The Needless Intifada

Wednesday, October 30, 2002
Illustration by Taylor Jones for the Hoover Digest.

The Palestinian Intifada is dying. It is being choked by the Israeli Defense Forces’ meticulous decimation of the West Bank’s terrorist infrastructure while Gaza remains hermetically sealed. Hamas or other terrorist factions can still trigger events, such as the bombings at Hebrew University and the commuter bus near Safed, but it can produce nothing like last spring’s epidemic of suicide explosions. Further, the acute suffering of the Palestinian people combined with the failure of Yasir Arafat to harness two years of violence to a credible political agenda has led Arafat and his Palestinian Authority to call unilaterally for a halt to attacks on Israeli civilians and to complain about the refusal of Hamas to agree. Senior PA officials, meeting with their U.S. counterparts in Washington and Israelis in Jerusalem, have offered to attempt to control the violence if given the authority and the elbow room to operate. Their once and future militias are again receiving primers in counterterrorism from CIA teachers on the West Bank. Partial Israeli pullbacks from Gaza and Bethlehem seem likely to continue if quiet prevails or if the PA makes a genuine effort to control Hamas and the other radical factions with whom Arafat had until recently been allied. Strikingly, the new Palestinian interior minister, Abdel Razak Yehiyeh, has issued a clear call for an end to the bloodshed: “Stop the suicide bombings. Stop the murders for no reason. Return to the legitimate struggle against the occupation without violence and following international norms and legitimacy.”

The Next Phase

When Israeli leaders conclude that the security benefits of their presence are outweighed by the political benefits of sending some of their soldiers home—supporting the U.S. desire to be seen as a fair-minded interlocutor and letting the PLO deal with Hamas for a while—the Bethlehem-Gaza initiative will be extended to other West Bank cities. If things remain relatively quiet, the IDF will keep its distance, permitting some resumption of community and economic life. If the suicide missions approach the fury and frequency of this past spring, however, plans call for the IDF to return, this time removing Yasir Arafat and members of his Palestinian Authority from the territory, even at the risk of physical harm or death. In no circumstances will Israel’s military or political leadership accept a return to the reign of terrorism that prevailed prior to the start of the current operation.

For all the contradictory signals and signs of internal disarray that preceded it, the June 24 statement by President George W. Bush acknowledging Israel’s right to defend itself and declaring the unwillingness of the United States to do business with PA leaders “compromised by terror” will most likely come to be regarded as the Stalingrad of Israel’s war against Arafat’s Intifada. That Arafat had badly underestimated the strength and resilience of Israeli society and the durability of the U.S. commitment to Israel—while exaggerating the willingness of the international community to aid the Palestinian cause by seeking to insert peacekeepers absent a political settlement—was clear even before Mr. Bush spoke. What was less clear was whether Israel’s one essential ally would give Israeli military forces enough time in West Bank areas nominally under PA control to deal heavy, even crippling, blows to the terrorist infrastructure. Also not clear was whether President Bush had come to share the view—dominant among Israelis—that Arafat had played the land-for-lies game once too often to again earn a place at the negotiating table. With those questions answered in the affirmative, Israel’s military felt less pressure to wrap up its operation quickly. The Palestinians were left to resolve the conflict between (1) their loyalty to Arafat and resistance to U.S. dictate and (2) the fact that the United States remains the indispensable party to any future settlement. One senses that, long before then, Arafat will have been “elevated” to a sort of terrorist emeritus status. That process apparently began in early September when delegates to the Palestinian Legislative Council forced Arafat to dismiss his entire cabinet and proclaimed their intention to vest executive authority in a prime minister, to be named next January.

