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No-Exit Endgame

Can Israel make peace by itself? As long as Yasser Arafat is in charge of the Palestinian Authority, it's going to try.

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In the grand ballroom of the Waldorf, there were 1,400 people dressed formally for dinner, but the star of the evening was in Israeli Army fatigues. The event was a fund-raiser for the Israel Defense Forces. The image of Captain Tomer Cytter had been beamed in -- live -- from Ramallah, where his unit was conducting house-to-house searches, looking for weapons, explosives, and terrorists. Cytter told a story about a recent raid on a hideout during which two terrorists were killed and seven Israeli soldiers wounded -- including Cytter. He'd been shot in the leg when he charged the room where three gunmen were holed up, and the impact had sent him tumbling backward down the stairs.

Almost as an afterthought, he pointed out to the audience, in that nonchalant-soldier kind of way, a puncture mark on his flak jacket where a bullet had hit him just below his heart. Oh, yes, and one of the terrorists tossed a grenade at him, which, he said with a smile, "luckily didn't go off."

It's telling that this is the image Israel chose to show about the current conflict. Cytter and others like him -- strong, fearless, smart, cheerfully enduring any hardship -- are going about the ugly but necessary business of winning the war. Other soldiers talked about the grinding length of the battle (more than twenty months), the unpredictability of the door-to-door searches because of booby traps and suicide bombers, and the difficulty of maintaining their humanity. (It was all effective enough to raise $2.8 million.)

But most striking were their comments about what all of this means to them personally. "For me," said the wounded officer, "this is our second war of independence." He described the battle, as did some of the other soldiers, in its starkest terms. "It is a war for our way of life and for our homes." A war, he added, that is being fought, for the first time in decades, in and around their homes, in the streets and cafés and grocery stores and banquet halls where Israelis engage in the normal activities of their daily lives. "The weeks since the Passover massacre," said another soldier, "have been for us like September 11th was for you. We've had so many casualties. We've lost so many people."

The soldiers left little doubt that this is, for Israel, a transformative moment. A line has been crossed in their battle with the Palestinians that has forever altered the emotional and political topography of the conflict. Just as September 11 recast America's relationship to the rest of the world ("You're either with the civilized world, or you're with the terrorists," President Bush said), twenty months of continuous terror-inflicted carnage in Israel (reaching critical mass with the 28 deaths and more than 100 injuries in the Passover massacre) has ineluctably produced a new dynamic.

Call it, at least from Israel's perspective, the new rules of the Middle East. The change is apparent everywhere. There is no more talk of reservists refusing to serve. No one worries openly that Ariel Sharon is too aggressive or too militaristic or that he will go too far. Indeed, the entire Israeli cabinet, save for one member, supported Sharon's Operation Defensive Shield. The lone dissenting voice was raised in favor of tougher measures. And there is no more discussion of Palestinian suffering or a comprehensive peace agreement.

Though members of Israel's battered left still have profound differences in philosophy and strategy with Sharon and the Likud party, even they talk primarily now about security, about stopping the terror, and about finding a way to return to normal life. Israelis are weary, but they're also angry. And everyone, on the right and the left, talks incessantly about unilaterally putting distance between Israel and the Palestinians. Peace Now? The new phrase is "separation now."

Yasser Arafat's stunning blunders and his choice of violence over negotiation have galvanized Israeli society in a way that neither Sharon nor any other recent prime minister ever could. "Arafat's decision to walk out of Camp David and to ride the tiger when the rioting started," says UCLA professor and Middle East expert Steven Spiegel, "was a total miscalculation that will rank right up there in history with the Palestinian decision to turn down their own state in 1947. When Arafat walked, the Palestinians at Camp David were saying they hoped it wasn't going to be another '47. Well, guess what."

The subsequent bloodshed and suffering have only hardened attitudes, and Arafat has once again become a full-blown pariah in Israel, loathed and mistrusted in a way that he hasn't been in more than a decade -- maybe ever. Even pillars of the Israeli left, longtime stalwarts of the peace camp, have washed their hands of him. Shlomo Ben-Ami, Camp David negotiator and former foreign minister, did it in an Israeli newspaper piece, and ultraleftist Yossi Beilin -- often the lone voice in the wilderness -- did it in a letter, a kind of policy mea culpa, that he sent out to friends.

"There is no strategy of peace with Arafat," says Deputy Foreign Minister Michael Melchior, a member of the Labor Party. "He has created a totally impossible situation for us. We want to make peace, but we have no one to make it with. So the occupation has to continue even though we don't want it. It is impossible to sit and deal with people who are sending terrorists out to kill us. Until there is a strategic decision by the Palestinian leadership that terror is bad for them and will lead them nowhere, I'm afraid we cannot go forward."

But even as Melchior tells me there is no way, he is, in the very same breath, telling me Israel has to find a way out of this morass. There is consensus that the status quo is unacceptable. "It is difficult to conceive of anything happening with Arafat," says Dore Gold, Israel's former U.N. ambassador and an adviser to Sharon.

"You can negotiate for negotiation's sake, but it will be like banging square pegs into round holes. So the goal right now should be security and stability. We have to stop Israelis from being killed, and we have to stop Palestinians from being killed as well. When you create security, other things follow."


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