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 replied.
Someone asked about Palestinian political reform.
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 Israeli withdrawal.”
“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 Palestinianfallback 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 operation.”
I asked to read the report. “No, no, it’s security!” he said.
“Could you give us more details then?”
“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 took part.”
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 to Israel.”
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 allies….”
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 benignly.
“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 insisted.
“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 was weak.
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 way through.
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 peace.”
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 respondents.
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 past.”
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 500.
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.”