Palestinian Miscalculations

Arafat’s immediate legacy will be one of darkness. In launching or quickly adopting the Intifada in October 2000, while the Israeli leadership was conducting good faith post–Camp David negotiations, and in sustaining it over a period of nearly two years, he committed a strategic blunder with tragic consequences for the Palestinian community. Not only has Israel’s response to the uprising made Palestinians’ lives nearly unbearable, but changes in the Israeli strategic and political outlook make it highly unlikely that, when negotiations do resume, the Palestinians will do as well as they were doing when the Intifada intervened.

A number of Israeli and Western observers suggest that Arafat had both organizational and tactical motives for acting as he did. President Clinton and the Israelis were blaming him for the failure of Camp David. Some in the Arab world were challenging his authority to negotiate the future of Islamic holy places. Palestinians in the territories administered by the PA under the step-by step transition formula of the 1993 Oslo accords were chafing under conditions of rampant corruption and economic stagnation. Not entirely in jest, residents of the West Bank complained that they were living under their fifth occupation—Turkey, Britain, Jordan, Israel, and, now, Tunisia, the last place of exile of Arafat and his cronies. In these circumstances, a controlled uprising could buy time at home and improve Arafat’s position at future talks, perhaps even “internationalizing” the process by bringing in other Arab states, the Europeans, even the United Nations. Shai Feldman, head of Tel Aviv’s Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, has written, “Arafat apparently hoped that ultimately these organizations and additional parties might impose a solution on Israel similar to that imposed on Serbia over Kosovo.”

If that was Arafat’s thinking, the initial results provided reinforcement. Television pictures of outmatched Palestinian fighters standing up to superior Israeli forces generated international sympathy for the underdog. There followed the international conference at Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. At the White House and, later, at Taba the so-called Clinton Plan sweetened substantially the proposal first tabled at Camp David, expanding from under 93 to about 97 percent the percentage of the West Bank and Gaza to be included in the proposed Palestinian state, while for the first time including Palestinian sections of East Jerusalem in the area to be returned. But Arafat then made three mistakes: (1) He failed to cash his chips at the White House or Taba, rejecting the improved offer with no comprehensive counterproposal; (2) he failed to stop the violence and push for negotiations after hard-liner Ariel Sharon became Israel’s prime minister, thereby relieving a man who had no apparent plan for peace of the need to develop one; and (3) he permitted the suicide attacks against Israeli civilians to proceed, losing support outside the Islamic world—particularly in the United States—and giving the Israelis cause to effectively nullify Oslo by reoccupying the so-called “A areas,” which had been delegated by the treaty to exclusive PA control. Perhaps a fourth misjudgment involved the consequences of political change in Jerusalem and Washington. From all accounts Arafat was relaxed about both, believing that Sharon would have to deal with him, just as former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak had, and that oilmen such as George W. Bush and Dick Cheney preferred Arabs to Jews and that their policies would reflect that preference.

Most Israelis felt betrayed by the renewal of conflict because they thought Barak had gone beyond reason in accommodating Palestinian needs. If Arafat would not accept 97 percent of the West Bank and Gaza and a sovereign state headquartered in East Jerusalem, what would he accept? The answer to that question was suggested by Barak, chief American negotiator Dennis Ross, and others directly involved in the process: nothing short of the functional destruction of the state of Israel. As proof, they pointed to Arafat’s approach to the so-called right of return for Palestinian refugees (and their descendants) who fled from Israel during the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948. The Israelis maintain that readmitting more than a token number of refugees would threaten the demographic fabric of the Jewish state, a view endorsed by some moderate Palestinians. The Clinton plan called for refugees either to remain where they are, settle elsewhere, return to Israel, or move to the newly created state of Palestine, the final decision resting in each case with the host government. Both in Washington and at Taba, the Palestinians effectively rejected this plan. With respect to the right of return, one party (the Palestinians) was effectively demanding a suicide note as the price for agreement. To many influential Israelis—even those well left of center—the Palestinian position demonstrated that, in the words of historian Benny Morris (known for his tendency to challenge the official Israeli version of events), Arafat had never wanted peace, “only a staggered chipping away at the Jewish state.”

