proposals, generous or otherwise—are all in the open. And whatever else Barak had in mind, at least we know that he said “yes” to Clinton’s proposals; a complicated yes, but a yes nevertheless. As for Arafat, his answer to Clinton’s proposals was a thirty-five-page document full of reservations. However sensible these reservations were, his answer was “no.”

What was the gist of Clinton’s proposals? A Palestinian state is to be established on some 94 to 96 percent of the West Bank and all of the Gaza Strip. Eighty percent of the Israeli settlers currently living in the West Bank will be concentrated in settlements placed within the 4 to 6 percent of the land that Israel wishes to annex, on condition that these settlements do not destroy the territorial continuity of the Palestinian state.

For the territories that Israel will annex, Israel will have to compensate the Palestinian state by giving up between 1 and 3 percent of its own territory elsewhere. As for Jerusalem, neighborhoods where Arabs live will belong to the Palestinian state, and neighborhoods where Jews live will belong to Israel. This arrangement is to apply to the Old City as well. The Haram al-Sharif will be under Palestinian sovereignty, while the Wailing Wall as well as other places that are holy to the Jews will be under Israeli sovereignty. The final agreement will state clearly that it brings to an end the Israeli–Palestinian conflict and that no further claims will be recognized.

What then of the problem of the more than three million Palestinian refugees, of whom more than 150,000 are in camps in Lebanon? In principle, apart from Israel paying the refugees compensation for lost lands, there are five possible, and overlapping, ways to solve the problem. The refugees can live (1) within the Palestinian state based in territories now held by the Palestinians; (2) in the territories that Israel will hand over to the Palestinian state; (3) in the Arab countries now holding the refugees; (4) in various third countries; and (5) in Israel. Palestinians worried that were they to accept Clinton’s proposals this would undermine the international legal basis for their claims on behalf of the refugees, most especially UN resolution 194 of December 1948.

Resolution 194 is an article of faith in the Palestinian system of beliefs. It says that the refugees “wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so.” Israelis have very little trust in the refugees’ willingness to live in peace with them. They believe that the refugees, especially those who have lived all these years in refugee camps, are bitter enemies of Israel and that they have raised their children on bitter hatred toward Israel.

Resolution 194 does not specify a right of return—but this is how the Palestinians understand it. The current Intifada brought the issue of the Palestinian right of return to the center of the conflict. Still, it is not just this issue that stopped the Palestinians from accepting Clinton’s proposals. The end of the conflict is in some sense the hardest thing for them to accept. It means giving up on one defining feature of Palestinian identity—that Palestinians shall never surrender the hope of putting right Israel’s injustices of the past. (This is one reason that compensation for lost lands, which Israeli officials have discussed with the Palestinians, has not been accepted as an adequate response to Palestinian claims, although in the long run compensation may still hold the best prospect for a solution.) The end of the conflict is the end of hope or at least of one great hope.

4.

To those who know him, Barak credits himself with being a great experimenter. In the laboratory of Camp David he believes he discovered and exposed the irreconcilable Palestinian will to keep the conflict with Israel going. The left wing in Israel, Barak thinks, does not forgive him for having exposed the hollowness of their faith that there is an available partner for peace and that the partner is Arafat. He also believes that the right wing does not forgive him for having exposed the hollowness of their faith that “peace with security” can be achieved while half of the West Bank stays in Israel’s hands.

For revealing these truths, Barak believes, he was punished in the recent election: the right voted against him, along with the opportunistic Russian Jewish immigrants, and the left did not campaign for him wholeheartedly (as it did in 1999) and voted for him in reduced numbers. And this, he believes, is perhaps as it should be for someone who makes a people face the reality principle and give up the pleasure principle. Still, in the name of the reality principle I would note that Barak lost neither the right (they were against him anyway) nor the left, but the center, which had brought him to power in the first place. The center—which consists of a large part of the Labor Party, as well as the Center Party, the Shinui (Change) Party, and the Russians—cannot forgive Barak for having offered concessions and then getting not a deal but a grim war of attrition instead.

The very idea of Barak conducting an experiment is bad news. The Palestinian will is not an entity in particle physics, about which Barak could discover that it has no positive spin toward peace. The Palestinians, like the rest of the world, have many conflicting aims. They want a final agreement—they have lost hope that anything good will come from an interim agreement with Israel. But they also want to leave the conflict open-ended. They want to get the Israeli occupation off their backs as quickly as possible, fearing that the ever-expanding settlements will leave them with no land to spare. But at the same time they prolong the occupation by insisting on the refugees’ right of return, fully realizing that there is no realistic hope that Israel will agree to the return of any substantial number of them. For Barak or anyone else to set up an experiment in order to discover what is the Palestinians’ “real, true will” makes no sense. In different times they give different weights to their conflicting desires, as all of us do. And as happens to all of us in times of crisis, ideological commitments—like the right of return—have the upper hand.

