“In my beginning is my end,” wrote T.S. Eliot in words that are well suited to the Arab war against Israel. Although there is no end in sight to that war, the violence to which the Palestinians resorted in the wake of Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount on September 28 does at least mark the end of one act in this long and bloody drama. This was the act that began with the agreement at Oslo, which was then ratified on the White House lawn in September 1993 by Yasir Arafat, the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and Yitzhak Rabin, then the prime minister of Israel, with perhaps the most famous handshake in history.
So much diplomatic and political smoke has been blown in our eyes since that moment that a clear-sighted look at the act that opened then and is just now concluding requires us to step back and recapitulate. For even though we do indeed have here a near-perfect case of a beginning that was inexorably destined for the bitter end it has now reached, mighty efforts were made on all sides to persuade us that it would be otherwise.
In the early 18th century, the English theologian Bishop Joseph Butler said: “Things and actions are what they are, and the consequences of them will be what they will be: why then should we desire to be deceived?” About 200 years later, T.S. Eliot, to cite him again, gave us the answer to this breathtaking question when he observed in an entirely different context that “ . . . human kind/Cannot bear very much reality.”
In this instance, the unbearable reality being evaded was that Israel’s yearning for peace was shared neither by the Arab world in general nor by the Palestinians in particular—that their objection was not to anything Israel had done or failed to do, but to the very fact that it existed at all. Then, as time went on, and episode after episode occurred exposing the delusion of Oslo for what it was, more and more rationalizations had to be invented, and more and more lies had to be told, to keep it alive. Too much hope—and too much political capital—had been invested in the “peace process” to allow any opening of eyes that had been blinded and minds that had been closed by the dazzling mirage on the White House lawn.
No doubt believers in the idea that the road to peace had at last been found often directed these efforts to conceal the truth mainly at themselves. But they were hardly the sole or the exclusive objects of their own deceptions. On the contrary. The enthusiasm for Oslo—manifested, among many other ways, in the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Yitzhak Rabin, his foreign minister Shimon Peres, and Yasir Arafat for having brought it about—was worldwide. So universal was it and so fervent that, with the ruthless unconcern of a tidal wave, it swept aside all doubts about the wisdom or the viability of the agreement.
Not, to be sure, in the Israeli public as a whole, where such doubts did continue to be harbored and, as we shall see, expressed from time to time in the electorate’s choice of political leadership; but certainly in the major centers of opinion both in Israel and abroad, and wherever the writ of contemporary liberalism extended. In that vast domain, any Jew or for that matter any non-Jew (and there was a small brave band of them, an unhappy few) who voiced skepticism about Oslo immediately got stigmatized as an enemy of peace. This made him the moral equivalent, if not the de-facto ally, of Arab opponents of Oslo like the Muslim terrorists of Hamas and Hezbollah. Having been thus morally delegitimized, critics of the now-sacrosanct process were derided as well for their intellectual sins, accused of being too rigid to perceive that new developments had totally transformed the conflict between Israel and the Arab world.
There were two distinct though complementary interpretations of these developments. One was the “realistic” analysis espoused by Rabin, the other a “visionary” picture painted by Peres.
As Rabin saw it, the demise of the Soviet Union had completely altered the old “strategic equation” in the Middle East by depriving the “frontline” Arab states of the armorer they had previously depended upon for engaging Israel militarily. In consequence, there was almost no likelihood that they would start any more conventional wars, as they had done several times in the past. This meant in effect that the Palestinians were now on their own; and while they could, on their own, assuredly make life miserable for Israel through terrorism, they were too weak to pose an “existential threat” to the Jewish state. The only serious such threat now came from the missiles of Iran and/or Iraq. To protect itself from that threat, Israel needed the help of the United States in building an effective system of antiballistic-missile defense.
In Rabin’s view, then, the overriding strategic objective—merging military with political imperatives—was to ensure continued American support. How to do this? Well, the Americans were convinced (while not admitting it openly lest it arouse domestic political opposition) that giving the Palestinians a state of their own was the answer to unrest and instability throughout the Middle East. It followed that if Israel were to drop its “intransigent” resistance to this solution, relations with Washington would be more or less permanently shored up. This would in one stroke eliminate any future possibility that Israel might be denied the advanced military technology on which its survival now rested and that it could only get from the Pentagon.
My own guess is that Rabin in his heart of hearts was also motivated by the realization that Israel did not know how to deal effectively with the intifada, the new form of warfare that the Palestinians had now been waging for some six years. When the intifada first erupted, Rabin (then the defense minister under Yitzhak Shamir) had declared that he would “break the bones” of the Palestinians rioters. But breaking their bones did not avail, especially as the Palestinians—adopting a tactic that was at once brilliant and evil—were sending their children to throw stones at armed Israeli soldiers, most of all when TV cameras were present. In defending themselves and fighting back, even if only with rubber bullets, the Israelis inflicted casualties on these children, which inevitably tarnished their longstanding pride in their “purity of arms.” In the end it was Rabin himself and a large segment of the Israeli people who were broken by the intifada: broken in spirit, broken in morale.
Prudently, Rabin never acknowledged anything like this in public. Nor did he ever make a speech explaining his overall strategy with respect to the United States. But it was no secret, having been spelled out in private to various friendly interlocutors. And others (in the course of trying to understand why Rabin was now crossing one “red line” after another that he had vowed never to cross) soon enough figured out what he had in mind. Of course, to understand the strategy did not necessarily entail agreeing with it. But disagreement, however carefully reasoned, had zero effect on Rabin and his battalions of cheerleaders.
Thus, it did no good whatsoever for critics of this analysis to observe that the United States was running into troubles of its own in constructing a defense against ballistic missiles. Admittedly, these troubles were more political than technological. Nevertheless, there was uncertainty as to whether the special aid from Washington on which Rabin was counting would ultimately be available.
