OME WEEKS AGO, at one of those briefings the Pentagon holds for citizens who wish to be informed about America's military, an officer was discussing the extraordinarily close relationship with Israel. He spoke of the millions of dollars the American taxpayer pays to keep Israel's Army in fighting trim, able to defeat any combination of Arab armies that might invade. But of course, he said, shaking his head, the present conflict is not one that can be won with F-16 fighter jets.
When Israeli F-16s finally did enter the fray a few weeks later, the wisdom of the American officer's words, and the bankruptcy of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's policies, was plain for all to see. For the formidable fighters were not rising to smite an invading army, as they have done more than once in the history of the Jewish state. This time they rose in retaliation for a suicide bombing in a crowded mall.
Furthermore, the targets of Israeli wrath were the lightly armed Palestinian police loyal to Yasser Arafat, whereas the suicide bomber was sent to kill Israelis by Hamas, the extremist organization that is the sworn enemy of Arafat and the Palestinian Authority. In an attempt to kill a Hamas leader, whom the Palestinian authorities were holding in jail, the Israelis destroyed the jail, allowing the Hamas leader, Abu Hanoud, to escape.
Sharon's policy to stop the violence has been a crude attempt to bludgeon the Palestinian people into submission, a people weaned on martyrdom and revenge who have been brutalized and humiliated by an Israeli military occupation that has gone on for 34 years. As Sharon's home minister, Uzi Landau, explained it: ''The price we will extract from the Palestinians will become intolerable.''
But far from stopping the killing, the result has been a mindless escalation of violence and overkill by Israeli forces that has shocked the world and finally gotten the attention of the Bush administration, which had hoped to give the Middle East a lot of leaving alone.
In addition, the Israelis have been trying to destroy the Palestinian Authority's security apparatus by assassinating policemen and Palestinian leaders and bombing police stations. The latest was the attempt to kill the West Bank security chief, Jibril Rajoub, by shelling his house when he was in the bath. Rajoub is known as a moderate and a possible successor to Arafat. The army said its troops did not know whose house it was they were shelling, but a field commander told Israeli radio that he knew very well whose house it was.
US Ambassador Martin Indyk, a man not known for criticizing Israel, said Israel's policies were counterproductive in that they were hitting the very people who could stop the violence.
''Maybe the strategy is to encourage them to act against their own people,'' he said, ''but I don't imagine there is an example in history where such a strategy has succeeded.''
One strategy that has been successful, if Israel's aim is not peace but continued occupation, is the settler movement. No Israeli government, left or right, has been able to curb the spread of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. Yet a settlement freeze, as George Mitchell and his international panel have said, is the sine qua non for peace. Sharon's reaction is typically disingenuous. He says he will not seize any new lands for settlements, but he knows that Israel has already taken enough Palestinian land to increase the Jewish settlements in the occupied territories fivefold.
Last week's announcement that the Israeli Army would take a more defensive posture and fire only when lives were threatened was welcome, but that should have been the policy all along. Israel is in a tough position with Arafat too weak to control a situation rapidly spiraling out of control.
But violence begets violence, and if security cooperation between Palestinians and Israelis is ever to be resumed, it will do no good to destroy the Palestinian Authority. And there is nothing an F-16 fighter bomber can do to to discourage suicide bombers.
H.D.S. Greenway's column appears regularly in the Globe.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company