VICTORY OR ATTRITION?
By Shawn Pine
As Israel prepares to conduct its most fatal election since the establishment of the Jewish State in 1948, its existential war with the Palestinians is entering its third year. There is a consensus among political observers of Israeli politics that the upcoming Likud primaries will determine the next Prime Minister. The failed Oslo Process, that culminated in Arafat's categorical rejection of the Barak proposals in the summer of 2000, and his subsequent rebuff of the Clinton Administration's proposals in January 2001, signified the effective end of the Oslo Process.
Both proposals would have created a Palestinian State in some 97 percent of the West Bank and Gaza and would have functionally divided Jerusalem. By rejecting these proposals, while simultaneously initiating the intifada, Arafat finally persuaded most Israelis to conclude what opponents of the process have been arguing since 1993, namely that the strategic goal of Arafat is not a two state solution. Rather, it is the establishment of a Palestinian State from the banks of the Jordan River to the Mediterranean sea.
Today, only the most delusional proponents of the peace process continue to believe that a real and lasting peace can be reached with the Palestinians under the leadership of Yasser Arafat. Unfortunately, notwithstanding unfolding events over the last two years, it appears that there is still a significant minority of Israelis that continue to delude themselves. This was manifested in the most recent Labor primaries in which Amram Mitzna, an advocate of unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and an unconditional return to negotiations with Arafat, easily won the Labor primaries. Should Sharon win the Likud primaries Israel will have to decide whether to continue Sharon's war of attrition with the Palestinians or Mitzna'a policy of capitulation.
Benjamin Netanyahu, by advocating expelling Arafat from the territories, and stating his unequivocal opposition to the creation of a Palestinian State, has proposed a third alternative. Netanyahu, is staking a position to the right of Sharon and is offering to lead Israel to victory in its war with the Palestinians. One would think that such a position would be the natural manifestation of any Israeli leader that came to the realization that a Arafat-led Palestinian government is dedicated to the destruction of the Jewish State. The problem with Netanyahu is that he suffers from a credibility gap. Likud critics of Netanyahu have not forgotten his acquiescence to the Wye Accords, which led to further Israeli withdrawals from the territories, and his failure to deal decisively with Arafat. However, if put into perspective, it is important to note that Netanyahu was operating under a host of geopolitical restraints imposed upon him by the Clinton administration. Since 9/11, Sharon has been generally unencumbered by such constraints yet has refused to apply the requisite military force to destroy the Palestinian terrorist infrastructure and to bring the war to a swift and decisive conclusion.
Sharon, having the dubious distinction as serving as Prime Minister during a period in which more Israeli citizens have been killed or wounded than at any other time in Israel's history, can point to few successes. Sharon's main claim of success is that he has solidified Israel's relationship with the United States. Given historical perceptions of Sharon that is indeed a noteworthy accomplishment. However, it is important to note that the improved relationship between Israel and the United States was more a function of unfolding events since 9/11 and not due to Sharon's political acumen. Sharon missed an historic opportunity to decisively destroy the Palestinian terrorist infrastructure in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. One can only speculate whether Netanyahu's better understanding of the American psyche would have allowed him to seize the opportunity.
If, as expected, Sharon continues to serve as Prime Minister, he will undoubtedly see his reelection as giving him a mandate to continue his war of attrition against the Palestinians. However, such a policy poses a number of dangers. The most immediate danger in the Israeli - Palestinian war of attrition is the lost of civilian life. Since the beginning of the current intifada, Israel has suffered more than 4,500 casualties, most of them civilians. While Sharon's policies targeting assassinations, limited military incursions, and attrition has allowed Israeli to maintain critical support from the United States it has violated the most sacrosanct tenets of governance, namely the obligation of a government to protect the security of its citizens. Moreover, it can be argued that Sharon's attrition policy has so prolonged the conflict that it has had a far more deleterious impact on Israel than if it had used overwhelming force at the beginning of the intifada and immediately crushed the terrorist infrastructure in the territories. While Sharon's supporters might argue that he lacked the requisite support from the Bush administration in the beginning of his tenure, he certainly had an excellent window of opportunity in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 when the American public had little sympathy for Islamic terrorists.
Another danger is that the international community will tire of this tit for tat and will feel compelled to enforce an agreement. The establishment of the "group of four" nations to move towards the establishment of a Palestinian State is just one such manifestation of this phenomena. As the United States expands its war against terrorism, and the war of attrition between Israel and the Palestinians continues, the four nations will come under increasing pressure to impose a settlement. It is important to note that the Oslo Process was widely embraced by the international community who came the view the process as more important than the substance of the agreements and supported the creation of a Palestinian State regardless of whether Palestinian obligations were met.
Thus far, the Bush administration has proven to be very sympathetic to Israel's plight. However, it is important to remember that in the months following the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the administration vacillated daily on its position vis-a-vis Israel and the Palestinians. This indicates that US policy could be circumvented by perceived myopic, ephemeral interests. This has been manifested in the decision by the United States to set a date for the establishment of a Palestinian State. While the United States has theoretically made the establishment of such a state contingent upon serious and fundamentally reforms with the Palestinian political and security structure, the reality is that these reforms will no more be fulfilled than the vacuous promises and commitments undertaken by the Palestinians in a myriad of agreements under the aegis of the Oslo Accords. It is important to remember, the failure of the Palestinians to fulfill any of their obligations under Oslo did not prevent continuation of the process, or the continuous certification by the US State Department that the Palestinians were indeed in compliance with its obligations to eschew terrorism despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Ironically, Sharon and Netanyahu have reversed roles. It was Sharon that was swept into office by a desperate Israeli polity that was looking for a leader with the fortitude to take the requisite steps to bring security to a beleaguered nation. Unfortunately, by any objective measure Sharon has thus far failed in this obligation. While it remains to be seen if the Sharon attrition policy will succeed, Israelis should be asking themselves at what price, in terms of human lives as well as their economy, must they endure. In the final analysis, Netanyahu's rhetorical vision comes much closer to what will ultimately be the solution of the conflict. Namely, the expulsion of Arafat from the region, and the functional eradication of Palestinian terrorist groups. However, given Netanyahu's political acumen it is difficult to discern whether he is merely engaging in political hyperbole or whether he is capable of demonstrating the requisite will to use the force needed to deal the decisive blow to accomplish these missions. Given that the two alternatives are Mitzna's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza (as the Labor led Barak government did in Lebanon), and an unconditional return to negotiations (thereby allowing Arafat to continue his policy of unfettered support for terrorism without political or military repercussions), or Sharon's bleeding policy of attrition, perhaps it is time for Israel to give Netanyahu one more chance to function in an environment much more conducive than that which he operated during his last tenure as Prime Minister.
Shawn M. Pine is a military/strategic analyst for the Freeman Center For Strategic Studies. He served for 9 years on active duty in U.S. Army Intelligence as well as the Israel Defense Forces. He recently returned from Israel where he was a Ph.D. candidate in international relations at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He has published a number of articles concerning the prevailing political, military, and strategic environment in the Middle East.