What Next for Israel?

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Medics lift a body bag into an ambulance following suicide attacks in Tel Aviv

So what do the Israelis do next? Forced to fashion a tough response to two terror attacks in two days that left nine Israelis dead, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has few good options on the table. Indeed, the arrest of 21 male relatives of Wednesday's Tel Aviv suicide bombers in order to exile them from the West Bank signaled Israel's despair — the move, yet to be legally approved by Israel's attorney general, would formalize the principle of collective punishment, and it raised alarm among Israeli human rights groups. But the fact that even dovish foreign minister Shimon Peres appeared to support the principle of exiling the families of bombers revealed the dearth of new ideas on how to deal with the relentless terror onslaught.

Three months ago, Wednesday's Tel Aviv suicide bombing and Tuesday's ambush of a busload of settlers at the Immanuel settlement might have triggered an invasion of Palestinian cities and air strikes on Palestinian Authority security installations. But the seven major Palestinian cities on the West Bank, whence the culprits in the latest attacks are likely to have come, have been under the control of the Israeli Defense Force for the past three weeks, with residents — and PA security personnel — subject to almost constant curfew. Israeli spokesmen once again blamed the new outrages on the Palestinian Authority, and the Palestinian Authority issued its now standard denunciation of attacks on Israeli civilians. But the Israeli public knows that the PA is no longer the relevant security authority in hotbeds of militancy such as Nablus, Tulkarm, Bethlehem, Ramallah and Jenin. The reoccupation of Palestinian cities that started three weeks ago with "Operation Determined Path" signaled that Israel had taken the security situation on the West Bank into its own hands for the immediate future.

As Israeli forces hunted the perpetrators of the Immanuel attack, who escaped after disguising themselves in Israeli uniforms to launch a deadly ambush, Defense Minister Benjamin Ben Eliezer announced the suspension of measures planned to ease the suffering of the impoverished residents of the reoccupied sections of the West Bank. But maintaining the iron grip may ultimately prove to be self-defeating: Israel had planned to ease the burden of its reoccupation of West Bank towns out of recognition that the rage and despair fueled by its stranglehold over Palestinian daily life fuels sustains, rather than discourages terrorism. An Israeli officer in Nablus last week told Haaretz that the reason it was necessary to ease the siege of the Palestinian city was that "We don't want suicide bombing to become the residents' only source of income" — reference to cash payments from Iraq and Saudi Arabia to the families of Palestinian "martyrs."

But the moves under discussion in Sharon's cabinet were geared towards easing the burden of the current reoccupation, rather than ending it. Israeli commentator Aluf Benn summarized Sharon's plan as holding out for the "unconditional surrender" of the Palestinians: "In messages to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and his friends in the Mideast Quartet, Sharon demanded that the Palestinians lay down their arms and their leader be removed as conditions for any diplomatic progress," writes Benn. "He made it clear that the Israel Defense Forces will remain in the territories for a long time, and asked that the international community take care of aiding their inhabitants." Thus, while Sharon is content for Powell and the Quartet to discuss reforming the Palestinian Authority and providing humanitarian aid to ordinary Palestinians — and even for foreign minister Shimon Peres to hold similarly limited discussions with PA representatives other than Arafat — he has no plans for renewed political dialogue with the Palestinians, at least as long as Arafat is their leader.

Before the latest attacks, Sharon and his ministers had discussed a scheme under which Israel would ease restrictions on Palestinians living in Gaza and Jericho (the most politically tranquil West Bank city, which has thus far avoided the reoccupation seen in other West Bank population centers), in exchange for the PA — under U.S. coaching — being allowed to resume its security functions and arresting militants.

Sharon's Labor Party coalition partners would like to take that plan a step further, making Gaza and Jericho a pilot project for Palestinian statehood (in the same way as they served as the test-bed for the establishment of the PA under the Oslo Accords). But that would require the evacuation of Israeli settlements in Gaza, a step Sharon has refused to even consider. The latest attacks, however, appear to have frozen even the most meager version of the Gaza-and-Jericho first formula.

Maintaining their grip on West Bank cities interferes with Israel's own efforts to stabilize the current reoccupation, experience has shown that it's unlikely to deter further Palestinian terror attacks. But the Israelis believe that loosening their grip would simply encourage future attacks. No such dilemmas face the militants of Hamas and Islamic Jihad (the two organizations responsible for the latest attacks), and even the Al Aksa Martyr's Brigade linked with Arafat's own Fatah organization. They're out to demonstrate their continued ability to kill Israelis despite the IDF's presence in the West Bank cities and signal their rejection of any new diplomatic efforts.

Among many Israelis, the latest round of attacks has affirmed the belief that any relief from terror attacks achieved by reoccupying Palestinian cities is, at best, only temporary. But most of those same Israelis believe their government has no alternative to the occupations. Before Tuesday, Israel had gone 26 days without an attack on its civilian population — almost a record. Their limited options for transforming the situation, however, leave few Israelis expecting the record for days of calm — for Israelis if not for Palestinians — to be broken any time soon.