The U.S. policy toward the worsening Israeli-Palestinian conflict has swung from
deliberately ignoring the escalating violence before Sept. 11, to open confrontation
with Israel immediately afterward, to complete identification with Ariel Sharon
Meanwhile, horrifying attacks like the Jan. 17 killing of six Israelis at
a bat mitzvah in Hadera by a Palestinian, and the deliberate flattening of dozens
of Palestinian refugee homes in Gaza, and indiscriminate killings of Palestinian
civilians by the Israeli army continue to take an intolerable toll for both sides.
The immediate pretext for the latest U.S. shift toward Israel, however, was
not any particular act of violence, but the capture Jan. 3 of the Karine A, a
weapons ship allegedly destined for the Palestinian Authority. In the midst of
an open conflict in which Israel has used every conventional weapon available
to it - from M-16 rifles to F-16 warplanes - against Palestinians, who could really
be surprised if some Palestinians seek to even the playing field? Or is the Bush
administration - riding high on the war on terrorism but increasingly vulnerable
due to the recession and the growing Enron scandal - simply unwilling to expend
any political capital in an election year to challenge the instransigent Israeli
It will be a disaster if short-term domestic political considerations are
allowed to trump the future of millions of ordinary Israelis and Palestinians,
and the long-term U.S. interest in seeing these peoples at last live together
in peace. The current U.S. approach, while seemingly pro-Israeli, will eventually
hurt Israel as much as it will harm Palestinians.
Even before his latest moves against Palestinian organizations, many Palestinians
openly criticized Arafat for making major compromises without any concrete gains.
In 1993 he led the PLO to recognize Israel within secure boundaries and agreed
to negotiate while occupation and settlement construction continued. Arafat's
modest goal was to gain a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Yet at the July
2000 Camp David summit, Ehud Barak, Israel's prime minister at the time,
offered Palestinians not independence but a form of super-autonomy that would
maintain all the structures of Israeli domination.
Meanwhile, Israeli land confiscation and routine human-rights abuses had made
life under a seemingly endless occupation so intolerable that the Palestinian
population rebelled. Israel's deadly response to stone-throwing demonstrators
lit the match to the ongoing orgy of violence.
Israel's humiliation and virtual imprisonment of Arafat does not deprive
Palestinians of a beloved or highly respected leader - far from it. Yet it does
threaten to destroy an important milestone for Israelis and Palestinians alike:
the idea that a Palestinian leader, even a flawed one, can recognize Israel and
make deep compromises for a workable peace. This may be precisely what Sharon
and his supporters want, since they have never given up the dream of a Greater
Israel stretching from the Mediterrannean to the Jordan River and perhaps beyond.
Palestinians who watch as the United States echoes that Arafat must crush
all resistance to Israel, while Israel is allowed to do as it pleases, will be
driven to conclude that fulfillment of their rights will come neither from making
peace with Israel, nor from any intervention by the United States.
This will strengthen support for those who believe the occupation will end
only when the price of maintaining it becomes too high for Israel to bear. While
Palestinians want only to live in peace and security in their own land, enough
of them have been brutalized for so long that they no longer fear Israel or death.
Hence no level of violence by the Israeli occupation will force Palestinians to
acquiesce to it.
The Palestinian cause will survive the Arafat era, and Palestinians will be
no less determined to win their freedom. But will the bloodshed have escalated
so far that prospects for peace are even more remote than they are now? The United
States can help answer that question, but the signs are not encouraging.
Ali Abunimah (email@example.com)
is vice president of the Arab American Action Network in Chicago.
Copyright 2002 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc