As Arafat declines and Israel's
grip tightens, the Middle East sinks into hopelessness.
After not having seen Yasser Arafat for seven years, I was scheduled
to meet with him twice this summer. But on June 25, Ariel Sharon's
military moved into Ramallah again, surrounding Arafat's compound
with a ring of tanks and imposing a total curfew on the city.
With Ramallah closed even to its own residents, I was compelled
to cancel the second session with Arafat.
Getting to the earlier meeting,
on May 18, had proved relatively easy. Not this time the crazed,
late-night car-chases and the multi-hour waits in ill-lit offices
that were the hallmark of such audiences back in 1970s Beirut.
This time, "a six-thirty appointment," we were told. Eight of
us attended the meeting, all international scholars participating
in a conference at Bir Zeit University, the Palestinians' premier
institution of higher learning. We climbed into cars at six in
the evening and drove calmly across Ramallah to Arafat's compound.
Just ten days earlier, the Israeli tanks had lifted the longest
(and until then, most damaging) of the sieges they had imposed
on Arafat's headquarters intermittently since late March. The
compound was still a mess. Wrecked SUVs were heaped near the entrance,
and the rubble of destroyed buildings had been only partially
bulldozed aside. Heavy sandbags still blocked the lobby of the
one remaining building.
We were ushered in rapidly and
led between the sandbags and up stairs still grimy from the siege.
We sat briefly in a small windowless office, where Palestinian
Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabboo discussed the poor hygienic
conditions under which the building's occupants had lived for
weeks. At exactly six-thirty, we were led to a larger, bare-walled
room and greeted at the door by a neatly uniformed Arafat.
The Palestinians' historic leader
seemed fragile and tired as we edged our way round the table that
occupied most of the room. He had lost some weight, along with
a great deal of the mental agility that I had observed on a number
of previous encounters (though not all of them). He still seemed,
on occasion, to enjoy the thrust and parry of a feisty exchange,
and even tried his standard, stage-managed maneuver of waving
around a piece of paper with unshared contents that allegedly
"proved" the point he was trying to make. (Neville Chamberlain
comes to mind. Perhaps not incongruously.)
But at other times during our thirty-minute
meeting, the Palestinian leader's once-renowned memory seemed
to flag and his attention wandered. Three of his currently favored
advisers were sitting around him. One of them, spokesman Saeb
Eraqat, jumped into the conversation frequently, often talking
"on behalf of," or over, or even in direct contra-diction to "the
President." It was an extraordinary performance, a display of
lèse-majesté unthinkable until recently in Arafat's
tightly-controlled inner circle. Watching Eraqat's behavior gave
more credence to rumors about the "sharks"—in particular,
the heads of the various security organizations created by Arafat
over the years—already circling the waters around a leader
with only a tenuous grasp left on political life.
What we did not get from Arafat
was any sense of an effectual national leader articulating a convincing
strategy for his much-beleaguered people. Instead we heard the
usual litany of angry accusations against the Israelis and a plea—aimed
mainly at the Americans—for "quick, strong, international
pressure." Arafat insisted that "nothing ever happened without
pressure!" and recalled the demand that President Eisenhower had
made to the Israelis back in 1956, that they withdraw "within
the next eight hours" from areas they seemed to be trying to hang
onto in Sinai and Gaza. "And that time, they withdrew within half
an hour," he said. Then, with the nostalgia that perhaps comes
too easily to him in his seventy-third year, he made a point of
mentioning his own role in the Suez episode. As a de-mining officer
in the Egyptian Army's engineering corps, he had been, he told
us proudly, the first Egyptian officer to enter the Suez Canal
city of Port Said after Israel's withdrawal…
Someone from our group brought
him back to the present, asking what his fallback position would
be in the event that the Americans failed to bring similar pressure
to bear on the Israelis this time around.
He did not answer the question.
Instead, he warned that, "Unless we have a quick solution, then
we'll see all the Middle East in a very serious situation." He
mentioned the sizeable pro-Palestinian demonstrations that had
taken place in a number of Middle Eastern countries over preceding
weeks. But neither he nor his advisers presented any plan that
might translate those expressions of pro-Palestinian sentiment
into politically consequential action.
"What can the Arab governments
do to help the Palestinians more?" one questioner asked.
"War is out. Oil is out," Eraqat
Someone asked about Palestinian
This time, Eraqat remembered to
preface his remarks by noting that he was speaking "on behalf
of" Arafat. "Reform for us is nation-building," he said. "Occupation,
however, is nation-destroying. Anyone from Europe or America who
calls for Palestinian reform while supporting the Israeli occupation—we
don't accept! Palestinian reform must be on a parallel track with
"We don't even have a working administration!"
he exclaimed. "The Israelis can come and go as they want. How
can they speak to us of reform?"
One of our group asked again what
the Palestinian fallback position would be if the Americans failed
to respond to Arafat's demand that they become constructively
involved in peacemaking. The President looked up from the papers
he was thumbing through, and referred to some large, recent pro-Palestinian
demonstrations in Turkey.
I reminded him that our question
was about the Palestinian fallback position.
"I'm not working alone! I'm working
with the Europeans, the Arabs, the Christians, the non-aligned!"
He changed tack, and asked us with
a grin if we knew who the first suicide bomber in history had
been. I imagine we all looked fairly blank. "Samson!" he exclaimed.
"The first suicide bomber ever—and he was Jewish!"
"We have to follow this great example
given by one of the Prophets," he intoned in mock piety.
Eraqat seemed a little embarrassed
at this point. He jumped in to make the more general argument
that the rhetoric of anti-terrorism is not applicable to the Palestinians'
struggle against Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
Then came the paper-play. Arafat
triumphantly produced a piece of paper with about six lines of
writing on it from the stack in front of him. "See! Here is the
report!" he announced. "Yesterday I stopped a very serious suicide
I asked to read the report. "No,
no, it's security!" he said.
"Could you give us more details
"No. But it was a very serious
attempt." He switched his tack again. "Yesterday, the Israeli
forces entered Jenin. Do you think people wouldn't defend themselves
there? We don't give orders. But whenever there are incursions
or operations against us, there will be resistance."
One member of our group, Eric Rouleau,
had served as Middle East correspondent for Le Monde, and
later, as French Ambassador to Turkey and Tunisia. He asked Arafat
about the status of the Palestinians' organized military operations.
"I refuse to answer," was the reply.
Eraqat noted that the President
always condemned all suicide operations, and also all anti-Jewish
attacks and threats in Europe.
Arafat switched back into blame-Israel
mode. "Two years ago, I tried to shake hands with Sharon, during
the negotiations at Wye River. He refused. He was the only one
to refuse! Even back in 1982 in Beirut, Philip Habib, the American
negotiator, recognized the right of the Lebanese and Palestinians
in West Beirut to defend ourselves."
Someone asked about the Palestinians'
expectations from the Europeans. Arafat said, "Europe is completely
involved in what's going on….From the beginning, we insisted
on their involvement. Here, in this very room, the siege around
my headquarters, and the other one in the Church of the Nativity
in Bethlehem: both these crises were resolved by negotiations
we held right here, in which both the Americans and the British
As we had learned already at the
Bir Zeit conference, the details of both of those agreements had
come under heavy Palestinian criticism. In particular, the agreement
Arafat made in order to lift the siege in Bethlehem required that
thirteen men inside the church who were highest on Israel's "wanted"
list be sent out of Palestine completely. For Palestinians, any
instance of expulsion from the homeland immediately arouses deep
fears that large-scale deportations may not be far behind. (These
fears are not irrational. Former and current members of Ariel
Sharon's cabinet have been outspoken advocates of "transfer"—the
Israeli euphemism for this form of ethnic cleansing.) As to the
thirteen men from Bethlehem: after complex negotiations they ended
up being sent to Cyprus for the time being, in advance of delivery
to unspecified European destinations.
"I sent the thirteen to Europe
on scholarships," Arafat told us proudly. "On the condition that
they would not be subject to any prosecutions or to extradition
Someone asked about his expectations
from the recently-announced "quartet'' of powers—comprising
the United States, United Nations, European Union, and Russia—that
was supposed to sponsor a big Palestinian-Israeli peace conference
sometime in late summer.
"There is no doubt the quartet
is headed by the Americans. But the Americans insisted on the
involvement of the others. Sometimes they prefer to work through
One of his aides conjectured that
the Americans act this way, "because they prefer not to send their
own people to die in peacekeeping operations."
"No, no!" Arafat countered. "The
Americans want the involvement of the others."
Rouleau joked that because the
aide had spoken out of line, he would probably "have to pay a
price to Arafat, later."
The aide shot back, "No! It was
Abu Ammar [Arafat] who contradicted me. He'll have to pay
a price to me later."
The President smiled, apparently
"Is it possible that the promised
international conference might not take place after all?" Rouleau
asked, suggesting an outcome that already, then, seemed fairly
likely and seems all the more so today.
"No. It will take place!" Arafat
"But maybe it will only discuss
reconstruction and economic matters?"
"There will be a donors'-conference
part of it, certainly," said Arafat. "There has to be, because
all our infrastructure was destroyed…. But the main item
at the conference will be political."
Our time was up. We navigated our
way to the door and down the stairs to the sandbagged lobby. Arafat
graciously came down to bid us farewell as we left the building.
His hands were meticulously manicured, as always, but his grip
Prime Minister Sharon has been
extraordinarily successful in persuading President George W. Bush
and many members of the American policy elite that the conflict
in Israel/Palestine is primarily about Yasser Arafat. "Peace requires
a new and different Palestinian leadership, so that a Palestinian
state can be born," Bush declared in his pivotal speech of June
24. And he made clear that he would not throw his administration's
weight behind any new Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy until this
new leadership has been elected.
For his part, Arafat has seemed
quite happy to have Bush and the administration view the conflict
in these terms. Perhaps this is yet another manifestation of his
personal vanity: throughout his thirty-three years at the helm
of his people's national movement, he has often conflated his
own personal standing with that of the Palestinian people. Bush's
speech elicited a perplexing performance from Arafat: to the horror
of nearly all other Palestinians, he lost little time in welcoming
the speech. He seemed willfully to be misapprehending the seriousness
of Bush's determination to oust him from power. He expressed support
for Bush's call for Palestinian elections and tried hard to project
confidence that these elections would mirror the January 1996
vote—also held under American sponsorship—in which
he had won an effortless victory. (Over the past twenty-eight
years, Arafat has tied his political standing so closely to the
goal of close collaboration with Washington that it may be nearly
impossible for him to admit, at this late stage, that an American
President actually wants to overthrow him. Then again, perhaps
he finds all this personal attention perversely flattering.)
Sharon also wants to keep the focus
on Arafat. He may well be betting that as long as Bush believes
that Arafat is the issue, and as long as Arafat stays alive and
in nominal "control" in Ramallah, the Americans will agree with
the majority of Jewish Israelis who believe that there is currently
no "partner for peace" on the Palestinian side and therefore there
can be no diplomatic advance. Thus, the cycle of Israeli-Palestinian
violence will continue or perhaps escalate. And thus, cynically
hiding behind the "cover" provided by this violence, Sharon and
those members of his coalition who have long been dedicated to
large-scale Israeli colonization of the West Bank can continue
this project free from American interference.
As for the majority of the 2.2
million Palestinian people who live in the Israeli-occupied West
Bank, what has been notable over recent weeks has been their unwillingness—even
as Israeli tanks have repeatedly encircled and damaged Arafat's
compound—to mount any physical or even rhetorical defense
of their leader. (Not for Arafat the resounding, street-level
support won in late spring by Venezuela's embattled Hugo Chavez.)
The deadly threat of the Israeli
tanks surrounding Arafat's compound may partially explain the
reluctance of West Bankers to defend him. But the West Bankers
have also now grimly turned their backs on Arafat. They seem sullen,
battered, and effectively leaderless, although they are as determined
as ever to hang on to the dream of dignity and eventual independence.
(In Gaza, the other Palestinian area occupied by Israel since
1967, the siege conditions—though terrible—are not
currently as extreme as those in the West Bank. The Gazans have
recently engaged in a number of street demonstrations—some
for Arafat and some that criticized him alongside the Israelis.)
The game of Go
By June, the steep hills around
Hizma, in the West Bank, were scorched dry. The few wisps of this
year's spring grass had been bleached by the sheer heat of the
massive blonde rocks. On a hilltop to the east of the village,
the members of our Quaker fact-finding team noticed a yellow sign
that read "Almon." But the cluster of settlement houses that bears
the name "Almon" was nowhere in sight. "True, the settlement's
houses are a few kilometers away," explained Israeli anti-settlement
activist Michael Warschawski. "But now, for planning purposes,
the perimeter of the settlement has been extended up to here.
As you can see, the sign is telling Palestinians in the village
right beneath it that all the land between them and the houses
of Almon now belongs to Almon."
On another hill, he stopped our
bus at an isolated gas station staffed by a single, bored guard
cradling a chunky machine pistol. "Okay, here we are at what's
called the Psagot gas station," Warschawski said. "Of course,
despite the name, we are quite far from the settlement of Psagot,
which is over that crest. Then, if you look down the hill from
here, you'll see the layout for a future industrial park. So now
we have a Jewish-Israeli axis of control that—to protect
these facilities—will require a road leading to the next
settlement. And voilà. You see how they've diced through
the Palestinian land once again—and this time without even
putting in a single additional settler! It's like the Japanese
game of Go. The aim is to cut off and encircle the other side.
And so far, the settlement project is winning hands down."
Once upon a time, the West Bank's
Jewish settlements were isolated clusters of houses on hilltops,
fenced closely around to protect them from their Palestinian-dominated
environs. Then, in the 1993 Oslo agreement, Israel won Arafat's
agreement to link the settlements to each other with new roads
that bypassed Palestinian cities and villages. Underwritten by
special "peace aid" from American taxpayers, this new road system
was carved into the West Bank's hills and valleys throughout the
rest of the 1990s. During the past few months, it is the Palestinian
cities and villages that have been thoroughly fenced in.
A few days before the Israel Defense
Forces' major, late-June assault on downtown Hebron, I drove with
the Quaker group along the new "settler" road from Jerusalem to
the settlement of Kiryat Arba, just outside Hebron. Every single
access road along the way that led to a Palestinian village had
been blocked with double, six-feet-high earth barricades. At some
intersections, able-bodied village residents were scrambling over
the dirt mounds, on their way to business in other places, or
to work in their fields. And the elderly, sick, or disabled? No
Hebron itself, an ancient city
with an overwhelmingly Palestinian population, was completely
circled with concrete barricades, dirt walls, and fences. It was
accessible only by driving through Kiryat Arba. (Our bus
driver that day was a Palestinian from Jerusalem with nerves of
steel. Twice, the guards turned the bus back from the gates of
Kiryat Arba, citing the driver's ethnicity as the sole justification.
The third time, they let the bus through after the driver pleaded
that two of the passengers were Jews, "who surely deserve the
right to pray inside Hebron?")
