5 October 2003
By Gwynne Dyer
Hanadi Tayseer Jaradat, who walked into Maxim’s restaurant in Haifa on Saturday and blew herself up, killing nineteen other people and injuring fifty, was born and raised in the West Bank city of Jenin and never left Israeli-ruled territory in her life. Nobody can cross the heavily fortified border between Syria and Israel except the United Nations team that has observed the demilitarised zone since 1973. So why did Israel ‘retaliate’ for the atrocity she committed in Haifa by bombing Syria for the first time in thirty years?
Israel’s attack on what Damascus calls a civilian area and Jerusalem calls a Palestinian training camp was a small action militarily, but it is a very big deal. A thirty-year cease-fire has been breached, and a precipice beckons. Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad, less than three years in the job that his father held for thirty, is feeling deeply insecure. He has a hostile Israel to the west and now a large American army to his east in Iraq, but the elders of the Syrian Ba’ath Party will not forgive him if he appears weak. This could end in a war.
Syria would lose the war, of course, and Assad would likely end up dead, so he will do all he can to avoid it. There may be a few worried neo-cons in Washington, watching the slide in President George W. Bush’s ratings and looking around for another plausible war against a ‘terrorist state’ to mobilise public support for next year’s election, who would be willing to take out an option on Syria, but the smart money in that race is on a US attack on Iran. And Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon probably doesn’t want a war with Syria either. It’s just that he has a problem with Israeli public opinion as a result of the latest terrorist attack.
Sharon has always insisted that Yasser Arafat, the president of the Palestinian Authority and for over thirty years the head of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, is behind the bomb attacks that have killed hundreds of Israeli civilians since the peace process broke down three years ago. After the last big bombing last month, Sharon’s government said that it was considering the expulsion or assassination of Arafat. Now there has been another ghastly slaughter, and a lot of Israelis are waiting for him to put his money where his mouth was.
He would love to, other things being equal, but other things are not. The United States, Israel’s only real ally, does not want the violent upheavals that would ensue in the Arab world if the man who has embodied Palestinian aspirations for decades were murdered or driven into exile. Nor does it necessarily serve Israel’s purposes to destroy the only secular authority in the occupied territories and drive Palestinians into the arms of the Islamists who actually do most of the bombing.
On the other hand, it has long been the doctrine of the hard right in Israel that the very idea of a Palestinian identity is a false construct, artificially created by Arafat and the PLO. If that is true, then eliminating the purveyors of this false identity, Arafat and his old guard, would destroy the identity itself. Palestinians would revert to the narrower clan and tribal loyalties of three generations ago, and Israel would no longer face organised opposition to its designs on Palestinian land.
‘Politicide’, as Israeli academic Baruch Kimmerling defines this fantasy of his country’s extreme right, is a constant temptation to people like Sharon. It argues for the prompt killing of Arafat as soon as the political and strategic situation permits, and the situation will never be more favourable than it is now. However, common sense and the Israeli intelligence services will be arguing strongly that the practical consequence of murdering Arafat would be to turn the Palestinians over to the Islamist organisations that are the main sponsors of the terrorist attacks — so don’t do it.
Back and forth the argument rages, with the hardest of Israeli hard-liners insisting that handing the Palestinians over to the likes of Hamas and Islamic Jihad would not be all that bad. A few more Israelis might get blown up, but it would end once and for all the threat of a compromise peace involving the abandonment of some or all of the occupied territories, for the Islamists are no more interested in that kind of peace than Sharon is. Only he can decide — and he cannot decide.
Ariel Sharon never rose to the highest command positions in the Israeli armed forces, despite his many victorious battles, because his fellow officers judged that he had no feel for deeper questions of long-term strategy. He still doesn’t, and it’s plain that he cannot choose which way to jump. Kill Arafat, strangle what remains of the wretched ‘roadmap’ peace process, and infuriate Washington? Or carry on with the salami tactics that have served him so well so far, expanding the settlements on the West Bank and extending the wall that will ultimately place almost all of them on the Israeli side while talking vaguely of peace?
He wants to postpone the choice, and so to deflect Israeli popular demands for revenge he has engaged in a displacement activity: an unprovoked and unprecedented but essentially meaningless attack on Syria. With any luck, it will remain meaningless. With a lot of bad luck, it could end up as a real war.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“On the other…don’t do it”)