Jerusalem Blast: What Now For Israel?

  • Share
  • Read Later

Israeli women react at the scene of the suicide bomb attack in Jerusalem

These are desperate times in Israel. Even though Israeli security officials in Jerusalem are on maximum alert — and have foiled a number of suicide bombing attempts in the past week — one terrorist, sent by Islamic Jihad, slipped through. And he managed to kill 17 Israelis and wound 70 more in a packed pizzeria. As news of the latest outrage broke, Palestinian security officials began hurriedly evacuating their premises, knowing that a fearsome Israeli retaliation is all but inevitable. The last vestiges of the cease-fire brokered by CIA chief George Tenet will probably have been laid to rest by dawn on Friday. But Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has no good options for moving forward.

It's expected that Israel will strike at Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority, which has declined to arrest the militant Islamists accused of organizing terror attacks. And Israel will also step up its track-and-kill policy of systematically eliminating those militants. But such tactics have, so far, failed to put an end to Palestinian attacks — and there's little reason to believe they will now. One of the reasons Arafat has failed to act against the Islamists is because of the overwhelming approval of their actions on the Palestinian streets, which together with mounting hostility to Arafat's own administration makes rounding up the militants a risky step. Palestinians, even officials of Arafat's administration, see the latest outrage as a retaliation for Israel's attacks on targeted militants — which Israel sees as retaliation for previous terror strikes and preemptive self-defense against new ones. And so goes the cycle.

Sharon's unappealing options

The international community will, as ever, urge restraint on all sides. They'll press Arafat to act against the militants and will urge Sharon to offer the Palestinians concessions as an incentive for enforcing the cease-fire. But the Israeli leadership is unlikely to be in a mind to hear such advice when its appointment books are filled with funerals. They'll be focused, instead, on exacting revenge and raising the cost of future strikes, adding ever more funerals onto the other side's calendar.

But it is precisely the failure of one-off air strikes and the killing of individual militants to end Palestinian attacks that has many voices in Sharon's cabinet and security forces demanding that Israel go in and destroy the Palestinian Authority altogether, forcing Arafat and his leadership cadre back into exile. That pressure will, no doubt, grow in the coming days, although Sharon has strongly resisted it. As emotionally appealing as such a course might be to an Israeli public whose nerves are frayed by the endless violence, it carries even more serious dangers. Going in to destroy the PA would leave Israel dangerously isolated in the international community, and raise the pressure for retaliation in the surrounding Arab states.

Moreover, taking down the PA would require that Israel resume direct control over areas currently governed by Arafat. And the Israelis would be dealing then with hard-liners favoring a long-term low-intensity war to eject Israel from the West Bank and Gaza. Israel's generals know full well that one of the advantages of Oslo was that it made the occupation easier, by removing their troops from the towns and cities of the West Bank and Gaza where they were far more vulnerable to Palestinian attack. Reoccupying territory ceded to Arafat may prove more of a nightmare than the present bloody stalemate.

The problem with divorce

A second option being touted by some senior Israeli politicians is the idea of "unilateral separation" from the Palestinians, as first suggested by Ehud Barak. That would involve Israel simply putting up a defensible wall and keeping Palestinians out, allowing them to establish a state on whatever piece of territory Israeli deigns cede. Again, an idea that may appeal in abstract, but when it comes down to the nitty gritty of what do about Jerusalem or the settlers dotted throughout Palestinian territory, it starts to look a little implausible. More importantly, the whole purpose of negotiating a final peace deal with the Palestinians had been to settle Palestinian political claims against Israel and create a basis for stable coexistence between two states. A unilateral "divorce" would leave many of those claims unresolved, and create a Palestinian state that served simply as a platform for war against Israel. Indeed, the only Arab leader to have made any gains from the intifada has been Saddam Hussein, who has styled himself the savior of the Palestinians, not least through substantial financial contributions to families of sons "martyred" in the intifada. Islamic Jihad, the Palestinian group who claimed responsibility for Thursday's carnage in Jerusalem, actually termed the blast a "gift" to Saddam. Under those circumstances, unilateral separation without agreements that lock the Palestinian state into various forms of coexistence with Israel could be extremely dangerous.

And so, as Israel prepares to bury 17 more people and hit back, the country's deeper anguish may reside in its utter inability, despite overwhelming military superiority, to put an end to the carnage.