Downtown Hebron was a nightmare
of Palestinian ghettoization. Back in the early years of Israel's
occupation of the city, a handful of die-hard Jewish settlers
moved into the downtown area. Their numbers—and the number
of houses they occupied—grew over the years. Under some
complicated sub-agreements subsequent to Oslo, Hebron became the
only West Bank city apart from East Jerusalem that was not turned
wholly over to Palestinian control. In Jerusalem, the Palestinians
got nothing. In Hebron, the municipal area was divied into zones
H-1 and H-2. The latter, the area containing most of the settlers—as
well as the city's central Palestinian market and the much-contested
place of worship said to contain the tombs of Abraham and other
patriarchs—remained under direct IDF control.
Inside H-2, we saw only ultra-orthodox
Jewish civilians on the nearly empty streets, guarded by large
numbers of Israeli soldiers and by other settlers toting automatic
rifles. Numerous Jewish homes and religious schools had been recently
constructed atop the one- or two-story (Palestinian-owned) stores
in the market. Nearly all the stores were shuttered closed: triumphant
stars of David and Hebrew slogans had been spray-painted on some
of them. By one closed-down store, a group of soldiers engaged
in the desultory interrogation of a young Palestinian man. They
had him up against the shutters, and forced his legs apart with
sharp kicks even though many in our group were taking photos.
The law of the 19-year-old
O.M. is an experienced administrator
of international development projects who does contract work monitoring
U.S. government grants to Palestinian non-governmental organizations
(NGOs). The headquarters of three Ramallah NGOs she has been working
with—the Palestinian Youth Council, the Palestinian Federation
of Industries, and the General Union of Disabled Palestinians—were
thoroughly and systematically trashed by IDF soldiers in April,
during Israel's three-week reoccupation of the city. "The offices
of all three organizations were broken into," she told us. "The
furniture was deliberately destroyed. The hard drives were taken
out of the computers. Computer screens were broken. Papers had
been put into piles and burned….At the Disabled Union, they
had destroyed every wheelchair they could find. It was vicious
destruction. At the Palestinian Ministry of Culture, they left
signs of defecation and urination everywhere….From the point
of view of the Palestinians, it was like a barbarian horde coming
in. Up until recently, there was at least an assumption of some
standards from the Israelis. But now, something has been lost.
On a human level, something is breaking. It's a kind of tribal
bloodlust we're on the brink of. On both sides."
Her spouse, also an aid administrator,
described how the organization he worked with had been forced
to set aside most of its long-term development projects in order
to concentrate on delivering emergency relief aid to besieged
Palestinian communities. He and the other relief-aid people we
talked with described a Kafkaesque system in which shipments of
emergency aid have to be endlessly negotiated according to the
ever-changing regulations imposed by the Israelis, all goods have
to be hand-hauled from one convoy of trucks to another at checkpoints,
and drivers are often unable to coordinate their time of arrival
because of failed communications. Frequently, aid-convoy drivers
may be prevented from arriving at rendezvous points by arbitrary
curfews, or by the seemingly capricious actions of individual
checkpoint soldiers—who are often young and tend to be either
very fearful or extremely full of machismo. Either way, this administrator
concluded, "It's the law of the 19-year-old out there."
The spokesman passes security
Almost all West Bank Palestinians
have stories about their encounters with Israeli security forces.
Some such stories are less painful to recall than others. Albert
Aghazarian is the Armenian-Palestinian who was spokesman for the
Palestinian negotiating team at Oslo. Talking with us in his beloved
Old City of Jerusalem, he said he had recently flown back from
Europe to Ben Gurion airport after a hush-hush citizen-diplomacy
encounter with some Israelis. On checking in at Rome airport for
the flight to Ben Gurion, he'd been subjected to the usual lengthy
questioning that Israeli security officials impose on Palestinian
passengers on flights into or out of Israel.
"I told the guy, at least look
at me, at least treat me like a person!" Aghazarian recalled with
a snort of laughter. "Then, when he started to do so a little,
I told him, 'Well, friend, I hope you can find a better job!'
He said, 'What do you mean?' I told him, 'Well, this is really
a lousy job for a person, isn't it? I mean, I'd really hate it
if one of my kids ended up in a job like yours. Not to be rude
to you personally, of course. But I'm just telling you, for your
sake, I hope circumstances change and you can find a better job!'"
Costs—and a warning
The IDF's campaigns are taking
a massive toll on the Palestinians, including on what little remains
of the institutions of Arafat's Palestinian Authority and of Palestinian
civil society. But it is also placing a heavy burden on Israel's
society and economy. One afternoon, I rode the high-speed train
from Haifa to Tel Aviv. It glided quietly along beside the Mediterranean,
passing prosperous beach communities. At one stop south of Haifa,
commuters can alight within walking distance of the gleaming new
hub of the country's high-tech software industry.
But Israel's high-tech sector,
like its tourism industry, has been hit hard in recent months.
The current conflict has forced the government to slash welfare
benefits. And in my crowded train car, two-thirds of the passengers
were young people in uniform.
Many in the country's strategic-studies
community warn that the costs of the current state of mobilization
cannot be sustained for very long. And the U.S. Congress—however
much it might want to—cannot simply bail Israel out with
an even bigger aid package. The injection of additional dollars
would only fuel further Israeli inflation, and push the shekel
toward serious devaluation. Israel and the U.S. have been down
that path before, after Sharon's last big military adventure,
in Lebanon in 1982.
The mounting financial burden on
Israel will therefore ultimately push Sharon toward a "definitive
resolution." Most Palestinians view this prospect with dread,
because they expect that any attempt at definitive resolution
is more likely to produce escalation than a "breakthrough for
The worst-case scenario mentioned
most frequently by Palestinians—and by many Israeli leftists—is
an attempt by Sharon and his allies to act on the current talk
in Israel about a large-scale "transfer." On June 20, Sharon reportedly
made an appearance at a conference organized in Jerusalem by the
right-wing Moledet (Homeland) party, held under the slogan "Transfer
Now." Moledet recently purchased billboard space in Tel Aviv to
display its message: "Only transfer will bring peace." Party co-founder
Rehavam Ze'evi was the first Tourism Minister in Sharon's government,
until he was assassinated last October, apparently by an operative
of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. After Ze'evi's
killing, Moledet's new head, Benny Elon, took his seat. He resigned
from it in March, but Sharon then brought Effi Eitam into his
cabinet, the head of the hawkish National Religious party who
also supports "transfer."
Much of the Israeli public also
seems to favor massive Palestinian deportations. A March poll
conducted by Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Center for Strategic
Studies found support for "transfer" among 46 percent of Jewish-Israeli
Naomi Chazan, a member of the left-leaning
Meretz party and a former Hebrew University Africanist, is now
Deputy Speaker of the Knesset. Like many other Israeli leftists
we spoke with, she pointed out that although the polling data
can make Jewish Israelis look very hawkish on security issues,
they seem more accommodating than ever before on key political
aspects of the Palestinian question. For example, support for
a Palestinian state—once a taboo subject in most Israeli
discourse—has now become fairly widespread (though of course,
this answer says nothing about what kind of state these respondents
would favor). A recent poll in Ma'ariv found 52 percent
of respondents expressing support for a formula that would involve
building a high border fence between Israel and the West Bank—with
dismantlement of the Jewish settlements to the east of it.
"Politically," Chazan concluded, "Israelis seem willing to accept
solutions that they wouldn't have thought of accepting in the
Chazan is a smiling, shorthaired
woman of enormous intelligence and moral clarity. "Both sides
have committed unspeakable acts," she said. "I give no reductions
to either side. They use not just violence, but very cruel violence.
Suicide bombers violate human rights at a very basic level. Those
who undertake them against civilians are carrying out crimes against
humanity. But also, to use F-16s or attack helicopters against
civilians, or to cut off food or medicines: these are also gross
violations of human rights. And this violence has important by-products.