Nor did it do the critics any good to pile up evidence that the State Department was flat-out wrong in its conviction that the Middle East would become more stable if a Palestinian state were to be established. As against the regnant cliché that the Palestinians were the “heart” of the region’s problems, some of us pointed out that since Israel’s birth in 1948 many wars had been fought among Arabs and /or Muslims over issues that had nothing to do with either the Jewish state or the Palestinians. Not only that, but the corpses produced by just one of these wars alone (Iran vs. Iraq) far exceeded the total number of casualties resulting from all those between the Arabs and Israel. Like every other argument we brought forth, this one too fell on deaf ears. Yet all by itself, it should have been enough to refute the dogma that “the key” to Middle Eastern stability was a Palestinian state under the despotic leadership of the PLO.
Moreover, there were many other grounds for expecting that a PLO state would breed more unrest and more instability than the present situation. To choose only the most obvious one, the fact that the majority of the population of Jordan was Palestinian could easily lead to a move by Arafat or his successors to take over that country, thereby creating the risk of an intervention by Syria (which had never ceased regarding not only Israel but also Lebanon and Jordan as “Southern Syria”).
And none of this was even to mention the persistent refusal of the Palestinians themselves to surrender their claim on the entire territory lying within Israel’s pre-1967 borders. (To this day, incredibly, despite at least three exultant announcements by Peres and Arafat that the articles of the Palestine National Covenant committing the PLO to the destruction of Israel had now definitely been repealed as mandated by Oslo, it remains unclear whether they actually ever were.) Nor did it touch upon the terrible problem that would arise with the million Palestinian citizens of Israel, some 800,000 of whom lived in the Galilee, where they constituted a majority. To which state would they remain loyal? Might they turn out to be a contemporary analogue of the German citizens of Czechoslovakia between the two world wars who became the pretext for Nazi Germany’s phased conquest of that whole country?
If there were deadly serious questions arising from the “realistic” analysis through which Rabin justified his embrace of Oslo, they were as nothing compared with the plain foolishness of Peres’s vision of a “new Middle East.” And if Rabin set foot on the path marked out by Oslo with misgivings and visible reluctance, Peres was so breathlessly eager that he fell all over himself in running toward it.
In the 1960’s, a major slogan of the counterculture was “Make Love, Not War.” Peres’s vision of the new Middle East could be summarized in a variant of this catchy battlecry (and a battlecry, ironically, was what this pacifist slogan amounted to): “Make Money, Not War.” Reading or listening to Peres, one might have imagined that a kind of vulgar Marxist end of days had arrived in which the lion would not merely lie down with the lamb but go into business with it—both parties having discovered how much more pleasant it is to get rich than to fight, perchance to die.
To all appearances, the new faith Peres had adopted was not disturbed by the fact that, in the three or four years after Oslo, where the Arabs specifically pledged to renounce terrorism, about twice as many Israeli lives were lost to Palestinian suicide bombers than in the three or four years before the Arabs had presumably opted for money over war. Brushing off the grisly evidence of mangled corpses in the buses and marketplaces of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem—he and his supporters even took to characterizing the Jewish victims of these attacks as “martyrs to peace”—Peres went complacently on his visionary way. Though he never to my knowledge quoted Tertullian, the early father of the Church who declared of Christianity that he believed in it precisely because it was unbelievable, some such slogan could easily have become for Peres the spiritual complement, so to speak, of the materialistic “Make Money, Not War.”
The complete fatuity of this notion was on vivid display at a 1994 conference in Morocco called by the Council on Foreign Relations (though I suspect the idea originally came from Peres). The purpose of the conference was to bring the nations of the Middle East together to formulate plans for cooperative economic development throughout the region. Here, if anywhere, was a chance for the Arab Middle East to signal that it had indeed arrived at a stage where it was more interested in making money by cooperating with Israel than in making war against it. Yet the delegation from Egypt—the first country to sign a peace treaty with Israel—showed up with a 90-page booklet containing a host of proposals in which the name of Israel was never once mentioned and illustrated by six maps of the Middle East on which the state of Israel did not appear. Meanwhile, in the military exercises of the Egyptian armed forces, Israel would continue to be cast as the presumptive enemy. So much for making money, not war.
Another component of Peres’s vision of the “new Middle East,” which dovetailed with Rabin’s supposedly more hard-headed conception, was that the age of missiles had rendered territorial buffer zones obsolete. This assessment was intended to undermine the old conviction (once shared by all Israelis, emphatically including the younger Peres himself) that retreating to the boundaries in which Israel had lived before the Six-Day war of 1967, especially if a Palestinian state were left behind, was incompatible with the nation’s security. But now, according to Peres, when land wars were becoming a thing of the past, so too was the notion of secure borders.
On this issue as well, abundant evidence to the contrary—most notably the Gulf war, which in the end had to be won (to the extent that it was won) by ground troops and tanks—was cavalierly ignored. Or else, like Palestinian terrorism, it was dismissed as just another hangover from a past that would soon be disposed of by History in its own species of mopping-up operation.
Yet while Peres himself may have kept the faith, stubbornly continuing to insist that he would not give terrorists a “victory” by abandoning the “peace process,” the Israeli voting public disagreed. Running for prime minister in 1996 after the assassination of Rabin, Peres was beaten by Benjamin Netanyahu, who had been a strong critic of Oslo and would presumably adopt a tougher policy toward the Palestinians.
In the event, Netanyahu disappointed many of his supporters by deciding to honor the Oslo agreement even though repeated Palestinian violations provided him with a legally sound case for backing out of it. True, while running for election, he had all but openly suggested that he would stick with Oslo. Yet if Rabin, in running for election some years earlier, had sworn never to negotiate with the PLO and then proceeded to do the opposite, why should Netanyahu have been expected to hold to his own campaign rhetoric?
But there was something even more disappointing to the hawks who had looked to Netanyahu for salvation from a “peace process” that they regarded as suicidal. This was the hesitant and inconsistent manner in which he enforced what he had most definitely promised: namely, to take no further steps along the Oslo road unless the Palestinians “reciprocated” by fully honoring their part of the bargain.
