Despite Signs of a Truce, Israel's Dilemma Remains

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Israeli soldiers watch for incoming rocks during clashes in the West Bank

Whether or not the current cease-fire effort succeeds, Israel now faces a fundamental political choice in its relations with the Palestinians. That's because the bloodletting of the past 18 months is increasingly acknowledged as the product of the stalled Oslo peace process, which created an armed Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Gaza, yet failed to deliver the promised peace of a "two-state" solution. Israelis are unanimous that the present standoff is untenable, but they're sharply divided over whether the way out is to complete the political separation into two states, or to forcefully reverse much of what Oslo created.

Those looking for a military victory over the Palestinian uprising got some bad news recently from Martin van Creveld, a world-renowned military historian from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem whose work is routinely studied in U.S. military academies. Writing in Britain's Telegraph, Van Creveld warns that the lessons of comparable situations show that Israel cannot defeat the Palestinians. Israel may have one of the world's strongest conventional fighting forces ranged against an enemy armed only with assault rifles, homemade bombs, mortars and rockets, but that asymmetry is reversed when it comes to political will, he writes. The readiness of Palestinian militants to die in order to inflict pain is mirrored in growing doubts among Israelis over the purpose of putting their own troops in harm's way in the West Bank and Gaza. "Every day Israeli soldiers weep over their dead comrades," says Van Creveld. "Every day the parents of Palestinian suicide bombers proudly display their children's pictures and funerals of dead fighters bring out thousands who scream for revenge." And that, he says, creates a fundamental weakness on the Israeli side, one familiar to the Soviets who fought in Afghanistan and the Americans in Vietnam.

The historian notes that in the Israeli Defense Force morale is fundamentally challenged by the daily moral dilemmas of policing a seething Palestinian population. Hundreds of Israeli reserve officers have responded by refusing to serve in the West Bank and Gaza — the first two such objectors were sentenced to short prison terms on Monday. The following day, the mother of a 20-year-old Israeli paratrooper killed at a base in the West Bank blamed "the occupation" for her son's death. "I have no doubt his death was unnecessary, but I am sure I will have a harder time coping with it if I continue to think it was unnecessary, so I prefer to make things 'pretty' by saying he died while protecting his country," said Malka Tzemach. "But I do not believe that."

Van Creveld believes the IDF is in a no-win situation. Failure to react harshly to Palestinian attacks only encourages more attacks; but reacting harshly to Palestinian attacks also spurs more attacks. And, he warns, the Palestinians have the greater capacity to absorb casualties. "As Israel's own experience in its War of Independence shows, no sacrifice is too great for a people seeking their freedom," Van Creveld writes. "Compared to the 1 per cent of the Jewish population who died in that conflict, Palestinian casualties so far have been minute."

Van Creveld's solution? Get Israel out of the West Bank and Gaza, and build a wall to keep Palestinians out of Israel. That jibes with the thinking of Ariel Sharon's Labor Party coalition partners, who want to negotiate a political separation between Israel and a Palestinian state. But Sharon is caught between that option and the demands of his own political base for a military-political plan to destroy the Palestinian Authority.

Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made Sharon's failure to end the Palestinian uprising the centerpiece of his own campaign for a political comeback. The alternative program he outlined to TIME this week is a far more extensive invasion of PA territory than the one Sharon launched two weeks ago. Its objective would be to drive Arafat back into exile — Netanyahu believes the Palestinian leader can't be trusted to stop terror attacks, let alone conclude a peace deal with Israel — and to take down and disarm not only the various militia and terrorist cells but also the security structures of the PA itself. Once the IDF has cleared all weapons out of the West Bank and Gaza, says Netanyahu, the Israeli forces could withdraw to unspecified "defensible positions" (certainly not the 1967 borders) and wait for the emergence of a Palestinian leadership ready to do a deal with Israel.

Pie-in-the-sky, say Sharon loyalists of Netanyahu's plan. But the problem for the prime minister is that right now his own approval ratings are at an all-time low, and Netanyahu can count on a majority of Likud Party members to make him, rather than Sharon, their candidate in any new election.

Not even a new cease-fire can buy Sharon much respite from Israel's basic dilemma over the West Bank and Gaza. If a truce is concluded, it's simply Step 1 on the path prescribed by the Mitchell and Tenet plans back to negotiating a two-state solution with Arafat. And if it fails, it simply plunges Israelis — and Palestinians — ever deeper into the horrors of a present that cannot hold.