You have societal traumas on both sides. People are scared and
jittery and jumpy, and they do things that they would normally
consider unacceptable….Nowadays, the policy on both sides
is emotion-driven, based on a misplaced understanding that there's
a military solution.
"There has been a total breakdown
of trust on both sides," she said. She recalled that she had been
meeting with various PLO figures since the 1980s. "We spent all
that time building up trust—but the last twenty months have
shattered it….This has brought out the absolute worst in
both peoples. Racist and fascist utterances have become commonplace.
In the Knesset—it makes you weep! But also, what
I read on Palestinian web sites is grossly anti-Semitic, not just
anti-Israeli. It's making us all ugly….The number of hate-letters
I get from Jews is unbelievable—all because I'm one of the
leaders of what's left of the left."
She noted that Meretz has started
calling for the establishment of some kind of international mandate
over the West Bank and Gaza. "The situation is desperate now,"
she said. But she warned, "It can get worse."
Sari Nusseibeh, the PLO's chief
representative in Jerusalem, had been receiving hate mail, too.
We saw him four days after he had led an effort to publish a signed
ad in a Palestinian newspaper that called on "those who stand
behind military operations that target civilians in Israel, to
reconsider their policy." The first day it ran, the ad carried
58 signatures. By the time we met with him, it had gathered about
Nusseibeh is an Oxford- and Harvard-trained
philosopher who enjoys playing the role of puckish and independent
thinker, responsible to no constituency and protected only by
Arafat's patronage. When we saw him on June 25, he was once again
standing firmly against the mainstream of Palestinian opinion.
He and Arafat were the only two Palestinians with anything good
to say about Bush's speech of June 24. Indeed, Nusseibeh sounded
genuinely intrigued by the speech (though some of his optimistic
interpretations seemed ill-supported by the text). "Here it says,
'The occupation that started in 1967 must end.' Well, clearly,
that means the occupation of all the territories. Yes,
and here Bush calls for a new and different leadership. Well,
Yasser Arafat understands that he would run in the elections and
win them. So then, he'd be a 'new and different leader,' wouldn't
he?" And later, "What I read into the Bush speech, although of
course it was not said directly, was that what he wants is a new
leadership in Israel."
I asked how he felt about Bush's
stipulation that the Palestinians should undertake deep internal
reform before they can reach any independent status at all. "It
would certainly be something new," he admitted with a smile, "attempting
to win national liberation through reform."
Later, he became more serious.
Someone asked whether, historically, the Israeli Labor party had
been better on settlements than Sharon's Likud.
"No, not necessarily better, historically,
but— Look, if the time comes when there are problems with
having so many settlers who don't want to move, I don't mind saying
we don't want our own separate state. At any time when it's impossible
for us to have a state, I would ask to become an Israeli and have
equal political rights inside Israel….If the
settlers want to stay, then I'm in favor of a one-state solution.
But if there's a two-state solution, then the settlers should
all go, in return for the Palestinian refugees giving up their
right of return to Israel. I've spoken about all this already.
It was quite controversial, as you recall….They have to
make up their minds! They have to give us our rights either individually,
inside the Israeli system, or collectively, in a Palestinian state….
"The Israelis think they can break
the will of the Palestinians. But always in the end they conclude
that they can't, and that they have to return to politics. In
the meantime, I suppose they feel they have to flex their muscles…."
A Palestinian Knesset member
Sometimes the Arab-Israeli arena
seems awash in philosophers. In Damascus, two weeks earlier, we
had engaged in some revealing discussions with a Baath party theoretician
whose business card describes him as a "Professor of Epistemology
and Socio-Politics." In Israel, the political philosopher Yael
Tamir was Minister of Immigration in Ehud Barak's government.
And then there's Azmi Bishara, one of the 18 percent of Israelis
who are indigenous Palestinian Arabs. Bishara chaired the philosophy
department at Bir Zeit University for many years. But now he,
like Tamir, is a Member of Israel's Knesset.