To the dismay of many who had assumed that this promise would at least be kept, Israeli territorial withdrawals went on under Netanyahu even though Arafat and his minions continued calling among themselves (but never when they spoke in Western languages to Western ears) for jihad, or “holy war,” against Israel; even though Oslo was characterized (but, again, only in Arabic) as merely a stage in a multiphased struggle to wipe Israel off the map; and even though Palestinian schoolchildren were still being taught that Israel was an abomination that had to be eradicated. (Israeli schoolchildren, by contrast, were daily being offered history lessons that bent over backward to present the justice of the Palestinian claims.)
Palestinian violations of Oslo were by no means confined to the spoken word, or even to terrorism. For Arafat’s Palestinian Authority (PA) was also stealthily building an army. Oslo had authorized a 24,000-man Palestinian police force armed only enough to maintain law and order within the territory Israel was ceding to the PA. Bizarre as it seems, the arms had been supplied by Rabin and Peres on the assumption that the PA police would relieve Israeli soldiers of the unpleasant necessity of policing these areas themselves. With a cynicism understandably bred by the double standard always being applied to Israel in these matters, Rabin once even remarked that whereas the Israelis were constantly being berated by human-rights organizations for trying to keep order, the Palestinians could be as brutal as they liked without running into much trouble from those same organizations. About this, he turned out to be largely right.
But so far as we can tell from the record, what Rabin never foresaw was that the Palestinians would not rest content with only 24,000 policemen, nor with the rifles they happily took from Israel. As the years passed, the number of “policemen” would rise to at least 40,000, and the heavier weapons precluded by Oslo would be smuggled in from Jordan and elsewhere. What Rabin also failed to anticipate—and did not live to see—was that the guns he had agreed to give the Palestinians would wind up being turned against Israelis, and that the police who were supposed to control rioters would instead join in with and even lead them.
The first time this happened was a kind of rehearsal for the violence we have just been living through. It occurred in September 1996, about three months after Netanyahu became prime minister, when a new exit was opened to an archeological tunnel in Jerusalem. Though work on this tunnel had been going on for years without objection from anyone, the new exit set off a Palestinian protest in Ramallah that soon spread through the West Bank and Gaza; and as it spread, it escalated. By the time Arafat had called a halt to the throwing of rocks and Molotov cocktails and the firing by Palestinian police on Israeli civilians and soldiers, who then fired back, 73 people were dead and some 1,500 injured.
Most of these were Palestinians, since in a firefight Israel still had a great advantage. To Arafat, however, this discrepancy in the number of casualties was more a source of pride than of regret. Had he not told the Palestinian police themselves only a week earlier that “our blood is cheap for Jerusalem”?
Besides, the whole incident could be and was exploited by Palestinian propaganda. According to the PA, the tunnel was intended by the Israelis to undermine the foundations of the al-Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount, one of Islam’s holiest places, and it was this nefarious enterprise that triggered the wholly justified rage of the Palestinians. Almost everyone in the world took the PA version of events at face value, and yet the most cursory glance at the situation would have shown that the allegation was blatantly false. As even the anti-Netanyahu editor of the Biblical Archaeology Review was constrained to acknowledge: “The tunnel is outside the Temple Mount. It threatens no religious sites. The al-Aqsa mosque is at the other end of the Temple Mount, as far away as you can get.”
There were five lessons that should have hit home as a result of the tunnel episode. One was that the Palestinians felt no need to fulfill their main obligation under Oslo, which was to substitute negotiations for violence. This they more or less would do—if, that is, and only if, the negotiations were going their way. But if the Israelis did anything that displeased them, they would not hesitate to resort once again to force, even (or, with the media in mind, especially) if they themselves, and their children, were bound to suffer the heaviest casualties.
Was this enough to demonstrate that the critics of Oslo had been right all along in their belief that Israel did not have “a partner for peace” in Arafat? Not on your life. Rather than recognizing Arafat for what he was, and was not, much of the world decided that it was the Palestinians who did not have “a partner for peace” in Netanyahu. Having been denounced by his formerly most passionate supporters for refusing to abrogate Oslo, he now found himself vilified for sabotaging it. This charge was hurled at him by Jewish enthusiasts of Oslo within both Israel and America, as well as by the foreign ministries of virtually every country on earth, including the one in Washington, over which Bill Clinton, the allegedly “best friend” Israel had ever had, presided.
Yet all Netanyahu had done was to slow down the process a bit, and by means so trivial that after only a few years or even weeks no one could remember what they were. Even at the time, his political opponents and enemies had to go to almost comical lengths in drawing up an indictment against him. For example, in the words of one bill of particulars, his unforgivably major sins against the “peace process” consisted of (1) taking his time after being elected before deciding “to see Yasir Arafat”; (2) “making [Arafat] wait to travel in his helicopter within the West Bank”; and (3) “finally shaking hands with [Arafat] with a near grimace.”
To this ridiculous list was added a number of more serious actions, but no hint was breathed that these same actions had also been taken by Peres when, in his brief tenure as prime minister after the assassination of Rabin, even he could not go on merely reaffirming his love of peace whenever another terrorist bomb exploded in Israel. (The main such actions by Peres were extending the deadline for a withdrawal from Hebron and sealing off the borders between Israel and the occupied territories.) Nor was there any mention of the things Netanyahu—eliciting even more furious disappointment among his old supporters—had done to mitigate or even reverse some of these policies he had inherited from Peres, like easing restrictions on the number of Arab workers allowed into Israel from the territories every day, and going through with the pullout from Hebron.
