"THEY HAVE to be beaten so that they get the thought out of their minds that they can impose an agreement on Israel that Israel does not want," said Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon, two years ago as the second intifada was reaching a paroxysm of violence. It is a philosophy that has guided Sharon throughout his entire career. Whether it be orchestrating Israel's disastrous war in Lebanon in the '80s, or his present handling of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle, the idea has been that if the Palestinians can just be physically beaten hard enough, then somehow, someday, they will see the light and submit.
Others have argued that without political hope Palestinians cannot be turned from violence. "No people has ever accepted being occupied by a foreign power, and the Palestinian people are not different," as opposition politician Yossi Sarid put it. But Sharon believes that force will win out. He blames the Palestinian Authority for not controlling violence, and then does everything in his power to destroy that authority.
The latest escalation is the assassination of the Hamas founder, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the highest level Palestinian leader targeted so far. Never mind whether the killing was justified. Did it strengthen Israel's security? "I think the damage is greater than the usefulness," said Sharon's interior minister, Avraham Poraz, who was one of only two Cabinet ministers to vote against the killing. But, significantly, the security service charged with protecting Israelis from terror, Shin Bet, also opposed it, according to press accounts.
In a culture steeped in revenge and martyrdom, Yassin's assassination will have some predictable results. Hamas's brand of Islamic extremism will gain Palestinian support at the expense of the moderates and secularists, thus further endangering Israel's security. And more Israelis will be murdered, for, like Sharon, Hamas believes in violence and revenge.
The fallout from the assassination is spilling over into the wider world, and here is where the United States comes in. As far away as the Khyber Pass in Pakistan, there have been demonstrations against the killing. It caused Iraq's Shia leader, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, to denounce what he said was an "ugly crime," calling upon "the sons of the Arab and Islamic nations to close ranks, unite and work hard for the liberation of the usurped land and restore rights." You can bet that further denunciations in mosques from Morocco to Mindanao are helping Al Qaeda to recruit. And when the Arab leaders meet in Tunis, this extra-judicial killing will cast a long shadow over US goals for the region.
Anyone who has traveled in the Muslim world knows that, unlike the days of George Bush's father when America could be seen as an Israeli ally but sympathetic to the Palestinians, the US today "has forfeited its credibility in the Arab world because of its willingness to endorse almost anything Israel does," as the Financial Times put it. Indeed, so in lock step with Sharon's Likud Party does the Bush administration seem to be that the United States is perceived as perpetuating and abetting Israel's occupation of a captive and persecuted population. The "road map" to peace has all but been abandoned by the Bush administration.
This perception can have nothing but a negative impact on all US efforts, especially in Iraq, but also in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and all the lands where the United States wants to convince Muslims that it is not their implacable enemy. It discredits Muslim moderates who sympathize with the administration's dreams of more democracy in the Arab world. Failure to resolve the problem, or even to seriously try, may yet prove to be the Bush administration's biggest foreign policy mistake.
America needs to establish a parallel track with the Palestinians and other Arabs to help bring an end to the conflict, not just put all its cards on Sharon, writes Dennis Ross, an experienced negotiator steeped in the issue. Yet Sharon says that "no negotiations can take place with the Palestinians on political issues."
If Bush is really serious about a two-state solution with the Palestinians ending up with a viable state, he better move fast, because any anticipated pull out of Gaza will be accompanied by big unilateral Israeli annexations in the West Bank, with Palestinians left on isolated reservations. It is already happening.
Israel is America's ally and should always remain so. No country has suffered more from terrorism. But America does Israel and itself a disservice by not fully engaging in the efforts to bring a settlement that Bush says he favors. Sharon would have Bush believe that the occupation is not the problem, but it is the north star of Palestinian violence, and the single greatest and unifying cause for hatred of the United States in the Muslim world.
A peace wouldn't stop Al Qaeda from wanting to kill Americans, nor Hamas from killing Israelis, but it would reduce Al Qaeda influence, marginalize Hamas, and do wonders for both Israel's security and the ideological struggle that is consuming the Muslim world and threatening the West.
H.D.S. Greenway's column appears regularly in the Globe.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.