After more than 17 months of virtually non-stop violence, punctuated this week by the largest Israeli military incursion into the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israelis and Palestinians looked hopefully to the arrival of U.S. Middle East envoy Anthony Zinni and Vice President Dick Cheney.
“If Zinni does not come with a plan that will put pressure on [Palestinian President Yasir] Arafat, nothing will be accomplished,” said Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University.
Zinni, who was to arrive Thursday followed by Cheney on Monday, has a mandate to implement the Tenet plan, which reportedly includes an immediate cease-fire, the arrest of Palestinian terrorists, and the stopping of anti-Israel incitement in the Palestinian media. Cheney’s visit, part of a 10-day, 12-nation tour of the region, is designed to highlight the U.S.-led war on terrorism and its re-engagement in the Middle East.
That was exemplified Wednesday when the U.S., for the first time in nearly 20 years, sponsored a Middle East resolution in the United Nations Security Council. The resolution — supported by 14 of 15 council members (Syria abstained calling it ”very weak”) — endorsed for the first time the idea of a Palestinian state and called for both sides to implement an immediate cease-fire and a resumption of negotiations. Israel’s UN ambassador, Yehuda Lancry, called it a “balanced” resolution and an Israeli spokesman in Jerusalem pointed out that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon also favors the creation of a Palestinian state as a result of negotiations with Israel.
The UN action came just hours after its secretary general, Kofi Annan, called on Israel to end its “illegal occupation” of Palestinian land, urged Palestinians to halt acts of terror — calling suicide bombings “morally repugnant” — and appealed to Israel to stop the “bombing of civilian areas, the assassinations, the unnecessary use of lethal force, the demolitions, and the daily humiliation of ordinary Palestinians.”
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, criticized Annan’s claim that Israel was an illegal occupier, saying it is “not the job of the secretary general to make legal determinations.”
He also took exception to Annan’s criticism of Israeli military action, saying Israeli soldiers have lost their lives rather than kill innocent civilians used as shields by Palestinian gunmen. Hoenlein added that the lethal force Israel has used has been only defensive in nature “to protect Israeli citizens when Arafat refuses to confront the terrorist infrastructure.”
Israel’s president, Moshe Katzav, said in an address at Yeshiva University Sunday: “We do not look upon the Palestinian people as our enemy. We are sensitive to the suffering of the Palestinian people.”
But the Israeli daily Haaretz said in an editorial Wednesday that the Israel Defense Forces’ operations since March 1 in the refugee camps and cities of the West Bank and Gaza that killed more than 160 Palestinians “sought to use humiliation as a means of pressure or punishment. There is no other way to understand those photographed scenes of hundreds of people, bound and blindfolded, on their way to interrogations.”
It pointed out that some 2,000 men had been questioned and only a few held as suspected terrorists. This was, said the newspaper, the first time “the IDF caused deliberate suffering and humiliation to the broader Palestinian public. … Actions that harm the population and involve humiliation of civilians sabotage the chances — in any case, minimal — of reaching a cease-fire, and eventually an agreement and reconciliation.”
The Israeli military action in the territories comes against a backdrop of stepped-up Palestinian terrorist attacks this month that have killed some 60 Israelis, including suicide bombings in the West Bank settlement of Ariel and the heart of Jerusalem, and Palestinian gunmen firing on civilians in restaurants and vehicles.
Six Israelis were killed and seven wounded just south of the Lebanese border Tuesday when Palestinian terrorists ambushed their vehicles. Two terrorists and one Israeli soldier were killed in an ensuing firefight. Yardena Abitboul, secretary to the mayor of the neighboring town of Shlomi, said it was the first time in 17 months of violence that Palestinian terrorists had struck in northern Israel. She said children in the town of 5,500 were ordered into school bomb shelters after the noon attack occurred. They remained there until armored buses took them home that evening even while soldiers continued to comb through banana trees and high bushes for other terrorists.
Such attacks have caused a seismic shift to the right in Israeli public opinion polls. Bobby Brown, a former adviser to Israel’s last prime minister, Ehud Barak, said that just two years ago Israelis had “invested in peace. Instead, they got terrorism.”
“Mr. Barak offered so much at Camp David and 90 percent of the Jewish population in Israel felt he offered too much,” said Brown. “Yet had Arafat accepted it, it would have been accepted by the majority of Jews in Israel because you were looking at the end of the [Palestinian] conflict.”