A second lesson of the tunnel episode, then, was that the term “peace process” was itself a fraud. It did not mean what the words normally signified: negotiations aiming at a yet-to-be-hammered-out agreement between parties previously at war. Rather, it was a deceptive euphemism for steady Israeli movement toward a predetermined end, which was the turnover of the West Bank and Gaza to a new Palestinian state. Any slowing of the pace for any reason was condemned as “foot-dragging,” and even the slightest indication from the Israeli side that the Palestinians would not get everything they wanted was interpreted as contrary to the spirit of the peace process and a provocation that justified them in once again picking up the gun.
Which brings us to the third lesson yielded by the tunnel episode. Among the great achievements to which enthusiasts of Oslo and its aftermath proudly pointed was that Israel was becoming increasingly less isolated. Before Oslo, cooed the doves, Israel’s only friend of any consequence had been the United States; and within the Arab world, only Egypt had been willing to make peace with the Jewish state, and only a “cold peace” at that. Now, however, Israel was ceasing to be a pariah. Even at the United Nations, which had for so long been viciously hostile, the atmosphere had grown warmer; and, more telling still, commercial and other relations were being established with some of the more moderate Arab states.
All true; but what the tunnel episode revealed was that every bit of this good will would vanish the instant Israel made a single false move—that is, a move that the Palestinians declared to be false. At the UN, a Security Council resolution condemning Israel over the tunnel incident passed by a vote of 14-0, with the United States under Bill Clinton—in a preview of what he would do in October of this year—abstaining when it might have exercised its veto.
As for the Arab world, even the states that had traditionally been least hostile to Israel now ganged up on it. The dovish Jerusalem Report summed up the situation:
King Hassan of Morocco . . . ordered a complete freeze on his government’s relations with Israel. . . . The president of Tunis . . . followed suit and ordered formal contacts between his country and the Netanyahu government severed. Oil-rich Qatar . . . postponed the opening of [its] trade office in Israel and called off direct meetings with Israeli officials.
This report was supposed to prove that Netanyahu had done great damage to Israel. But what it inadvertently exposed was that any warming trend among the Arabs would turn to solid ice the moment they suspected that Israel might be stalling in its journey toward the only acceptable conclusion of the “peace process”: complete withdrawal (with minor modifications) to the borders of 1967 and the recognition of a Palestinian state in the territories Israel had conquered in the Six-Day war of that year.
Even this, however, would not suffice—and here we arrive at the fourth lesson of the tunnel episode. In a moment of candor, Arafat himself admitted that he had started the miniwar over the tunnel to fight against “the Judaization of Jerusalem.” The only acceptable “peace package,” in other words, had to be stuffed with the gift of East Jerusalem as the capital of the new Palestinian state. No Jerusalem, no deal.
To this a codicil was added, and it represents the fifth and final lesson to emerge from the tunnel episode. If Israel would not deliver the right “peace package,” the alternative was another war—a war not between Israel and the Palestinians alone but between Israel and the whole Arab world. Even Egypt, which had signed a peace treaty with Israel years earlier, and Jordan, which had just done the same, would participate in this war.
That a major war was in the minds of the Arab leaders became—or should have become—obvious during one of those hastily arranged meetings that Bill Clinton loves to call whenever another crisis erupts between Israel and the Palestinians. (Arafat, astoundingly, holds the record for the number of visits with Clinton by foreign leaders.) At the meeting to resolve the tunnel crisis, the late King Hussein of Jordan, that famous moderate, excoriated Netanyahu for having dragged the region to “the edge of the abyss.” In spelling out his meaning a few days later, he had the impudence to bring up the Iraqi missile attacks on Israel during the Gulf war, when he himself had sided with Saddam Hussein to the point of providing targeting guidance to Iraqi controllers as their missiles—with the blessing of the “little king”—flew over Jordanian air space.
Having been forgiven, as he always was no matter what he did, thus spake King Hussein: “In the current situation, if we do not stride strongly forward to achieve peace, everything imaginable can happen, including a revival of 1991 when Netanyahu wore his gas mask on television. The alternative to peace is more awful than we can imagine.”
And what of that other famous moderate, the Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak? Since he had recently described Israel as “a knife plunged into the nations of this region”—note the words “nations of this region” rather than “Palestinians”—it is not surprising that Mubarak should have refused to attend the White House meeting at all. Coupled with this refusal was a warning that the Palestinians would soon take up arms again, and through his former military chief of staff Mubarak also warned that Egypt and the other Arab states would be ready to rush into the battle with every expectation of victory: “The combined weaponry of the Arab states today exceeds that of Israel. If all these weapons were directed against Israel, the Arab states could defeat Israel.”
Then we come to Hafez al-Assad, the late president of Syria. No one ever confused him with a moderate, but in spite of the “strategic decision for peace” he had supposedly made, Assad decided a few weeks after the White House summit that Israel was—in the words of one of his spokesmen—“preparing the region for a new war,” and that the Arabs now had “to consider options other than the peace process.” Note again that the war for which preparations had to be made was not between Israel and the Palestinians alone, but between Israel and the Arabs.
When Ehud Barak of the Labor party, defeating the by-now much-battered Netanyahu, became prime minister of Israel in 1999, he was widely hailed as a disciple of Rabin who would put his martyred predecessor’s policies back on track. And so he did—with a veritable vengeance. No one could accuse him of “dragging his feet” or of insisting on “reciprocity,” and the only defect he could find in the Oslo “peace process” was that it was being implemented too slowly. In this he seemed to resemble Peres more than Rabin, raring to go, chafing at the bit, hardly able to wait before satisfying all Palestinian demands as quickly as possible—and to make a deal with Syria while he was at it. To judge both from Barak’s statements and his behavior, the tunnel war might never have happened, so apparently oblivious was he of the lessons it had taught about the realities of Israel’s situation and the intentions of the Arab world.
Accordingly, Barak cut immediately to the chase. Among the first things he did was to pledge an early withdrawal of Israeli troops from the security zone in Lebanon that, with the aid of local militiamen, they had been policing since 1982 in order to protect northern Israel from terrorist and other attacks by the Hezbollah—a pledge that he subsequently carried out under fire and ahead of his one-year schedule. Barak also indicated that he was willing to return virtually the whole of the Golan Heights to Syria in exchange for a peace treaty. And he declared himself ready to skip the type of interim steps and phased agreements with the Palestinians that were the progeny of Oslo. What he preferred was to discuss the terms of a final settlement. Which meant that precisely the most difficult problems—the status of Jerusalem, and what should be done about the Palestinians who had fled in 1948 and so many of whose descendants were still living in squalid refugee camps throughout the region—would be tackled now, and not (as formerly contemplated) be deferred to some later date when greater trust would presumably have developed between the parties.
So far did Barak’s proposals go that in time they would even arouse the ire of Rabin’s widow Leah, who had previously anointed the new prime minister as her late husband’s legitimate heir. But what had once been unthinkable, and unsayable even by Rabin and Peres, was by now so taken for granted that it practically went without saying at all: a sovereign Palestinian state would soon be established. The only remaining question was whether this would be delayed until its exact boundaries, the location of its capital, and a few other matters had been determined by negotiations with Israel, or whether Arafat would make good on his repeated threat to bring it into being unilaterally.
While letting slip one deadline after another for acting on this threat, Arafat found himself on the receiving end of offers that went beyond anything ever contemplated by any previous Israeli government. Although one would never have known this from the tenor of most reporting in the media, and certainly not from Palestinian propaganda about the onerous Israeli “occupation,” 98 percent of the Palestinians in the territories were already living under the rule of the PA. With the Israeli army having withdrawn from most of those territories before he assumed office, Barak now proposed to turn over virtually all the rest to the new Palestinian state (with Israel left holding, on grounds of military security, only a small and largely unpopulated area). Barak even offered to leave the Jordan Valley, which had once been regarded by all sides in Israel as essential to the country’s security.
Nor was this all. Barak—again conceding what had recently been unthinkable—would accept certain districts in East Jerusalem as the capital of the new state of Palestine, while turning over the holy places to international supervision. Finally, and in some ways most radically of all, he was willing to grant the “right of return” to some 100,000 Palestinian refugees and compensate the remainder with money that Clinton (a little too confidently) assured him would be forthcoming from America.
All this might have been too much even for Rabin’s widow, but it was not enough for Yasir Arafat. He demanded a larger share of Jerusalem and complete control over the Temple Mount, the site of the al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock (the latter repeatedly and mistakenly described in the media as a mosque). Under no circumstances would he entertain Barak’s suggestion that a small sector of the Temple Mount be reserved for a synagogue. The Temple Mount belonged to Allah, and what Barak wanted was nothing less than a desecration and a blasphemy.
And so the stage was set for a replay of the tunnel war, one that would be bigger and more portentous than its predecessor. But before we can grasp what really happened, we must again clear the smoke away from several points that have—in the usual fashion of reporting on clashes between Israel and the Palestinians—been obscured either through ignorance or deliberate misrepresentation.
For a start, take the issue of the Temple Mount itself. Because there is a place called Mount Zion in Jerusalem, many people are under the impression that it is the site from which—as Jews (quoting the prophet Isaiah) proclaim whenever they remove the Torah scroll from the ark of a synagogue—the law and the word of God will go forth unto the nations. But the Zion of this prophecy-turned-prayer is not Mount Zion. It is the Temple Mount, so named precisely because King Solomon built his Temple there in the 10th century B.C.E.; and when, about a century after the destruction of that Temple by Babylonian invaders in 586 B.C.E., a second one was built, it too was located on the same site until being destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E.1 And as if this were not enough, Jewish tradition also identifies the Temple Mount as the Mount Moriah of the Bible where God tested Abraham by commanding him to sacrifice his son Isaac and then stayed his hand.
In other words, the Temple Mount is the holiest of Jewish holy places, and has been so for at least 3,000 years—which means that the Jewish claim on it goes back over 1,500 years before there even was an Islam. Furthermore, whereas Jerusalem has been the center of Judaism since King David made his capital there in the 10th century B.C.E., the city is, by the Muslims’ own reckoning, only the third holiest place in their religion. When Muslims pray, they do not face Jerusalem, as Jews do; they face Mecca.
In short, there is nothing in the least outrageous about the idea that the Temple Mount belongs to the Jews, though it was not even accessible to them during the years before 1967 when the Jordanians occupied Jerusalem. But in his notorious visit on September 28, Sharon was not even demanding that Israel physically take over the Temple Mount (which under Israeli sovereignty had long been administered by the Muslim authorities); all he was doing, as leader of the Likud opposition, was putting Barak and Arafat on notice that he would work against any agreement curtailing the right of any Jew to visit the Temple Mount whenever he wished.
It is Arafat who has made it necessary to emphasize what ought to be a self-evident point. For just as much of the Arab world has joined the chorus of Holocaust deniers in the West, so with comparable gall does Arafat go around declaring that “Jerusalem is not a Jewish city, despite the biblical myth planted in some minds”; that the two Temples never stood on the Temple Mount; and that the Western Wall is not a Jewish but “a Muslim shrine.”
Some think that in going to the Temple Mount, Sharon was also trying to upstage his main rival for leadership of Likud, the politically resurgent Netanyahu. But even if that is true, what difference would it make to the assignment of blame for the outbreak of violence by the Palestinians in response to a peaceful walk around the site—a walk, we have since learned, that a day earlier had been duly cleared with the head of PA security? In retrospect, considering how unlikely it is that the head of PA security was ignorant of the plan for an outbreak, and in the light of reports that he himself had a hand in fomenting the riots, one wonders whether he was setting Sharon up by assuring him that there would be no problem if he were to visit the Temple Mount.