I have no doubt that Barak wanted to conclude a peace agreement with the Palestinians. He was, in my view, basically generous in the content of his proposals but mean in the style in which he made them. Yet I also believe that from the time he assumed power he did almost everything that was possible, and tried some things that were impossible, to bring out the worst in the Palestinians, in whom he desperately needed to bring out the best. After the administration of Netanyahu, who resisted the Oslo accords, many Israelis expected that Barak would implement what the accords agreed on. He was expected to be attentive to the Palestinians’ urgently expressed needs, especially with regard to the prisoners who were left in Israeli jails after the agreement.

He did nothing of the sort; and he did nothing to build the minimal trust needed to get “the peace process” going. Barak failed to get in touch with the Palestinian leaders in order to find out for himself what particularly concerns them and where they stand on the details of a settlement. Instead he started out by completely ignoring those leaders, refusing to meet with Arafat and turning to negotiations with the Syrians instead. Only when the negotiations with Syria failed did he start addressing the Palestinians, almost by default.

During Barak’s year and a half in office, there were more housing starts in the settlements than during Netanyahu’s administration; this, to put it mildly, did not help to establish trust. And in my opinion, one of Barak’s worst blunders, at least for its effects on peace negotiations with the Palestinians, was his decision to order a unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon, under Hizbollah fire. True, Israel should not have been in Lebanon to begin with. But withdrawal under fire, without an agreement, made many Palestinians (not Arafat, however) believe that they could get rid of the Israeli occupation in much the same way, i.e., by force and without having to sign what they regard as a humiliating agreement. The unilateral withdrawal created among the Palestinians a climate of defiance rather than a mood for concessions.

Moreover, Barak alienated the Israeli Arabs, 95 percent of whom had originally voted for him. In doing so, he lost the good will of a population that in recent years has been in constant touch with their brethren in the Occupied Territories. Barak refused to do anything for them, believing that in order to persuade the Israeli Jews of the need for an agreement, he could not be perceived as an “Arab lover.” All of this ended tragically last October, when twelve Israeli Arab citizens were killed by the Israeli police during the riots that started after Sharon’s visit to the Haram al-Sharif.

As to Arafat, his turning down the Clinton “bridge” proposals may one day be judged by historians as a mistake comparable to the Palestinians’ fatal mistake in rejecting the UN partition plan of 1947. When, at Camp David and afterward, Arafat concentrated on the issues of Jerusalem and especially on total sovereignty over the Holy Sanctuary, I interpreted this as a double-edged sword. If he gained sovereignty, this would count as a tremendous symbolic victory (both national and religious) and he would be in a much stronger position to compromise on the right of return. And if he did not gain sovereignty, he could use his failure to do so to try to unite the entire Islamic world—one fifth of the human race—against Israel. He could, that is, try to turn a national conflict into a religious holy war—Israel’s real dread. Notwithstanding all the bad blood between Barak and Arafat, I believe that Barak made a serious mistake at Camp David in not compromising on sovereignty over the Temple Mount. It could have been his best chance at reaching an agreement.

As it turned out, Barak left Israel in shambles: politically, economically, and ideologically. Sharon’s national unity government consists of the two big parties: Labor and Likud. Whatever their histories, they have become ideologically indistinguishable. Even if we judge the Labor Party by its political rhetoric, one cannot honestly say that it is more moderate. Nor does either of the two parties have a coherent political agenda.

At the advanced ages of seventy-three and seventy-eight respectively, Sharon and Shimon Peres now run Israel. It is hard to tell which is the “moderate.” At some stage they may try to revive the negotiations with Syria, but at the moment they have on their hands, not politics, but a feud, however vehemently each side may deny this. It has now led to Israeli bombing of Syrian targets in Lebanon and Palestinian Authority targets in Gaza, and if it goes on, I sense that the two Israeli leaders may try to get rid of Arafat. They might warn him first by attacking his lieutenants. When five members of Arafat’s security guard were taken prisoner by Israeli forces on the West Bank at the beginning of April, this seemed to prefigure further attacks on the center of Palestinian power. Sharon and Peres may want to destroy Arafat’s regime, reasoning that better the devil you don’t know than the one you do. That is the kind of action that suggests itself when you don’t deal with politics but pursue an endless cycle of revenge.

April 18, 2000

  1. *

    The Associated Press statistics should be compared with those of Reuters, which estimates “at least 367” deaths of Palestinians and 70 deaths of Israeli Jews as of April 2, 2001, and those of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, which refers to 411 Palestinian deaths. The Palestinian Red Crescent Society also states that 12,616 Palestinians had been injured as of April 2 in the West Bank and Gaza. The Israeli Defense Force states that as of March 27, 837 Israeli Jews, including both civilians and members of the security forces, had been injured both in the Occupied Territories and within the green line.

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