No-Exit Endgame

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.”

Those on Israel’s right are content, once the killing is stopped, to simply hunker down and bide their time. They want to deal with someone – anyone – other than Arafat. But ask them who they’d like to go to, or who they believe will replace him, and they clam up. “We don’t want to taint anyone,” they say, knowing that simply mentioning a name as a potential Arafat successor is enough to probably quash his chances.

They’ll wait, they say, as long as they have to – until Arafat dies or simply gives up and decides to spend his retirement in the south of France. As usual, Palestinian violence and intransigence provide ample cover for those Israelis with no desire to face the hard issues: issues like the settlements and the holy sites. But in post-Passover-massacre Israel, that group has grown significantly larger.

“We have changed our vocabulary,” says Yossi Sarid, head of the Meretz Party and, as such, leader of Israel’s opposition. “We don’t speak any longer about peace or an agreement. We are speaking now of separation, of unilateral steps taken by Israel based on our own interests.”

Sarid’s notion of Israel taking unilateral steps to separate from the Palestinians is actually more complex than the very popular idea of building a fence. Since construction will take a long time and a great deal of money, he has proposed that the fence be built and financed with international assistance. The U.S. would, of course, have to take the lead role. And this way, with troops on the ground for the project, the separation can happen quickly rather than having to wait until the fence is actually completed.

“We have bad news for the Bush administration,” says Sarid, who has a kind of sardonic sense of humor that takes a little getting used to. “If they thought at the beginning they’d be able to run away, they were wrong. Whenever you run away from the Middle East, the Middle East runs after you. And it will catch you. The U.S. will be here, the only question is when.”

Sarid believes it will take more than just U.S. involvement. Other countries will have to step forward as well. The Palestinian Authority has, for all practical purposes, collapsed. Its infrastructure has been decimated. Providing basic services – security, electricity, and the like – has become problematic. Therefore, international involvement is inevitable.

“Our proposal,” says Sarid, referring to the Meretz Party, “is that the international community take responsibility and establish a mandate over the territories that will rehabilitate Palestinian society and replace Israeli occupation. Otherwise, out of the suffering, pain, misery, and poverty, the only outcome will be more violence and more terror. Certainly other countries in this region have emerged out of one sort of mandate or another.”

A breakdown of order in the West Bank has become a real concern. And the potential problem goes beyond an inability to deliver services. Chaos would provide an ideal opening for Hamas or one of the other extremist organizations to exploit.

Given the current reality, there are essentially four possible scenarios. The bleakest projection is some sort of continuation of the current death spiral the two sides are inexorably locked in. The story line here is, the Israelis pull out of the West Bank and the suicide bombings begin again. As a result, the Israelis go back into the West Bank in a big way and this time deliver an overwhelming, final blow to the Palestinian Authority.

The other three scenarios are avenues to reach some kind of solution, no matter how imperfect it may turn out to be. The first is a negotiated agreement, which is obviously the most desirable and, at this stage, the most difficult to achieve. There is absolutely no chance this can happen if the two sides are left on their own. The Israelis are operating strictly from self-interest now, and the Palestinians are in no mood to do anything at this point other than be appeased for their victimhood.

Henry Kissinger once said the Israelis have no foreign policy, only a domestic one. And this has probably never been more true of both sides than it is today. Neither Sharon nor Arafat could, even if he wanted to, make a move toward the other side at this moment without it being perceived by his own people as somehow raising the white flag.

This means the only road to a negotiated solution is either a regional conference or an international one. In a forum like this, it would be possible, first and foremost, for everyone to at least pretend to start the process anew. Remember, the Madrid conference that led to Oslo also came at a very bad time, in the wake of the Gulf War (who can forget the Palestinians siding with Saddam Hussein and Iraq?) and the first intifada.

A conference of this kind would also present an opportunity to call the Saudis’ bluff on their peace plan and provide the cover domestically that both Sharon and Arafat need. Once again, there is no hope of even getting this plan out of the garage, let alone actually test-driving it, without a significant move by President Bush.

“Sharon may have no incentive at all to cave right now, but Bush has to do something because of the war on terror, increasing pressure from the Europeans, and pressure from the Arabs,” says UCLA’s Steven Spiegel.

“The president’s poll numbers have already begun to slip a little, and he only has a year or so before he needs to start thinking about reelection,” Spiegel says. “And if nothing’s happened by then on Iraq, if we’re still looking for Osama bin Laden, and the Israeli-Palestinian situation is still a mess, the Bush poll numbers could really become an issue. All of which is to say, look for increasing U.S. pressure on Israel.”

However, given Israel’s renewed resolve and Sharon’s resuscitated poll numbers, anything more than incremental movement seems unlikely. Sharon’s government is already sliding to the right, and he undoubtedly feels buoyed by the fact that he has also received boisterous, enthusiastic support from America’s conservatives. And then there is the issue of Benjamin Netanyahu, the once and would-be prime minister who is always looking over Sharon’s right shoulder.

The prospects for a conference are not good. One close adviser of Sharon’s told me that everyone walked away from Camp David and Taba with different lessons, but the right’s was that the divide between the two sides is “unbridgeable.” The gap between the parties, he said, on every major issue – security, settlements, holy sites – is just too wide.

If the concept of a broad conference fails, what’s left is unilateral action, since neither side will accept an imposed solution. Given all that has taken place over the past twenty months, however, the Palestinians are no longer in a position to unilaterally declare statehood. This leaves the Israelis, who have recently shown substantial enthusiasm for simply delineating a border, defending it with a fence or some other means, and telling the Palestinians in effect, “That’s it, game over. Call us when you actually want to cut a deal.”

Sharon’s thinking here goes way beyond the concept of defining a border and putting up a fence. His plan, to the degree that he has one, involves a fence, sizable buffer zones, and various obstacles to protect Israel’s security. There would be a western security zone and an eastern one. The eastern buffer would include the Jordan Valley and the high ground above it. Sharon and his advisers believe the hilltops are necessary to block an attack from the east.

“This is critical,” one of his advisers told me, “because using mechanized warfare, an Iraqi expeditionary force could cross Jordan in less time than Israel needs to call up its reserves. So an early-warning setup is crucial.”

And in fact, some version of this scenario is, at the moment, the likeliest outcome. Sharon came into office talking about a long-term interim agreement – an agreement that provides security for both sides, enables the Palestinians to hold onto their territorial claims, but addresses none of the truly incendiary issues. It is not the kind of comprehensive, end-of-conflict resolution that was on the table at Camp David, but the world is no longer the same place. This could even come out of some sort of broad conference rather than through unilateral Israeli action.

The Palestinians won’t like it, but in a post–Camp David, post–September 11, post-Passover-massacre world, this is the reality. Finally, there is always one other possibility. “The whole conflict for 50 years is about Arab acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state,” says former prime minister Ehud Barak.

“So if Crown Prince Abdullah and the other Arab leaders would tell their own people, ‘We recognize the existence of Israel as a Jewish state,’ that would be the beginning of the end of the conflict.”

Don’t hold your breath.

No-Exit Endgame