Be that as it may, we have also since learned that preparations for violence were already being made immediately before and during the summit between Arafat and Barak that Clinton had convened in July at Camp David. If, said a high-ranking PA security official quoted in an Israeli Arab magazine, the summit were to fail from the Palestinian point of view, a new intifada would follow:
The Palestinian people are in a state of emergency against the failure of the Camp David summit. If the situation explodes they are ready for the next bloody battle against the Israeli occupation. The next intifada will be . . . more violent than the first one especially since the Palestinian people [now] possess weapons allowing them to defend themselves in a confrontation with the Israeli army.2
Regarding those weapons, this PA official then went on a week later (that is, two full months before Sharon would set foot on the Temple Mount) to inform the same magazine that
Popular recruitment in the PA territories has increased greatly and the popular Palestinian army has been established. . . . Weapons have already been distributed to citizens by the PA, which supervises training and preparation for a potential confrontation with occupation forces.
Finally, the commander of the PA police stated that “the Palestinian police will be leading, together with all other noble sons of the Palestinian people, when the hour of confrontation arrives.”
When the summit did in fact fail, and when Clinton was perceived as blaming Arafat for turning down Barak’s terms, which seemed even to the President extraordinarily generous, rocks and Molotov cocktails were at the ready, and the militiamen (or Tanzim) of Fatah, Arafat’s own faction within the PLO, were lying in wait for an order from him to go on a rampage. In seizing on Sharon’s visit as the right moment for such a signal, Arafat must have calculated that even though, as the leader of the Likud party, Sharon held no office within the Labor government, as a right-winger he was likely to be held responsible for the violence, exactly in the way the right-wing Netanyahu had been for the miniwar over the tunnel. And so it came about.
Despite the assurances of the PA security chief, violent disturbances broke out just moments after Sharon left the area. The Palestinian media and Muslim preachers immediately began spreading the word that al-Aqsa was in danger. The next day, September 29, in a sermon at the mosque itself, the mullah accused Sharon of the “slighting of Muslims’ holy place,” and asked: “Who will forbid the Jews from committing massacres today in al-Aqsa mosque?” The same kind of false, hysterical, and inflammatory rhetoric concerning al-Aqsa had been spewed forth over the tunnel, and it worked even more effectively in this latest battle against “the Judaization of Jerusalem.”
So, too, did the tactic of taking casualties for the TV cameras to photograph. Echoing Arafat’s statement of 1996 that “our blood is cheap for Jerusalem,” the director general of the PA information ministry now wrote: “The only way to impose our conditions is inevitably through our blood. Had it not been for this blood, the world would never have been interested in us.” Hence it was the “national duty” of the Palestinians to “continue to sacrifice our martyrs.”
Palestinian and other Arabs had a lot of takers both in Israel and in the rest of the world for their assertion that it was Sharon who had provoked this latest outbreak of violence. But Barak was not among them. Partly, no doubt, because he had come to believe that his own political fortunes would be improved if he could persuade a reluctant Sharon to join him in a national-unity government, but also, surely, because he knew what he knew, Barak disagreed with the widespread condemnation of the visit to the Temple Mount. “We hold the Palestinian Authority responsible for the whole round of violence,” he told Lally Weymouth in an interview in Newsweek.
What then lies ahead? As noted at the outset, it was to some degree because the situation that obtained prior to 1993 had involved Israel in the kind of guerrilla-cum-terrorist warfare it finally could not stomach that Rabin decided to enter into the “peace process” to begin with. Now, there has been a resurgence of precisely that kind of warfare. Will the Israelis be any more able and willing to stomach it this time around?
In trying to answer that question, we have to consider two opposing factors. One is that the Palestinians, as they have boasted, are far better armed than they were before and capable of inflicting more damage than they could in the first round. But as against that consideration, there is the balancing emergence of a new mood in Israel. By making as many concessions as they did—walking, as it were, the extra mile toward peace—and then being rewarded with violence, most Israelis, beginning with Prime Minister Barak himself, seemed to have been convinced for the moment that there was no corresponding desire for peace on the Palestinian side. If so, the delusory hopes that pushed them into the “peace process” and fed it for nearly a decade might give way to a greater readiness to face the grim realities of their own situation.
To illustrate, two examples should suffice. Shlomo Avineri, a professor at the Hebrew University and a former director-general of the foreign ministry, was among the earliest and most influential Israeli proponents of the two-state solution. But he now wrote in the Jerusalem Post that, in having persuaded themselves that a compromise with the Palestinians had become possible, he and his fellow doves were caught up in an “illusion”:
Last summer at Camp David, Arafat rejected the most generous offer ever made to a Palestinian leader by an Israeli statesman . . . . [Then] it suddenly dawned on us that we do not have a partner: only an enemy, who cannot even find a humane word when our people are lynched. . . . What came out—on the streets, among the Palestinian elite on CNN—was sheer hatred, and a fundamental rejection of Israel . . . . [So] now we know: there is no such thing as a Palestinian leadership with whom an agreement can be reached. We are at war.
On a different level of the Israeli social spectrum, there was the mother of three in Jerusalem who was interviewed by the Associated Press. Like Avineri, she had been a supporter of the “peace process” from the start, but this woman (also like Avineri, and like almost all Israelis) was shaken to her toes by the murder and mutilation of two Israeli reservists who had mistakenly driven into Ramallah: “When I saw on television the Palestinian mob that lynched those two Israeli soldiers, I realized they don’t want peace with us. There was such hatred in their eyes. They just want us out of the Middle East.”
They just want us out of the Middle East. This is a fundamental truth that all Israelis once knew but that many either forgot or began to deny. Now they seemed to be remembering and relearning it; and in the nick of time. For they will need every ounce of spiritual and moral strength at their disposal to cope with the reality to which so many of them blinded themselves for so long.
That reality, to say it yet one more time, is summed up in the word—jihad—that Arafat and so many other Arabs have never stopped invoking when speaking among themselves in their own language. On those occasions, they have never bothered to pretend that the formula for peace is a “two-state solution.” Nor have they had to pretend that this formula represents anything more than a temporary abandonment of the direct military action that failed in five previous wars, or a shift to a “strategy of stages” that will more circuitously and cunningly head toward the same ultimate consummation in the destruction of the Jewish state.
