Are the Americans serious this time?

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A rapid succession of major developments throughout the past two weeks has rendered the Israeli-Palestinian situation both very volatile and extremely fluid. Such a dynamic situation can be understood better by asking questions than by jumping to conclusions.

Beginning with the current Israeli offensive: What will be the long term effect of the Israel Defense Forces’ undoubted military achievements in the West Bank? Israel has killed and arrested terrorists, confiscated ordnance, and gathered intelligence proving Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat’s direct complicity in the worst acts of terrorism. Will this “buy” a reduced level of terrorism for half a year, or for a month? How will the respite, if achieved, be exploited politically? And what of the negative effects–the thousands of additional Palestinians who have been alienated and humiliated and will now join the ranks of terrorists? Moreover, isolating Yasir Arafat has rendered him more popular than ever. To “win”, all he has to do now is survive.

A military move that is not accompanied by a realistic Israeli peace plan, along with unilateral withdrawal and dismantling of settlements in Gaza and the West Bank heartland and a more aggressive United States role, appears to have little chance of improving the situation even in the medium term. Here, then, we encounter the limits of Israeli military power vis-é-vis the Palestinians.

Turning to the Arab League peace proposal of late March, which was based on the initiative of Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, we confront a truly extraordinary document. The proposal, with its emphasis on the 1967 borders, a “just solution” to the refugee problem (rather than the provocative “right of return”), security and “normal relations” for Israel, and an “end of conflict”, offers an Arab League strategy for peace at a time when neither Arafat nor Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has such a strategy. But doubts still linger. Why, for example, did the same Arab League summit issue a separate statement supporting the right of return?

This brings us to US President George W. Bush’s initiative of early April. At the time of writing it is still not completely clear what motivated this turnabout, and how serious it is. Is Bush’s sharp and undoubtedly justified condemnation of Arafat his main message, or is it essentially rhetoric, designed to conciliate pro-Israel American lobbies that Bush depends on for support, while he undertakes an endeavor that will oblige him to pressure Sharon? In sending Secretary of State Powell to the region, demanding an immediate end to Israel’s offensive, and referring to the need for Israeli political gestures (ceasing settlement activity, ending closures), is Bush announcing once and for all that political and security measures must go hand and hand and the US will now undertake to “bang heads together” to make them work? Or is this just another attempt to placate Arab and European criticism for a few weeks, brake the rise in oil prices, or reduce the profile of the conflict, however briefly, prior to an attack on Iraq?

Or is the Bush initiative all of the above? It depends how long and how hard Powell persists. After all, he has already visited the scene before and generated only damage–agreeing to Sharon’s now abandoned demand for seven days quiet; he made a powerful speech on the conflict at Louisville in January that led nowhere; and he and the president have already sent General Zinni here three times without an adequate mandate.

One possible indication that Bush and Powell are serious this time was provided by Sharon himself when he opted in early April to expand his coalition toward the right by recruiting the five mandates of the National Religious Party. The NRP, now led by a retired general who can only be termed a messianic fanatic, is the most outspoken advocate of the settlements. Would the NRP join a government that is contemplating a settlement freeze as mandated by the Mitchell Report and President Bush? Accordingly, will the moderate Labor Party soon leave the government and trigger the countdown to new elections? How will this influence American readiness to apply additional pressure on Sharon?

Finally, turning to the escalation of Hizballah and Palestinian attacks along Israel’s northern border with Lebanon–will heavy western and Arab pressures persuade Syrian leader Bashir al-Assad to curb Hizballah? What sort of escalation might be generated by an Israeli military response against the attackers’ Syrian patron? While none of the Arab states seeks a conventional war with Israel, the present situation encourages radical Arabs and Iranians to pursue the option of low- level warfare against Israel by non-state proxies like Hizballah, Hamas and Tanzim.

This brings us full circle to the issue that generated the current escalation. When an Islamic summit that convened last week in Malaysia refuses to define suicide bombings of civilians as terrorism, there can no longer be any beating about the bush: Islamic/Arab suicide terrorism has placed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the fault line of the clash of civilizations. There is a huge moral equivalency issue here. Israel, and for the most part the West, insist that there is a critical and definable difference between the deliberate targeting of civilians-terrorism–and the inadvertent, inevitable and regrettable casualties sustained by civilian populations in the course of a legitimate war of self defense against terrorism. Most of the Arab and Islamic worlds insist there is no difference, and many Arabs and other Muslims now glorify the role of suicide bombers.

They are glorifying barbarism. This is a major obstacle to peace.

Yossi Alpher is the author of the forthcoming book “And the Wolf Shall Dwell with the Wolf: The Settlers and the Palestinians.”

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