Increasingly, Israelis felt that Oslo had been a sham, a device through which Arafat and his henchmen had gained a platform on the West Bank and Gaza from which to mount their campaign—sometimes by negotiation, sometimes by terror—for a single state of Palestine. Small wonder that Arafat had put more than three times the number of men under arms permitted by Oslo. Small wonder that his schoolbooks showed maps of a Palestine—but no Israel—and referred to Haifa and Jaffa as Palestinian cities. Small wonder that his media kept up a steady diet of anti-Israeli propaganda and that, just weeks before the Intifada, a senior official of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Abu Ali Mustafa—later assassinated by the Israelis—declared, “The issues of Jerusalem, the refugees, and sovereignty will be decided on the ground and not in negotiations.” And small wonder that Arafat himself often spoke of the ongoing jihad, particularly when speaking in Arabic.

As the months wore on, this interpretation of Arafat and his PA colleagues gained increasing credence. His Fatah militias—Tanzim and the Al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade—joined Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the deadly suicide bombing attacks. Arafat himself praised the martyrs, sought to smuggle illegal weapons into the territories, and apportioned financial assistance to groups responsible for suicide bombings and other acts of terror. No more vivid example of Arafat’s disinclination to wind down the Intifada exists than his cavalier treatment of the security plan worked out by CIA director George Tenet, who made several early visits to the area. Under the plan, concluded in June 2001, Palestinian obligations included the arrest of terrorists, the confiscation of mortars and other illegal arms, providing notice to Israel of expected terrorist actions, preventing illegal arms smuggling, and an end to Palestinian security officials’ inciting acts of violence and participating directly in many of the assaults. Not one of these undertakings was honored consistently.

A number of commentators have suggested that Arafat thought he could apply to the West Bank and Gaza the lessons of Lebanon, where sustained guerrilla activity, mainly by Hezbollah, led Barak to honor a campaign pledge and order an IDF withdrawal from the “security zone” established in 1985 to protect northern Israel from shelling and infiltration. The South Lebanese Army, an Israeli surrogate, policed the area. For both doctrinal and practical reasons, IDF commanders opposed the Lebanon withdrawal, the military grimly warning Barak that the unilateral move would fuel Palestinian terrorism on the West Bank and Gaza.

But whatever Barak’s misjudgments, they were dwarfed by Arafat’s. South Lebanon, which had come to occupy no more than buffer status in Israeli eyes, bore not the slightest strategic resemblance to the occupied territories, where the stakes included 400,000 Israeli settlers, East Jerusalem, the Jordan Valley, and a potential invasion path to the country’s most populous areas.

If there was a lesson to be drawn from Lebanon, it was the Lebanon of 1982 rather than 2002. In 1982 much of South Lebanon was inhabited by Palestinian refugees and used as a springboard for PLO terrorist operations against Israel, including a new wrinkle: suicide bombers. In response, the IDF mounted a massive campaign to rid South Lebanon of the PLO, then pushed all the way to Beirut, expelling the PLO once and for all. Arafat was forced to take refuge in Tunisia. The lesson Arafat should have learned is that terrorism that engages the vital interests of a vastly superior power will produce calamitous results for the perpetrator.

A Hardening of Hearts

That certainly appears to be the case on the ground today. Compared to the Palestinian situation, Israel’s seems to be one of defiant normalcy. Yes, the tourism industry has been savaged, and, yes, Israelis speak of the inner panic they feel dropping their kids at school, sipping coffee at their favorite outdoor café, or taking public transportation to the office or market. But they are doing all these things, and life, for all but the unlucky, goes on. Reserve call-ups have provoked little dissent. In some units the turnout exceeds 100 percent, as those who have not been called rush to join friends and colleagues who have been.

