December 5, 2001

New Dangers in the Middle East
Israel's 'War on Terrorism'

The most interesting theory in the wake of the weekend attacks in Israel came from DEBKA-Net-Weekly, advertised as an intelligence service and carried on In its report Monday, it said that the unspoken upshot of the hurried and quite private meeting between George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon was that "the major Israeli offensive under way against Arab terrorism opens the West's second front against world terrorism."

The announcement on Tuesday that the administration is seeking to close down certain charitable organizations alleged to be closely connected to Hamas, which claimed responsibility for the attacks, would be consistent with this view. There are plenty of terrorist organizations extant, and the most effective undoubtedly have various sub rosa ways of raising money. But Hamas is the one bedeviling Israel just now. So perhaps there's a tacit understanding that although the plans might have been different a few weeks ago, the plan this week is to make Hamas – and probably Hezbollah and the Islamic Jihad before long – the next target for U.S. attention.

Interesting. It could be that while certain administration underlings and a good bit of the conservative and neocon establishment are eager to attack Saddam Hussein as quickly as possible – well before matters in Afghanistan, successful though the early military results seem to be – are even close to resolution. President Bush has responded opportunistically (which is not necessarily intended to be a denigrative term in this context) to events and put off a decision about Iraq. So he'll stick with his personal instincts – which are not necessarily those of the State Department or the foreign policy establishment – and give Israel a green light.

As nearly as I can piece things together from a lot of reading and interviewing, most people in Israel – even the former doves – have been champing at the bit to have at the Palestinians for some time. The brutal suicide-bomb attacks will give Ariel Sharon all the cover he needs to undertake a serious military campaign against both the Palestinian Authority and the outright terrorist groups that have been active recently. It might not do much good in the long run, but this is the Middle East.


The attacks over the weekend have certainly raised the stakes in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, staining the region with more innocent blood and rising anger on both sides. It seems likely that certain elements in Israel and probably some in the United States would like to see the responses mark a new phase in the conflict, leading to either discrediting Yasser Arafat or pushing him from power.

In their fantasies many Israelis might even imagine a decisive military campaign that will discourage future terrorism for years or even decades to come. It is almost impossible to determine whether such an outcome is likely, but it would be wise to bet against it.

We have had comments from presidential press secretary Ari Fleischer suggesting a tilt toward Israel and perhaps something of a green light for whatever the Israeli government thinks it has to do now. "Nightline" on Monday suggested that in the wake of the World Trade Center bombing (interesting that hardly anybody mentions the Pentagon) most Americans see Israel in a different and more sympathetic light. We've had the move to cut some of Hamas's finances.


All these moves might make Mr. Bush and his advisers feel useful. But the simple fact is that beyond some tilting and maybe sending more money or weapons, there is surprisingly little the United States can do to affect the outcome of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Some commentators suggest that by siding more openly with Israel the US might be giving up its potential as an "honest broker" of a peace agreement. But the United States has not been perceived in the region as an honest broker for a long time, if it ever was.

Without inserting US military forces undertaking overtly military action (rather than pretending to be "peacekeepers") – an action that would outrage most Arab countries and probably alienate Israel as well – the United States has little real influence over the situation. So while it may bluster and opine, it has little real choice but to sit back, cheer and boo, and hope for the best – assuming anybody in the foreign policy establishment has anything resembling a coherent notion of what the best outcome might be.


I talked on Monday to Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford and a professor in the Department of Politics at New York University, whose expertise is more in the politics of conflict than in the Middle East per se. His belief is that the weekend attacks, while relatively large-scale in the deaths and injuries they caused, were not all that surprising. "Every time there is substantial pressure for Palestinian Authority-Israeli negotiations, groups like Hamas [which claimed responsibility for the weekend bombings] believe they have to derail the process through violence," he told me.

While it is possible that Ariel Sharon might be able to bestir Israel to a period of more aggressive outright military activity, it seems more likely that we will see the usual tit-for-tat reprisals that have characterized Israeli-Palestinian relations for most of living memory. Even if the US weighs in on Israel's side with more actions like the cutoff of funds to certain organizations alleged to funnel money to terrorist groups, the effects of such actions are likely to be marginal. And the US will have to be somewhat careful even in these actions, let alone more overt military actions.


The basic problem, when considering whether or not the US should abandon pretense and act as Israel's military ally, is uncertainty about what kind of authority would replace Yasser Arafat if he were to be ousted from power. The evidence is that if Palestinian public opinion means anything – and compared to the force of arms it might not mean much in the short run – the next most likely candidate would be Hamas leaders. Or there might be a war-of-all-against-all chaos. Such disorder would inevitably spill over into terrorist incidents in Israel – even if, as an increasing number of Israeli politicians, including Labor Minister Dalia Itzik suggest, a fence were erected between Israel and the West Bank.

Yasser Arafat is undoubtedly a scoundrel who has used the existence of terrorist groups to his advantage, but the fact that he has stayed in power for so long indicates that he is a shrewd scoundrel. Even if he were killed, he might be viewed as a martyr and rallying point more effective in inspiring anti-Israel terrorism than the mere human being he is when alive.

There's a good deal of debate about just how effectively Arafat might be able to control Hamas and other groups if he were inclined to do so. I don't claim to have any secret insight. Mr. Bueno de Mesquita believes he has some influence over more militant groups but nothing close to effective control. Indeed, Hamas, he thinks, is a rival to Arafat, who has not moved to destroy Hamas in part because he is not sure he would win.

Mr. Bueno de Mesquita thinks that perhaps – just perhaps – the best hope for ultimate accommodation in the Middle East would be if Al Fatah, the Arafat wing of the PLO, engaged in an outright civil war with Hamas and won. But he doesn't expect that to happen. So Israel is likely to have to face Arafat, the devil it knows, for some time to come.


It's curious. The US campaign against Afghanistan seems to have emboldened Israel to think about more aggressive military activity after a period of pretending to be involved in an illusory "peace process." After all, the United States didn't simply target Osama bin Laden and a few of his henchmen after September 11. It went after the Taliban regime that it claimed provided support, aid and comfort to the terrorist networks – and not just with a few special forces infiltrated into key areas, but with a massive bombing campaign.

To many Israelis, what's sauce for the US goose should be sauce for the Israeli gander. So within Israel, right-leaning elements are increasingly urging a "Taliban-like ultimatum," as a Jerusalem Post editorial put it, to Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority: Either arrest the perpetrators and crack down on terrorism effectively (perhaps even turning some over to Israeli authorities) or prepare to lose power and perhaps your life.

Other Israelis, of course, question the wisdom of toppling Arafat, arguing that an attempt could enhance his popularity – and further, that any replacement would be worse for Israel.

It seems certain that an Israeli response more aggressive than Monday's and Tuesday's attacks will come. Americans can do little but weep for the innocent and pray for more wisdom on both sides than seems likely.


All of which should make observations I have previously noted from my acquaintance Leon Hadar (a former Jerusalem Post UN corespondent) even more relevant. Leon has argued that with the decline of the Soviet empire the outcome of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is less strategically important to the US and Europe than it was before. It would make sense, then, he says, for most of the rest of the world to view it as one more regional, quasi-tribal conflict – over which the Great Powers are likely to have little control and in which they have little genuine stake.

It is likely to take a long time for this view of the Middle East to take hold in the United States, let alone work its way up to the level of those who make policy. But as the conflict continues to look irresolvable – or at least difficult to resolve in anything less than the span of generations – more Americans may come to believe that the best bet is to stop subsidizing, wheedling and coaxing the combatants in the Middle East to play nice and gradually withdraw as an active player from the region.

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