Sharon’s Phony War

In recent weeks, cracks have appeared in a three-year-old Israeli consensus that there is no Palestinian partner for a peace process, that the Palestinians’ real goal is the liquidation of Israel, and that to negotiate with Palestinians before terrorism is ended is to “reward terrorism.”

This consensus has enabled Prime Minister Sharon’s government to maintain that its only option is to wage an unrelenting war against the Palestinians that, in the words of the Israeli Defense Force’s chief of staff, Lieutenant General Moshe Ya’alon, will “sear deep into the consciousness of Palestinians that they are a defeated people” before any political process can begin.

A number of recent events suggest that this consensus is beginning to erode. About a third of Israel’s public expressed support for an Israeli–Palestinian peace proposal announced by former justice minister Yossi Bei-lin and former Palestinian Authority minister Yasser Abed Rabbo. Some 200,000 Israelis and Palestinians signed a statement supporting a parallel peace initiative led by a former head of the Shin Bet, Israel’s intelligence agency, Ami Ayalon, and a former official of the Palestinian Authority, Sari Nusseibeh. One hundred thousand demonstrators turned out at a rally sponsored by the previously dormant peace camp. Twenty Israeli fighter pilots, considered the military’s elite, issued a public protest of Israeli policies in the territories.

But a statement by Lieutenant General Ya’alon, who in a meeting with Israeli journalists criticized the policies of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, has had by far the greatest impact, precisely because this criticism came from the official who had formerly talked of how war would “sear deep” into Palestinian consciousness that they are a defeated people. According to Ya’alon, Sharon’s policies, far from defeating terror, “increase hatred for Israel and strengthen the terror organizations.” These policies, he said, contributed to the downfall of Palestinian Prime Minister Abu Mazen, whose opposition to the intifada and determination to pursue a nonviolent policy presented Israel with a rare opportunity to end the suffering on both sides.

General Ya’alon’s sudden conversion was followed by an even more extraordinary event. On November 14, four former heads of the Shin Bet joined in a dramatic warning to the Israeli public that their government’s policies are leading the country to a “catastrophe.” The four, who are anything but peaceniks or leftists, identified the heart of the problem, the government’s insistence on fighting terrorism in a political vacuum. Such a war, they said, is doomed to failure and will lead to the end of Israel’s democracy and of its Jewish identity.

The notion that the war against terror cannot be won by military measures alone but must also provide Palestinians with prospects for a political solution is hardly revolutionary. It is a view that Sharon’s own security advisers have advocated. Sharon has been accused of many things by his critics, but stupidity is not one of them. Why, then, hasn’t Sharon reached this conclusion on his own?

The inescapable answer to this question is that the war…


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