By contrast, curfews, checkpoints, battles, and border closings have turned life for the Palestinians into a living nightmare. The sight of Palestinians scrambling down back roads or over dusty hills to shop or visit family has become a visual staple of the network news. Some 130,000 jobs in Israel have ceased to exist. Unemployment, averaging nearly 60 percent, has triggered anti-PA demonstrations in Gaza.

Another telling point involves those who “vote with their feet.” During the first 22 months of the Intifada, Israel experienced a small net immigration while the Palestinians suffered an estimated emigration of perhaps 250,000. Arafat asked neighboring Arab states to help staunch the flow. Lebanon responded with a law denying Palestinians the right to purchase land or, for those who already own property, to bequeath it to heirs. Such acts of “friendship” have kept the refugee problem alive for 54 years.

Many of those who interpret Israeli public opinion suggest that the Intifada has produced structural changes in the society, which will necessarily be reflected in future negotiations. More Israeli voters than ever before describe themselves as being on the political right. Support for military operations in “A areas” is overwhelming, as is opposition to any right of return for Palestinian refugees. Disillusionment with Oslo runs very deep. Many maintain that the greatest casualty of this period has been the notion among progressive Israelis that the Palestinian community genuinely wants peace, that it accepts a two-state solution to the long-running crisis, and that a step-by-step process that accelerates as mutual confidence grows is the best way to deepen each side’s stake in a peaceful resolution of outstanding issues. There may still be ways to reach accord. But Israelis will demand that any agreement be reinforced by concrete security measures, not merely the fanciful dreams of mutual trust.

This new attitude was reflected in a Jaffee Center poll, published early this summer, which showed a hardening of Israeli attitudes and a yearning for separation from Palestinians. A majority believed the aim of the Intifada was to conquer the state of Israel. Most believed Israeli Arabs were disloyal. Sixty-eight percent thought it impossible to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians; 70–90 percent favored invasion of “A areas,” closures and economic sanctions, the use of tanks and fighter aircraft against Palestinians, and the targeted killing of those active in terror. There was equivocal support for withdrawal from hard-to-defend areas and for closing remote settlements, but support dropped when the extent of the withdrawals was spelled out. About a third of all Israelis favor transferring Palestinians outside the West Bank and Gaza, an exercise that would be viewed widely as “ethnic cleansing.”

Poll results among the Palestinians suggest a radicalization of that community during the Intifada. A poll published in mid-June by the Jerusalem Media and Communication Center showed 69.1 percent of Palestinians supporting the suicide bombings and about half seeing no difference between operations conducted inside Israel and those in the occupied territories. Indeed, 51.1 percent defined the aim of the uprising as the liberation of all of historic Palestine; only 42.8 percent said it was to terminate the occupation. Arafat remained the most popular and trusted figure in Palestinian society, but his numbers were down sharply; support for the radical Hamas nearly equaled that of Arafat’s Fatah.

The Changed Negotiating Climate

With these political attitudes providing the context, it is clear that when the parties eventually resume negotiations, the environment will have changed in material ways since the last formal negotiations at Taba in January 2001. First, the Intifada will likely have been crushed, with the PA suffering a serious loss of bargaining power and thus being more dependent on the good offices of the United States. Second, Arafat will likely have no direct role in the talks and probably not in the Palestinian government. But since no credible Palestinian delegation could exclude Arafat loyalists, he will continue to cast a shadow of indeterminate length over the proceedings. Moreover, his successor is unlikely to have the stature Arafat enjoyed as patriarch of the Palestinian liberation movement and is more likely to bargain as part of a committee. Third, while neither Labor nor Likud is likely to have unfettered control of the Knesset, the strong likelihood is that decisive weight will be exercised by a right-of-center coalition headed either by Sharon or by his internal Likud foe Benyamin Netanyahu. Fourth, the United States will likely have taken care of business in Iraq, deposing Saddam Hussein and thus coming to the table with the same kind of regional clout it enjoyed briefly after the Persian Gulf War. Fifth, the United States will almost certainly see to it that neighboring Arab states and some European friends are represented: the Arab states to share the burden with the Palestinians for any concessions they will be compelled to make; the Europeans to remind Israel that there is another world out there between its historic enemies and its unwavering friend, and to hold out to the Palestinians the hope that economic development will accompany a commitment to peace.

Various players have already floated certain types of solutions. How will they fly in the context of the sort of conference described above? One plan, consistent with attitudinal surveys and backed by a left-of-center segment of the Israeli intellectual community, goes by the name “unilateral separation.” It involves constructing a tall and lengthy concrete fence, essentially along the lines of the 1967 border, but also embracing the large settlement blocks in the vicinity of Jerusalem. In addition, most of the remote or hard-to-defend settlements would be abandoned, leaving the fence to protect a state of demographically Jewish character. The plan has generated widespread debate in Israeli political and military circles. The IDF is divided between those who think the fence is a marginally useful tool in the battle against terrorism and those who regard it as close to worthless militarily. The latter group notes that substantially more than 50 percent of the Palestinian suicide bombers have entered Israel by bluffing their way through regular checkpoints, where a fence would be of no use. For now, the fence is being built in desultory fashion and devoid of political content. Sharon has started construction—at a cost of about $1 million per kilometer—but has said there will be no unilateral settlement closures by his administration.

Three days after President Bush’s June Middle East statement, Israeli defense minister Binyamin Ben-Elieser published in the Arab-language newspaper Al-Quds a proposed basis for settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The principal elements are as follows: shutting down all Gaza settlements and remote settlements on the West Bank, establishing a Palestinian state with a capital in East Jerusalem, providing a Palestine land link between Gaza and the Hebron area, and ensuring a right of return for refugees to Palestine but not Israel. This, of course, is the essence of the Clinton plan and would require a significant but essential Palestinian concession on the right of return. The plan has very strong backing within the Bush administration, particularly at the State Department, but not from those close to Prime Minister Sharon. Although there is surprising support for closing remote settlements, senior government officials interviewed for this article showed little enthusiasm for a divided Jerusalem. Moreover, government and military officials say the Intifada has proven that no paper agreement alone will quench the Arab thirst for all of Palestine or prevent the accumulation of excessive weaponry or stop the new state from inviting bigger Arab neighbors such as Iraq to use its territory as an invasion path to Israel. It is thus overwhelmingly likely that either Sharon or Netanyahu will come to the negotiations demanding significant territorial adjustments plus elaborate security arrangements, most likely involving a quasi-permanent Israeli presence on the soil of the new state.

It is difficult to predict how the next round of negotiations—probably many months away—will turn out. It is, however, reasonably safe to predict that the Palestinians will come away with nothing more than the Clinton plan and, quite possibly, a good deal less. There will be no unilateral Israeli withdrawals. There will be no substantial right for Palestinian refugees to return to their ancestral lands inside Israel. Nothing at all will have been won by Palestinians “on the ground,” and any claim that the new state could only have been forged in “blood and fire” will deserve to be called what it will be, a big lie. At the end of the day, this horribly violent interlude will have earned only a single name: the Needless Intifada.



As this article goes to press, violence has again struck the area, this time in the form of a suicide attack on a Tel Aviv bus, for which Hamas claimed responsibility, and reprisal Israeli shelling against most of the PA command facility in Ramallah, sparing thus far only the section serving as Arafat’s residence. Israel’s action, which drew a sharp rebuke from the Bush administration, seems a stunning departure from its stern but carefully calibrated past pattern. This time mainstream Palestinians were disassociating themselves from the suicide bombers and pressing sincerely for political reform. In what from this distance seems a singular excess, the Sharon government has made life more difficult for those Palestinians urging conciliation while breathing new life into Arafat’s moribund political fortunes. Nonethelesss, I believe the Intifada has essentially run its course and is beyond resuscitation, even by its enemies.

Sidebar: "Defiant Normalcy."