The Oslo Accords, much heralded for mapping out the road to peace when they were signed in 1993 by Arafat and former Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin, are now seen by most Israelis as destructive, Brown said.
“There was a clause in the agreement that allowed Arafat to build a strong police force,” Brown observed. “He didn’t; he built an army … and trained 800 snipers [one of whom shot and killed 10 Israelis two weeks ago]. And the CIA, with Israel’s blessing, gave the Palestinians an intelligence apparatus.
“Had the accords called for a demilitarized [Palestinian] authority, it would have made sense. But the architects of Oslo allowed a highly militarized regime to form on the doorsteps of every town in Israel. … These things are now coming back to haunt us.”
The result of the public’s shift to the right can be seen everywhere.
Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who when the campaign for Labor Party chairman began had only 8 percent of the party vote, defeated the more liberal Avraham Burg with about 52 percent of the vote, Brown noted. And Uzi Landau and others on the extreme right wing of the Likud Party are now “at the height of their popularity.”
Although Sharon won election campaigning on a platform of peace with security, his failure to end the violence has cost him in the polls. Last week, the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot found that 53 percent of Israelis had no confidence in Sharon — a drop of 19 percent since January and 9 percent in the last two weeks alone. And 76 percent said he had failed in his handling of Israel’s security problems.
“People are very unhappy with the political system and are looking for something new,” observed Tel Aviv University President Itamar Rabinovitch, who said that before the next election a new political party might emerge.
Two right-wing ministers, National Infrastructure Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Tourism Minister Benny Elon, quit Sharon’s government this week to protest Sharon’s two controversial decisions — agreeing to cease-fire talks before the fighting stops and ending the virtual house arrest of Arafat. Nevertheless, Sharon’s unity coalition government still has 75 of the 120 seats in the Knesset.
Rabbi Yehuda Gilad, secretary of the Meimad Party, which is part of the government, said Sharon is strong enough politically to withstand that defection. He pointed out that the Labor Party, which is also part of the coalition, has no interest now in pulling out and calling for elections before their scheduled date late next year. And he said polls show that the other major party in the coalition, Shas, would lose votes in a new election and so it too is not anxious for them.
Rabbi Gilad said that should Sharon manage to get a cease-fire that holds, “it would be a big achievement in the eyes of the public … and give him a strong boost in the polls.”
Whenever there are new elections, Sharon is likely to face a Likud primary against former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who last week had the overwhelming support in a poll of party loyalists.
Although Netanyahu said that if elected he would seek to dismantle the Palestinian Authority in the belief that it is a terrorist organization, Palestinians do not believe there would be much difference between Netanyahu and Sharon, according to Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah.
“He would be under the influence of the Americans [who would be against such action],” said Shikaki.
He said he believed the initiative put forward by Saudi Arabia, which calls for the Arab world to make peace with Israel in return for Israel returning to its 1967 borders, was the best alternative for peace if it is embraced at the Arab summit meeting March 27-29 in Beirut.
“If the Americans then embrace it, neither Sharon — and Arafat more than Sharon — will have a choice” but to support it, said Shikaki.
He said he cannot envision Sharon and Arafat ever sitting down to negotiate together and said the Palestinians believe the defection of Lieberman and Elon signal the beginning of the end of Sharon coalition government.
But Gavri Bargil, former executive director of Israel’s Peace Now movement, said he does not see Sharon truly embracing the Saudi initiative. He said Labor’s best chances at the polls are if it can come up with a viable alternative and that the Saudi plan may be just the ticket.
Zalman Shoval, an adviser to Sharon, said Israelis were “not overly hopeful” about Zinni achieving a cease-fire. But he said that should he fail, it would underscore Arafat’s refusal to stop his “strategy of terror.”
“When Arafat stirs the brew, he believes he is making trouble for the U.S. [in its war on terrorism] and that consequently the U.S. will put pressure on Israel,” said Shoval. “I think that will boomerang.”
Should there be a cease-fire, Shoval said the Mitchell Plan would then be implemented, which calls for certain confidence building measures by Israel concerning settlement building.
“If we reach the stage of Mitchell — which may be an illusion — I would suppose the Israeli government could perhaps bring forward different ideas” for interim agreements or stages leading towards a permanent settlement, he said.
“No one has any illusion that at the present time there is an iota of a chance to sign a peace treaty in the foreseeable future,” Shoval stressed. “Therefore, the best we can do is reach practical solutions that will move the peace process forward to assure a continued end to the violence.”