Indeed, at this very moment, Palestinian and other Arab children are studying textbooks containing maps on which (as in the Egyptian proposals for regional economic development at the conference in Morocco) Israel is nowhere to be found. It is the making of such maps into a real picture of the Middle East that—to judge by their own words and deeds—remains the true objective of overwhelming numbers of Palestinians and their Arab brothers. Listen to a leading Egyptian cleric—and bear in mind that to him “occupied Palestine” embraces the whole state of Israel:
Jihad in the path of Allah is a virtue that binds Muslims at all times, and it is an obligation on everyone who is able to carry it out . . . . Jihad to confront the enemy and liberate the pillaged land is an obligation on Muslims. . . . This is what our brothers are now doing in occupied Palestine.
When evidence was presented at his trial in Jerusalem that Adolf Eichmann, the former Nazi officer in charge of transporting the Jews of Europe to the death camps, had once said he would “die happy” because he had sent five million “enemies of the Reich” (i.e., Jews) to their graves, Hannah Arendt dismissed this as “sheer rodomontade.” Is the exhortation to jihad by so many Arabs, from Arafat to the likes of this Egyptian cleric, sheer rodomontade? There is no more reason to think so than there was in the case of Eichmann.
A few years ago, Fouad Ajami of Johns Hopkins produced what may still be the best short article ever published on sentiment toward Israel within the Arab world—and perhaps the only such honest account by any Arab anywhere. “There has been no discernible change in the Arab attitudes toward Israel,” he maintained in U.S. News & World Report, and went on to describe the genuine state of affairs in the world from which he himself (a Lebanese Christian by birth and upbringing) had come to the United States:
The great refusal [to accept Israel] persists. A foul wind . . . blows in that “Arab street” of ordinary men and women, among the intellectuals and the writers, and in the professional syndicates. The force of this refusal can be seen in the press of the governments and of the oppositionists, among the secularists and the Islamists alike, in countries that have concluded diplomatic agreements with Israel and those that haven’t.
Only a few weeks ago, with the new intifada raging, Ajami observed that his original assessment still held:
The circle of enmity surrounding Israel has not been breached—the young boys in the West Bank displayed their great refusal to come to terms with Israel’s statehood; so did the demonstrators in Arab lands, from North Africa to the Persian Gulf, whose rulers had staked a claim to moderation. Diplomacy was shown to be a pretense and a veneer.
Some of us even thought for a while that this new intifada might be the start of the big war—the war with missiles and tanks and heavy artillery rather than rocks and gasoline bombs and rifles—we had always feared would result from the “peace process.” Arafat and his subordinates seem to have thought so, too. “Palestinian blood [will] mix with Arab blood in defense of the legitimate rights of our people,” Arafat announced on October 8 in Tunis. Another PA official was more specific:
The continuation of the Palestinian bloodshed might push part of the Arab military to carry out military operations against Israel. . . . Also, Palestinian bloodshed will push parts of the Arab countries to launch missiles against Israel as the president of Iraq did in 1991.
Then, the very next day, Saddam Hussein himself actually threatened to take the lead in “putting an end to Zionism,” or even to go it alone if the other Arab states held back.
Fortunately for Israel, and the world, most of the Arab states were not yet ready to engage Israel militarily. In late October, sixteen of the 22 member states of the Arab League met in Cairo to decide on what they should do about the current crisis. But while blasting Israel for its “crimes” and resolving to cut off relations of various kinds with it, they stopped so far short of declaring “holy war” that the Libyan delegates walked out in disgust at this “feeble” response, and the Iraqis were if anything even more contemptuous.
Meanwhile, demonstrations were being held all over the Arab world, demanding jihad and denouncing the Arab governments for being “too soft on Israel.” For the time being, then, what Ajami calls “the peace of kings and pharaohs” still prevails. But how long can it withstand the pressures for war from every sector of Arab society?
As long, I would say, as the kings and pharaohs of the contemporary Middle East are deterred by the fear of Israel’s armed might and the willingness of Israel to use it if necessary. About seven years ago, when the “peace process” was just getting under way, I gave a lecture in Jerusalem predicting that this process would lead not to peace but to another major war. During the question period, a leading dove amazed the audience by expressing total agreement with me. But, he added, “unless we convince our sons that we are doing everything possible to make peace, they will jump out of their tanks when the war comes.”
He may have been right. From which one might conclude that the “peace process” was an exercise that had to be undergone if only to expose the main illusions behind it. Those illusions went beyond the idea that a compromise with the Palestinians had become possible. They extended to the notion that Israel bore at least as much blame for the Arab war against it as the Arabs did; that, if Israel were to reconcile itself to the establishment of a Palestinian state, the Arab world would reconcile itself to a Jewish one; and that it was in Israel’s unilateral power to realize this vision of peaceful coexistence.
But the dream of wiping Israel off the map was not put into Arab heads by anything Israel did except enter into existence, and therefore it could not be canceled by anything Israel did except disappear. Neither the Palestinians nor their Arab brothers would remain satisfied with a Palestinian state living alongside Israel; what they wanted was a Palestinian state that would swallow up the Jewish state. And the only peace that could be achieved through the unilateral power of Israel was the peace of the grave that committing suicide would bring.
If they are finally learning all this, the sons of the older Israelis who had to relearn it themselves will not “jump out of their tanks” when the next major war erupts. But that alone could help avert such a war, by deterring the Arabs who had begun to believe, and not without good cause, that Israel was growing soft and would soon be ripe for the plucking. A strong Israel—strong not only in weaponry but in resolve and courage and the readiness to do whatever might be necessary to prevent the worst—could fend off the jihad that might otherwise be all but inevitable.
