Bush’s Big Choice
February 14, 2001
by Max Singer
The decisive choice President Bush will have to make concerning peace in Israel is whether to acknowledge that the current round of violence that began last September is a Palestinian offensive to weaken Israel and gain Arab support. The Clinton administration, with the acquiescence of the Barak government in Israel, chose to ignore that the violence was the product of a deliberate attack arranged by Arafat. It hoped that speaking “evenhandedly” about “cycles of violence” would preserve the possibility of securing a peace agreement with Arafat.
Because Clinton – and others in the international community – pretended to believe that the violence “erupted” and refused to speak of the Palestinian responsibility, the violence produced political benefits for the Palestinians, and continued. The acceptance of the violent attacks on Israel and Israelis by the government of Israel, and by the international community, raised long dormant hopes all over the Arab and Moslem world that Israel could be defeated – because it didn’t believe in its own cause, lacked international support, and was afraid to take casualties.
Now the U.S. must be concerned about the threat to regional stability produced by the continuing violence and by the raised hopes among Arabs. The pressure on Mubarak and other Arab governments from the emotional reaction of the Arab street cannot be relieved by Israeli concessions. Because yielding to violence will produce more violence. Those who threaten regional stability will be encouraged by Israeli concessions and can only be satisfied by Israel’s destruction. The only way to restore relative quiet to the Arab world is to end the violence in a way that restores the Arab understanding that Israel cannot be destroyed, and that violent attacks on Israel will only harm the Arab cause.
Two considerations will determine when Arafat decides to stop the attacks on Israelis: the political benefit (or loss) he and the Palestinians achieve from the attacks, and the pain they suffer from Israel’s defense and retaliation. If they get more benefit they will be willing to accept more pain. If they are losing politically, much less pain will be enough to make them stop.
The U.S. will probably be forced to make a new decision on this issue fairly soon because Israel’s new government will act to stop the violence. The U.S. can make it either easier or harder for Israel to do this. If the U.S. recognizes that the violence is the result of a Palestinian decision, and supports reasonable Israeli measures to end the violence, then it is likely to be stopped fairly quickly. If the U.S. condemns Israel’s efforts to defend itself, the Palestinians will gain by continuing the violence, and stopping it will take longer and require stronger measures. Of course there will be grounds for objections to any measure that Israel uses against the violence; the question is whether those who object would support other measures.
When Sharon takes office as Prime Minister, which cannot happen much before the end of March, he will refuse to continue negotiations until the Palestinian attacks on Israel stop. He will also take security measures, such as road closings, and other defensive measures to protect Israelis, and begin to enforce the Oslo agreements. He will also take pinpoint military measures against those carrying out and supporting attacks on Israelis. Sharon knows that there is a mountain of resentment against the PLO and the PA among Palestinians. He is likely to try to reduce the harm to ordinary Palestinians from Israeli security measures and to do more to hurt the financial and other interests of Palestinian leaders responsible for the violence, who Barak left alone because he thought it would help negotiations.
When Israel takes the actions necessary to stop the attacks on its citizens, the Arabs will come screaming to the U.S. to stop Israel. They may again “warn” of attacks against American embassies, as they did to prevent a U.S. veto of the UN Resolution condemning Israel for excessive force last fall. President Bush’s decision whether to continue Clinton’s evenhandedness between attacker and defender will determine how long the violence lasts. He can best protect Mubarak and other relatively moderate Arab governments by refusing to do what they ask – condemn Israel. Peace and U.S. interests will be served if the President chooses to speak honestly about the cause of the violence and to support the efforts of a democracy to protect itself against violent attack.
Max Singer is a Senior Fellow and Trustee Emeritus at Hudson Institute. He founded Hudson with Herman Kahn in 1961.