Sharansky has arrived in New York fresh from the funerals of some of the young Russian immigrants blown to bits by a suicide bomber in Tel Aviv two weeks ago. The celebrated former Soviet dissident, by virtue of leading Israel's largest Russian immigrant party, has become something of a political kingmaker in the Jewish State and now serves as housing minister in the cabinet of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. And, he says, that cabinet was on the brink of launching an all-out war on Yasser Arafat's security forces last weekend, when foreign intervention persuaded them to hold off.
"The feeling at the cabinet meeting was that we should go to war, that there is no sense in sending Arafat another message by sending a helicopter to kill one of these terrorists," Sharansky says. "There is a whole empire of terrorists who are competing between themselves to succeed, and Arafat is simply … coordinating it, giving them the fuel, giving them people, giving the means. Remember, for every terrorist operation which has succeeded, there have been dozens, dozens which have which failed or were stopped by our people. So there is no sense to send one more message. We have to start a war to destroy all this infrastructure and to kill all those who are sending terrorists.
"And then we didn't do it."
European intervention had strong-armed Arafat, under threat of withdrawing his funding, into declaring a cease-fire. And Sharon was persuaded to give it time to take effect. Sharansky is skeptical, and he insists Israel will not tolerate the distinction made by some militants on the Palestinian side between halting attacks inside Israel while continuing them in the West Bank and Gaza.
"Whether this cease-fire will keep or not, I don't know. But I do know that Israel cannot live like this. (If the cease fire fails) we'll have to fight fight not by sending more signals, killing one more terrorist, but by going after all this infrastructure of terror."
But what exactly will Israel do? After all, Hamas and Islamic Jihad plan terror attacks in tiny groups based in the civilian population. They have no formal address, and can't be targeted by F-16s. How will "going to war" make Israel safe from terror attacks?
"Look, they have 30,000 people with weapons that we gave them. If we decide that these people are out of law and we have to go after everybody and every place and every police station, we can do it, and we can do it very quickly. We understand that this is something you cannot do and then return to some kind of Oslo type of process. But there is also no way for us to continue this when six million Israelis are being blackmailed."
Nonetheless, Israel is still essentially demanding that the Palestinian Authority defend the Jewish State from Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The PA has been targeted in retaliation for terror strikes precisely because it released prisoners from those organizations when the intifada began. And Sharon is making the cease-fire conditional on Arafat re-arresting them.
That's not a conundrum Sharansky wants to deal with. He reiterates the nightmare Israelis are living. "War is the last resort, but we came exactly to that stage," he says. "We are demanding that the Palestinian Authority arrest all those people whom they now released who are organizing these things against us. That they stop the terror. If it will not be stopped, it will be very difficult for us not to go to a full-fledged war."
The Israelis feel the present situation can't continue, but they have few strategic alternatives. Destroying the Palestinian Authority will not diminish the threat from Hamas or make Palestinians more pliant. If anything, it could create a power vacuum in which local warlords would assume power and there would be an upsurge in violence with fewer mechanisms of control.
Sharansky is undeterred. "That maintains the legend of Arafat-the-dictator as our best hope. We have to blame ourselves for this illusion, and for helping him to play this role. (Sharansky points out that 25 percent of the revenues Israel pays to the Palestinian Authority, currently suspended, are directed into an account under Arafat's personal control.) I believe that our main mistake was made in 1993, when there was an illusion that if Arafat was given enough assets, he would start using them for the benefit of his people. And that's how he would become our partner he could hate us, we could hate him, but we can work together. And the stronger he would be as a dictator, the better for us. Rabin said the famous phrase that it's good for us that Arafat doesn't have a supreme court, freedom, human rights organizations and a free press, because that means he can take care of the terrorists from Hamas."
Sharansky insists peace with the Palestinians depends, ultimately, on democratizing Palestinian politics. But as he admits, Israel, if anything, has helped shore up the current structure of the Palestinian Authority in the belief that it's the key to peace. "I believe the future of whether peace will be reliable or not depends not on our relations with Arafat, but on Arafat's relations with the Palestinian people."
The former Soviet dissident holds out for a profoundly different Palestinian political order. "I hear people saying the Palestinian people have a different mentality, not suited to democracy," he says. "But that was what was said about the Russians. People don't like to live under the constant situation of dictatorships. But when the people have different choices and opportunities to be involved in successful economic and other activities and Arafat becomes the one who stands in their way, it would change quickly. The Palestinians deserve democracy no less than Russians, Americans and Jews."
In the end, though, Israel's position has little to do with democratizing Palestinian politics. The current cease-fire relies on Arafat the strongman going out and arresting all of those Palestinians committed to fighting on against Israel. Failing that, according to Sharansky, the Israelis plan to destroy the power structure of the Palestinian Authority which would be unlikely to be replaced by anything more democratic any time soon. Thus Israel's strategic dilemma. Still, there's going to be no Take 2 of Oslo. "Even if Arafat makes arrests and stops the attacks on us and there is some return to negotiations, I think most Israelis now have lost the illusions we had. We know, now, that a real reliable peace can be reached only after some changes in the structure of Palestinian society."