It could also fend off what the Israeli defense analyst Ze’ev Schiff thinks is the strategy for “bringing Israel to its knees” that Arafat has hit upon as a fallback or a prelude to jihad. This, according to Schiff, is “ongoing, low-level war that combines massive terrorism, guerrilla warfare, and the international media. . . . This strategy will expose Israel’s Achilles’ heel: an extreme sensitivity to loss of life and the kidnapping of its soldiers.”
No corresponding sensitivity undermines the Palestinians. In an exceptionally objective piece, Jack Kelley of USA Today, describing a firefight in Ramallah in October, reported that “As darkness moves in, many of the television journalists, who had been filming on the Palestinian side . . . pack up their gear and leave. So do the youths.” Kelley then, with no hint of a personal demurrer, quoted an Israeli officer on the spot: “The kids only want to die when the TV cameras are on so they can get the sympathy of the world. They’ll be back tomorrow, as soon as the media arrive.”
But why, asked Mark Helprin in his column in the online Opinion Journal ofthe Wall Street Journal, do not the Israelis—understanding full well that every youthful Palestinian casualty hurts them and strengthens Arafat in “the battle of public opinion”—use less lethal methods of riot control? To his own question, Helprin returned this answer:
Because they cannot. . . . Every day, from the periphery and from within the rock-throwing and gasoline-bomb-tossing crowds, automatic fire is directed at the Israelis, who are thus forced to use small-unit tactics and keep themselves dispersed. The Israelis cannot close with the crowds, using shields and batons, because to do so they would need to concentrate hundreds or perhaps thousands of men in these battles, soldiers who in such antiquated formations would be a vulnerable and irresistible target.
In sum, up to that point in the new intifada, the Israelis were doing what they had to do. Palestinian propagandists were having a field day proclaiming that the Israelis were “massacring . . . innocent children.” But the complaint of many Israelis was that the army had been showing too much restraint on occasions like the gunfire attacks on a Jewish neighborhood within Jerusalem itself. On the other hand, as the officer whom Kelley accompanied during the battle that day said to him, with regret but without apology, and without the sense of guilt that had turned round one of the intifada into a victory for the Palestinians: “Since the first day, every time we shoot a person, it is because they . . . shot at us first. You don’t want to shoot civilians and kids. On the other hand, you don’t want your soldiers on the frontlines to be killed.”
Writing in late October, I have no idea of what either Barak or Arafat will do in the next few weeks, or what might be triggered by this or that step one or the other might take. One such step by the Israelis might be toward “separation,” about which the new intifada unleashed so much talk in Israel.
Why, it was said, could Israel not unilaterally draw its own borders and leave Arafat to his own devices on the other side, relying on deterrence to protect the country from terrorist or other forms of aggression? This, for Israel, would be a substitute for a negotiated settlement, still acceding to the birth of a Palestinian state though backing away from Barak’s former willingness to recognize neighborhoods in East Jerusalem as its capital. (Amid all this talk about unilateral moves by Israel, Barak also warned the Palestinians that if they were to issue a unilateral declaration of statehood, he would annex parts of the West Bank. To which Arafat countered with a threat of an even wider state of war.)
Even at this early date, however, it can safely be predicted that no unilateral actions by Israel such as are simplistically contemplated by the repentant Shlomo Avineri and others would bring about what most Israelis envisage as “separation.” As Ephraim Sneh, Israel’s deputy minister of defense, commented to the New York Times: “People say, ‘I don’t want to see anymore the Palestinians,’ . . . but it doesn’t work that way. The interdependence of the economies is such that you can’t just detach them mechanically. We share water, electricity, electromagnetic space. It’s not so simple.”
Shlomo Gazit, a former general and government official, also quoted by the Times, brought up other difficulties attendant upon a real separation: “It means annexing the West Bank with its settlers, but also evacuating others.” Gazit could not bring himself to state clearly, or possibly even to contemplate, that “evacuating others” might involve not only Palestinians in the West Bank but also Arab citizens of Israel, together with non-Israeli Palestinians who live in East Jerusalem. It is hard to imagine the Israelis undertaking so brutal an act of “ethnic cleansing,” and still harder to suppose that the West would allow them to carry it through even if they made the attempt.
The upshot is that under present circumstances, there are no good alternatives, only choices that may be less bad than others. Still, present circumstances will not last forever. History could yet hit the Middle East with one of those unexpected surprises in which it specializes (such as the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union) and that would for the first time create a willingness among the Arabs to make their own inner peace with the permanent presence of a sovereign Jewish state in “their” part of the world. But unless and until such a change of heart cancels out “the great refusal,” the change of heart in Israel that the new intifada seemed to have wrought in certain quarters will have to remain firm against the seductive temptations of a return to some new form of Oslo. It will also have to remain firm against the loudly intransigent insistence in other quarters that the “peace process” can and must be revived.
It is from those other quarters that the “post-Zionist” virus of self-hatred has spread in recent years, sapping the national morale and the old-time national resolve. To regain what they have lost, the Israelis will have to shake off this pathology once and for all; they will have to rely credibly once again on the deterrent effect of their military might; they will have to renew their conviction that their country has an absolute right to exist where it exists; and they will have to recapture the well-earned and well-deserved pride they used to feel in the miracle of that existence and the wondrous accomplishments that have followed from the Jewish return to Zion.
1 The Western Wall is a section of the retaining wall of the Second Temple. Though never part of the Temple Mount as such, it has nevertheless been sanctified by proximity as well as by the protective function it once served.
2 For this and most of the other quotations that follow from Arabic-language sources, I am indebted to the invaluable work of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI). Under the leadership of Yigal Carmon, a former adviser on counterterrorism to both Yitzhak Shamir and Yitzhak Rabin, MEMRI monitors the Palestinian media, as well as the press of other Arab nations, and issues daily translations into English of significant articles and interviews that are rarely, if ever, noticed in Western coverage of the Middle East. MEMRI’s website is at www.memri.org.