A Dead End

James Zogby’s Column

Five years ago I wrote an article in which I discussed a strategy paper that had been prepared for then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by a group of leading US neoconservatives.  The document, entitled “Making a Clean Break”, was designed to assist Netanyahu to end the peace process, delegitimize and find an alternative to the Palestinian Authority, and build a strong U.S.-Israel strategic military alliance to confront “non-democratic regional regimes.”

Recognizing that the Clinton Administration would not be amenable to such a plan, the U.S. advisory group proposed that Netanyahu focus his efforts on winning allies among the Republicans in Congress.

They failed, but their effort did grave damage to the still-fledgling and largely unimplemented peace process.  Clinton resisted Netanyahu’s obstructionism and forced the Likud government to sign two different partial agreements with the Palestinian Authority.  For this heresy, Netanyahu was roundly criticized by his American friends.

Five years later, with authors of the Netanyahu paper ensconced in the Pentagon and with Ariel Sharon as Prime Minister of Israel, the effort to resuscitate the basic elements of that plan are back on course.

Tragically, credit for any success that may be achieved in this campaign to destroy the peace process and the Palestinian Authority must also be shared by the suicide bombers and those who sent them to their deadly demise.

Since his election, Sharon has been committed to ending the peace process.  His vision of peace was, at best, a throwback to earlier Israeli efforts to create Palestinian “reservations”, led by “accommodating locals” and surrounded by Israeli-controlled areas.  By forming the charade of a “national unity government”, Sharon sought only to avoid premature international criticism as he pursued his objectives.

He even absorbed the blow of the Mitchell report with its call for upfront agreement by Israel and the Palestinians to a number of steps which, if implemented, were designed to bring the parties back to the peace talks.  By insisting on an extra, non-Mitchell, demand of a seven day period of absolute quiet, Sharon effectively sabotaged the plan.

Sharon’s strategy was to put the Palestinians into a box.  He strangled their economy and their hope by creating what amounted to scores of internal closed encampments-cut off from one another.  He provoked Palestinian outrage by continuing repressive policies of settlement construction, home demolition and assassination.  And when terror struck, Sharon unleashed his trademark overwhelming brute force.

As Palestinian rage grew and the Palestinian Authority became increasingly delegitimized, Sharon continued his insistence that the Palestinians do his bidding, without offering any relief to ease the Palestinian burden-as was envisioned in the Mitchell report.

All of this was further augmented by an international effort in Israel and in the West to demonize Yasser Arafat and to portray him as the very architect of evil and the orchestrator of terror.

During most of this time, the Bush Administration adopted a largely hands-off attitude.  The Palestinian Authority grew weaker, Palestinian despair and anger grew stronger and Sharon remained emboldened.

The recently announced Powell initiative offered some slight hope.  The immediate response of Sharon and his supporters was predictable.  More assassinations, more demolitions of Palestinian homes and more construction of Israeli settlements, and a warning letter to the Bush Administration from members of Congress.

The final blow, of course, was delivered last week by suicide bombers who took the lives of more than two dozen Israelis.  With an enraged Israeli public and shocked Americans on their side, the stage was set for Sharon to deliver his attack, described by an Israeli government spokesperson as “continued military action against the terrorist infrastructure of the Palestinian Authority, which was declared to be supporting terror”.

This is more than a tragedy.  The cult of suicide that has taken hold among Palestinians is a tragic self-destructive phenomenon born of despair and fed by a distortion and manipulation of religion.  We have seen other such developments in different periods in history.  “Rushes to martyrdom”, as they have been called, have taken hold among Christians, Jews and American Indians, among others.  While masking as a political or religious movement, it is neither.  It is what it is, a sad brew of despair, suicide and a fantastic hope for liberation from a life found not to be worth living.  It must be recognized  that this distressing situation has come to be exploited and spread by those who have political ends.

The consequences of this movement have been devastating, not only to the Israelis whose lives have been shredded, but the Palestinian families that have been destroyed, and Palestinian society which has been devastated as well.

As condemnable as these suicide bombings are, paternity for this phenomenon must also be assumed by the continued brutality and the humiliating conditions created by the occupation which has sucked life and hope out of a generation of Palestinians and created the fertile ground in which this destructive “rush to martyrdom” movement has grown.

Sharon’s blows against the Palestinian Authority are designed to further weaken it and to ultimately destroy it.   While claiming that he only intends to force it to “crush terror”, his measures have produced the opposite, and this too has tragic consequences for all involved.

Israeli society appears to be supporting these measures and this must also be described as a destructive fantasy.  The terror of the occupation and the destruction of the Palestinian Authority will only produce more terror.  As Israeli opposition leader Yossi Sarid recently observed:

“What haven’t we done this past year: the government conducted a policy of assassination, the government entered ‘A’ areas, it went in and came out, it imposed closures and cordons and set up roadblocks.  The Prime Minister has already announced (and not for the first time) that the government knows how to eradicate terror and he himself can now apply himself to solve social distress.  It would be a tragic mistake to believe that everything not achieved by force-can be achieved by even more force.  The Israeli occupation is a factory for terror and this factory can be locked with a diplomatic key and not with a five kilo hammer.”

Just as the suicide bombers cannot succeed in ending the occupation, Sharon’s campaign of violence cannot succeed in ending the Palestinian demand for justice.  At the end of the day, if the Palestinian Authority is destroyed and the full occupation is restored, Israel will be left with a situation more destabilizing and potentially more destructive than the one that existed before the first intifadah.

Dr. James J. Zogby is President of Arab American Institute in Washington, DC.