The whirlwind unleashed on the Palestinians by the Israeli government following the Ze’evi assassination in October and now, in early December, on the heels of the suicide attacks in Jerusalem, Haifa, Afula, and elsewhere, goes far beyond mere retaliation against terrorism. Viewed in the context of Bush’s attempts to build a “coalition against terror,” it is a last desperate effort to bring “industrial quiet” to what’s been called the Second Front, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a precondition for building any sustained coalition that includes Arab and Muslim countries. This can be accomplished in one of two ways. Either a satisfactory political solution can be imposed on the parties with a lot of arm-twisting and sweetening, or the Palestinians can be made to submit to Israeli-American dictates.
The first, preferred by the Americans as a resolution of the conflict, have met fundamental obstacles on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides. The Israelis steadfastly refuse to dismantle their occupation and relinquish control to a degree that would permit a viable and truly sovereign Palestinian state to emerge. For his part, Arafat has failed to produce a coherent program for negotiations, and has squandered the opportunity given him by the intifada to reframe the negotiations in a more equitable way. Faced with a unfocused resistance movement with no political program and fueled by ever more violent attacks against Israeli civilian targets, the American government seems to have been persuaded by Sharon and Peres to choose the second option: defeating the Palestinians outright.
Given their tight time-line for coalition-building and military actions, the Americans are looking for a quick fix, a reasonable period of industrial quiet in the Middle East. Allowing themselves to be persuaded that Israel can bring the Palestinian Authority to its knees within a matter of weeks, thereby reopening the “peace process” on terms favorable to Israel, has its attractions. It is in keeping with the long-standing American bias strongly in favor of Israel, it avoids conflicts with a solidly pro-Israeli Congress (89 senators issued a letter recently warning Bush against compromising Israel’s interests), and it can be “sold” as legitimate retaliation against “Palestinian terrorism”éthus legitimizing Sharon’s attempts to link Arafat and the Palestinians integrally with bin Laden and anti-American/anti-“civilization” world terrorism. Given the weak, almost incoherent, political position of the Palestinians, this option seems the most workable in the short run.
Sharon, then, has received a “green light” from Bush to bring quiet to the region through military means, to be followed (no hurry here) by negotiations that will give the Palestinians a mini-state while leaving Israel in control of the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. (It was reported on the Channel One news on Friday night, December 7, that Sharon promised Bush not to kill or harm Arafat, to which Bush replied: “Just promise me you won’t kill him.”)
The strategy of Sharon, Peres and the others of the “National Unity” government has five main elements:
This is the program that unites the broad coalition of Israel’s National Unity government, from the Labor party on the “left” through the Likud, the religious and the parties of the extreme right. At its base lies the rock-bottom refusal to truly share the country with the Palestinians, in either one state or in two. Yetéand this is the catchéIsrael needs a Palestinian state to “relieve it” of the three and a half million Palestinians of the Occupied Territories it can neither absorb (giving citizenship to this population would nullify a Jewish-dominated state), nor control forever by force. While the Palestinians strive for political independence in a viable state alongside Israel, Israel is striving for what is calls “autonomy-plus/independence-minus,” a kind of occupation-by-consent that leaves in it in control of the entire country yet rids it of the Palestinian population. This, in a nutshell, describes what the Oslo “peace process” was all about.
Since occupation-by-consent will not be willingly accepted by the Palestinians, but a just peace based on true Palestinian independence is unacceptable to Israel, Israel must force it upon the Palestinians. For Israel, too, the time-line is tight. Bush’s green light” is good for a couple weekséperhaps somewhat longer if “justified” by further attacks on Israeli civiliansébut it will eventually run into major obstacles: the recommendations of the Mitchell Committee and CIA chief Tenet which await implementation, General Zinni’s mission to achieve a cease-fire, and the overarching need to sustain a coalition including the Arab and Muslim countries. Hence the ferocity of Israel’s attacks, the final push to defeat the Palestinians once and for all.
It is one minute to midnight. Already Israel has largely completed its physical incorporation of the West Bank into Israel proper, foreclosing any possibility of a viable Palestinian state. If the current campaign of repression succeeds, occupation will be followed by the creation of a dependent Palestinian mini-stateéa permanent occupation-by-consent not of the Palestinians, but of the U.S. and a compliant Europe. These are the fateful days of reckoning: a just peace based on two viable and sovereign states, or the emergence of a Palestinian bantustan under Israeli control, a new apartheid.
Jeff Halper (53) is the Coordinator of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) and a Professor of Anthropology at Ben Gurion University. He has lived in Israel since 1973.