What we have in Israel and Palestine now is not crisis but chaos, a situation in which purposeful activity and intelligent policy is becoming daily less and less possible. Between the Tel Aviv bomb and the Jerusalem bomb the Israeli government and security establishment has learned nothing, the weakened Palestinian Authority has done little but appeal for outside intervention, and the United States and Europe have tried only to keep the violence below a certain level.
But you cannot moderate chaos or control the effects of profoundly dangerous and counter-productive policies. The next phase will undoubtedly be a punitive attack, or series of attacks, by the Israelis, an escalation wanted by nobody outside the leadership of fundamentalist Palestinian groups, and perhaps not even wholeheartedly there. Such attacks will serve, briefly, to assuage Israeli public opinion. But it is an index of how murderously futile things have become that Israeli staff officers and intelligence people already know, even as they present the options to the cabinet, that none of the plans can lead anywhere but to fresh violence.
The central problem remains that the government of Ariel Sharon has only one real policy, which is to try to brutalize the Palestinian leadership into suppressing the more extreme Palestinian groups. Before the Tel Aviv bomb, the two main instruments of such coercion were sharp military responses to Palestinian attacks and punitive economic measures.
Since Tel Aviv, Israel has put more emphasis on assassination, reasoning that if the organizers of violence knew with some certainty that they themselves would die if they carried on, this might cause them to desist. This shift showed a reluctant understanding that measures which harmed all of Palestinian society or which made it difficult or impossible for its administration to function only increased Palestinian anger while weakening the authority that, in the Israeli view, was supposed to control that anger. But the innovation, if such it can be called, of multiplying the hit list has changed nothing, except perhaps to enhance the status of those attacked, including rescuing the more dubious figures from their previous unpopularity.
The main effect of Israeli policy has indeed been to increase the level of anger on both sides. Neither has eyes for the other's woes. There is no denying the visceral satisfaction felt by many Palestinians when there is a bomb outrage in an Israeli town, nor the almost automatic demand of most Israelis that violence against them always be punished by an attack, preferably spectacular, by the Israeli Defense Forces.
During a recent trip to Israel, a taxi driver, responding to news that an Israeli student had been shot at a bus stop, confided to me that "When something like that happens, there is only one way: go to the nearest Arab village and destroy it." The Israeli state was founded on the principle of automatic retaliation, and as a young soldier, Ariel Sharon was one of those who enthusiastically translated that principle into action. It has become, in a debilitating way, part of Israeli popular culture. Thus it is that Sharon now is regularly lambasted for his "restraint", and faced at meetings by banners saying "Let the Israeli Defense Force do its job".
The dismal symmetry in the situation of the Israelis and the Palestinians is that politics in both societies is now mainly about managing popular anger and desire for revenge and using it to out maneuver opponents. The measures most successful in doing this, of course, are precisely the measures which further enrage the other side.
Sharon's policies are worse than useless in terms of reducing or ending the conflict, but they serve very well to maintain an unprecedented level of support for an Israeli government. He amends them, by a degree or two, only to satisfy American and European anxieties. The real truth about Sharon is that he is torn between the security demands of the settlers, who insist that he maintains Israeli power in the territories, and those of Israelis in Israel proper, who want an end to the attacks which the settlements provoke. His whole history means that he cannot solve this problem, and is driven, indeed, to obscure it.
On the Palestinian side, it has long been true that the murky contest between political movements has been dominated by the issue of resistance to the Israelis. The mainstream groups could not wholly abandon the idea of resistance unless and until a viable state existed. Now, with the prospect for such a state in the near future gone, how to resist is the dominant question. Yasser Arafat looks despairingly to international diplomacy, but he could not survive as a leader if he wholly spurned military action. Palestinians are no more ready than Israelis for the ideas of Mahatma Gandhi. As Arafat flounders, other Palestinian groups exploit the vacuum.
The Jerusalem bomb may or may not lead to an all-out attack on the Palestinian Authority, destroying its buildings, devastating its security forces, and scattering its civilian personnel. The Israelis are fearful of what might follow such an action, and they will be under much American pressure to limit their response. If so, there may be a revival of Israeli discussion of a "big bang" solution, in which such an attack is followed by a withdrawal from most of the occupied territories and even the building of a wall. The idea at least recognizes the logic that there can be no end to violence, to ambushes in the West Bank and bombs in Jaffa Street, until the occupation is over. One Israeli academic, in reluctantly recommending such a solution, recalled Churchill saying of the Malayan emergency: "We shall win the war. And then we shall leave."
Fantastical as such a scenario is, it might in a way be preferable to nursing along the present chaos. The Sharon government knows no way out of it. Appeasing the settlers on the one hand, and obfuscating to Israeli city dwellers the true reasons for the violence on the other, it is trapped in its own violent pendulum. Palestinian society, meanwhile, may be on the brink of an irretrievable regression. The United States and Europe, the one through distancing itself from a conflict in which it once took such a proprietorial attitude, and the other in its timorousness, are accomplices in the maintenance of this conflict at a level so costly in human suffering and yet so unlikely to yield a solution.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001