Bishara made quite clear in our
meeting that his current field of action is in Israeli politics,
rather than in the tangled Palestinian politics of the occupied
territories. "The Palestinian leadership has no unified and coherent
strategy," he said. "This leaves the field open to the other actors:
to the U.S. leadership, to Sharon, and to the suicide bombers….If
they had a strategy, however, I think the situation would be ripe
for resolution. The Israeli public is tired of this conflict.
They only support Sharon because there is no alternative to him.
And on substantive political issues there's been a move toward
the dovish side—on a Palestinian state, and on settlements.
"Israel's public mood, its public
culture, has shifted to the right. Toward outright racism. But
the political positions have gone to the left.
"You know, there's a Palestinian
claim out there that the suicide bombers 'broke the security theory
of Ariel Sharon.' That may be true. But who said this is a
theoretical debate? Politically, this tactic has backfired….It's
the same story throughout Palestinian-Israeli history: killing
civilians unites Israeli society, killing soldiers splits it.
In the latter case, people blame the government, since soldiers
represent policies. But civilians—they represent society."
Fears and prospects
Bishara is right that there is
currently no evident alternative to Sharon as Israel's leader.
The past three years have ruined the country's once-powerful Labor
party. After my last major research trip to Israel in 1998, I
wrote that Labor might never gain power again. I was wrong. Disaffection
with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was so widespread that
in the elections of May 1999, a Labor party reinvented under the
title "One Israel," and led by whiz-kid former Chief of Staff
Ehud Barak, swept into power.
But while Barak knew how to run
an army, he quickly showed that he knew nothing about the art
of running an Israeli governing coalition—and equally little
about diplomacy. Almost from the day of his inauguration, his
coalition started to weaken. Meanwhile, he dragged his feet fatally
in peacemaking. In July 2000, Barak seemed to win a tactical victory
when—after the failure of make-or-break talks with Arafat
at Camp David—he persuaded President Clinton to blame Arafat
for the breakdown. But that victory proved Pyrrhic. Barak's governing
coalition collapsed soon after that and he was forced to call
elections for the following February.
By then, a new and more violent
Palestinian intifada had erupted. With Barak having achieved nothing
in peace diplomacy, Jewish-Israeli voters plagued by new insecurities,
and Palestinian-Israeli voters abstaining because of their disenchantment
with Barak, a newly-rehabilitated Sharon romped home in the polls.
Sharon was able, moreover, to co-opt the remnants of the Labor
party into his government. Two veteran Labor leaders—Shimon
Peres and Binyamin Ben-Eliezer—took up crucial cabinet positions.
So until now, Labor has presented no viable alternative to Sharon's
policies. Nor has any other alternative emerged. One of the saddest
features of the present situation is the massive disappointment
on all sides about the Oslo process. Sharon, who always opposed
Oslo, has now completely killed it (with near-total backing from
President Bush). It is terrifyingly uncertain what comes next.
On the day I left Jerusalem, I
talked with an old friend, someone so well-connected with successive
generations of Israeli military leaders from before 1948 that
he serves as the virtual "institutional memory" of the IDF general
staff. He remains in close contact with the IDF—including
with the reports of internal army censors, based on their reading
of conscripts' mail. "The government needs to start worrying right
now because there's a complete power vacuum on the Palestinian
side," he told me. "And on our side, the soldiers are very angry
because of the suicide bombings. They are starting to lose restraint.
This generation is different from earlier generations of Israeli
soldiers: many are from the Russian republics. What's good from
Israel's viewpoint is that there's a strong national consensus
regarding this conflict. But the lack of restraint is worrying."—July
in the Summer 2002 issue of Boston
Helena Cobban is global affairs columnist for The Christian
Science Monitor and Al-Hayat (London), and a member
of the Middle East advisory committee of Human Rights Watch.