March 5, 2002

Sharon To Saudi Peace Plan: Drop Dead

Last Wednesday I dined with a Washington lawyer who has watched Mideast peace plans come and go for decades. We talked of the new Saudi initiative a trial balloon positing full Arab recognition of Israel at the 1967 borders. It seemed significant because it comes from Saudi Arabia wealthy, guardian of Islam's principal holy places, and historically cool to the idea of a real peace with the Jewish state.

My guest replied that malicious or ill-timed actions always seemed to subvert promising peace initiatives. For the fifty odd years since Israel was founded, whenever an promising peace feeler came from the Arab world, it was soon turned to ashes, often by Israeli military action. He had been reading Avi Shlaim's The Iron Wall, a nuanced revisionist history of Israel's dealing with the Arabs, and it showed the same patterns of failure to nail down a peace agreement once one seemed within grasp repeated themselves again and again.

Last week the stars did seem aligned for something positive to happen. Israel had pulled back its tanks a bit from their positions surrounding Yasser Arafat's compound. The Palestinian Authority had arrested three people for plotting the murder of the extremist Israeli minister Rehavam Ze'evi. And the tit for tat cycle of murder and retaliation had paused on a note of exceptional poignance: last Monday a pregnant Israeli settler was shot by Palestinian guerillas on her way to the hospital to give birth; at almost the same time, Palestinian woman in labor was shot by Israeli soldiers at a West Bank checkpoint. One newborn lost a grandfather, the other a father. But both babies were fine, and their mothers would recover. One could even fantasize about a joint press conference where Tamara Liftschitz and Maysoun al-Hayek presented their babies to the world and vowed that they would do everything possible to work for peace between their peoples.

By the middle of last week, the international papers were buzzing about the Saudi initiative, which laid out the scenario which everyone understands is the only logical way to make peace: an Israeli state side- by-side with a Palestinian one, fully recognized by the Arab world. As Haaretz columnist Zvi Bar'el put it, this was the vision of the full peace and integration into the region Israel had long awaited: full economic and cultural cooperation, "falafel in Damascus and stalls in the international market of Dubai; an Israeli flag in Riyadh; programming engineers in Bahrain and gas from Quatar to Israel." The Palestinians would get their state; the Israelis would get peace. Egypt's president Mubarak was due in Washington this week, an Arab summit where the initiative would be on the agenda was scheduled for later in March. Foreign ministries around the world were abuzz.

How would the government of Israel respond to the Saudi initiative? Last Friday, the world got its answer. For the first time in the seventeen month intifada (which commenced after Sharon marched up to site of the Temple Mount and Islam's Holy Sanctuary in with a column of 1000 armed troops while Muslims praying) Israeli troops invaded the Arab refugee camps Balat and Jenin on the West Bank. As the New York Times dryly reported, Israel did not spell out exactly why it launched the attacks; one colonel said he was ordered to plan the operation only a few days before. Military benefits from the operation were negligible. The Israeli soldiers took few casualties, found little of military interest, left behind thirty Palestinian dead and some 200 wounded.

The Palestinian response was quick and brutal: within forty-eight hours a suicide bomber blew himself and a dozen Israelis up in a religious neighborhood in Jerusalem. In a blink of an eye, the talk of the region turned back from the Saudi peace initiative to the horrific cycle of killing and revenge killing.

It's not yet clear whether Sharon's escalation of the fighting will be enough to smother the Saudi initiative in its cradle. It is clear that was his intent. He is a man who can conceive of no relationship to the Arabs other than their subjection by Israeli military force. He has a long history of it: he makes his first appearance in Shlaim's The Iron Wall as Major Sharon, who in 1953 led an Israeli raiding party into Qibya, a Jordanian village, in response to a fedayeen attack which had killed three Israelis. As the commander of "Unit 101" Sharon had the entire village dynamited with the inhabitants inside their homes. His operation killed sixty-nine civilians, two-thirds of them women and children. Facing a stormy international reaction, Israel lied, denying its military had anything to do with the attack.

In his long engagement at the highest levels of Israeli politics, Sharon has always opposed any concession to Palestinian political rights. He has consistently advocated that the Palestinians be pushed across the river into Jordan an ethnic cleansing strategy. Presumably that is what he seeking with the new military moves against the refugee camps.

Sharon is not popular with the Israeli electorate now; his tough tactics have brought neither peace nor security. Washington still holds many cards; Israel would be hard pressed to oppose a peace initiative that had full fledged American support. Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories is plainly shoving America's own interests into the toilet: we are increasingly hated in the Arab world, seen as the enablers of a brutal and thuggish regime that has no interest in reaching a fair peace. There is much truth to that charge, but it is in George Bush's power to change it.

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