Israel is not America, Arafat is not the Taliban

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"Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad are Al Qaeda — who kill innocent civilian men, women and children," says New York Democratic senator Chuck Shumer. "The PLO and Yasser Arafat are the Taliban — which aids, abets and provides a haven for terrorists. And Israel is like America, simply trying to protect its home front." In other words, Israel should be given the green light to deal with the Palestinian Authority in the same way that the U.S. is currently dealing with the Taliban. Adds Schumer, "To ask Israel to negotiate with Arafat is like asking America to negotiate with Mullah Muhammad Omar."

The spectacle of vicious multiple suicide terror attacks in Israel may evoke memories of September 11 among many Americans, and Ariel Sharon uses the language of President Bush's war on terror to press the point. And Yasser Arafat has certainly done little to impede terrorist groups from flourishing in his domain. Still, Schumer's comparison is still neither helpful to understanding the problem of terrorism in the Middle East nor to solving it.

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Indeed, as Israel's leftist parliamentary opposition leader Yossi Sarid pointed out to right-wingers making the same comparison, "The Americans have not been occupying [Afghanistan] for 30 years. They also haven't built settlements in Afghanistan."

The difference

Unlike Schumer, the remnants of Israel's "peace camp" know that the first step to eradicating Palestinian terror attacks is recognizing that they are a response — however morally abhorrent and politically senseless — to Israel's continued occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Failure to resolve the conflict produces an unlimited supply of young men willing to turn themselves into human bombs, which means any Israeli military successes against terrorism will be temporary. And it's simply delusional to imagine that just removing Arafat and the Palestinian Authority right now will make Hamas, Islamic Jihad and even the Palestinian leader's own increasingly mutinous Fatah organization any more inclined to desist from acts of violence against Israel.

Terrorism, according to Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres, "is the way a people expresses its aspirations through weapons." Speaking last week he said that in order to stop violence, Israel had to offer the Palestinians a "political horizon." Arafat could not rein in militants absent the promise of a political process that would realize Palestinian demands for statehood and an end to the occupation. "If we're talking about a cease-fire," Peres said, "we have to meet the expectations of the other side." In the absence of a peace process that delivers statehood, Arafat has little incentive to tackle the militants who remain an integral part of his Palestinian people.

Not the Taliban

That, of course, is the principle difference between Arafat and the Taliban. U.S. success in quickly uprooting Al Qaeda in Afghanistan appears to have been facilitated by the fact that the terrorist network is not indigenous, and its objectives have nothing to with Afghan interests. Most Afghan fighters appear to have turned on bin Laden's Arabs and Chechens the first chance they got. Hamas and Islamic Jihad, on the other hand, are indigenous and popular — perhaps even more popular than Arafat himself after a year of intifada. This is not only because Arafat has tolerated them, but more importantly because they have managed to channel mounting Palestinian rage at the deteriorating conditions in the West Bank and Gaza. So while the U.S. war on the ground in Afghanistan has been waged primarily by local proxy forces, Israel won't find any Palestinian constituency to take down the militants — not if Arafat fails to do the job.

Unlike the U.S. in Afghanistan, Israel's problem in the West Bank and Gaza is that it is confronting an entire people increasingly united by the experience of occupation. Thus Peres's point that violence won't be eliminated until there are viable peaceful channels for Palestinian to pursue their national aspirations. And right now, those channels don't exist. Indeed, the foreign minister's comments last week were designed precisely to warn of the futility of Sharon's separation of demands for a cease-fire from political negotiations over Palestinian statehood.

Air strikes and tanks can't stop the occasional suicide bomber sneaking through the lines and wreaking mayhem. Israeli observers agree that for a military solution to be effective, it would involve reoccupying most of the West Bank and Gaza, destroying Arafat's administration and cracking down directly on militant activities in Palestinian cities. Some on Sharon's right flank actually favor this option. But these are not people who accept the Bush administration's basic premise that the solution lies in creating two states west of the Jordan. Nobody can seriously imagine that simply rewinding the occupation by a decade is likely to bring peace and security.

International Support

Another key difference between fighting the Taliban and fighting the PA is that America found broad international support, or at least consent, for its efforts in Afghanistan, while the Taliban found themselves entirely isolated. But taking down the PA would leave Israel entirely isolated — if the U.S. were to support such a course, it would likely find a dramatic cooling of Arab support for its own anti-terror campaign.

And while America can easily ignore any chaos in Afghanistan that accompanies destroying the Taliban regime, many Israelis fear that taking down the PA will leave a dangerous vacuum. The U.S. is thousands of miles from Afghanistan, and even if that country devolves into a volatile patchwork of fiefdoms run by warlords — as it could, yet — the only short-term effect on America would likely be a fall in the price of heroin (due to expanded Afghan supplies). But the West Bank and Gaza are inside Israel's belly. The Jewish state maintains a massive military presence and up to 200,000 settlers in those territories, and most Israeli cities are but a commuter bus ride away.

The most troubling element of Schumer's tirade is his claim that "to ask Israel to negotiate with Arafat is like asking America to negotiate with Mullah Muhammad Omar." In other words, the peace process ought to be suspended. But if, as the Israeli peace camp believes, terrorism is a symptom of unresolved political conflicts, then to address that symptom without offering a treatment for its cause simply dooms Israel and the Palestinians to repeat the cycle.

If Israel is not to negotiate with Arafat, then it needs an alternative. A cursory survey of Palestinian public opinion polling confirms that a majority of Arafat's own people approve of suicide bombings and oppose any new cease-fire. If Arafat is removed, the mantle of leadership could well pass precisely to the groups currently waging campaigns of violence. But in the end, no matter who follows Arafat, the issue of the occupation will continue to define and bedevil Israeli-Palestinian relations until it is resolved. And that, as Yossi Sarid notes, is the essential difference between Israel and Afghanistan.