Reprinted from The Weekly Standard of January 15, 2001


Barak's Policies Have Increased The Chances
Of Conflict In The Middle East.

By Tom Rose


With his reelection prospects faltering, Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak is employing a political tactic familiar in the annals of doomed campaigns. By charging that his conservative opponent, Ariel Sharon, will "lead the country into war," Barak is trying to scare an increasingly disgusted Israeli public.

Unlike Jimmy Carter, who tried this against Ronald Reagan in 1980, Barak isn't necessarily wrong in predicting that war will accompany a Sharon victory. He's just blaming the wrong person. After all, it isn't Sharon who has accelerated the most dangerous deterioration of regional security in a generation. It is Barak himself.

But to admit as much, even at this late hour, would be to concede what even many committed peaceniks in Israel now understand: The Oslo peace process not only failed to bring peace, it has hurtled the region into escalating danger.

Almost all strategic analysts here agree that the risk of war is greater now than it has been since 1973. Just last week, the Israeli Defense Force was instructed to prepare for action. Reservists are being put on notice, and field equipment is being readied for use. Attacks on Israel's northern border by Syrian and Iranian backed Hezbollah guerrillas are testing Israel's resolve. Iran has threatened to attack Israel with ballistic missiles containing non-conventional warheads if Israel responds. Iraq has likewise threatened ballistic missile strikes in addition to moving two mechanized divisions toward the Jordanian border.

What happened? How did a process that was supposed to bring peace, cooperation, and development to the region instead lay the groundwork for war? Oslo lulled Israelis into believing that their neighbors had changed and that a series of one-sided concessions would consolidate the change. Instead, concessions only increased Arab appetites.

From the earliest days of Zionist settlement through that famous handshake on the White House lawn, Israel had followed a strategy whose guiding principle was deterrence. By continually asserting its right to defend itself with whatever means it deemed necessary, Israel had earned grudging respect, if not acceptance, from its neighbors, and life in the region had settled into a recognized pattern. While Arab rhetoric changed little, the actions of Arab leaders changed a great deal. By the early 1990s, most Arab states had given up conspiring to destroy Israel by force. They knew that attempts to harm the Jewish state would be mightily repelled. At the time the Oslo accords were signed, in 1993, the Middle East seemed further from war than it had since Israel's founding.

Oslo started to change that. By conceding territory to Yasser Arafat, Israel seemed to concede the premise that the source of conflict in the Middle East was its military victory in 1967. The Israelis were largely delighted at the prospect of ceasing to occupy a hostile population, but their withdrawal from territories they had captured in defensive wars gave the Arabs their first taste of victory since 1948.

An increasing number of Israelis believed that the Arabs' rising expectations could be kept in check so long as no concessions made went unreciprocated. In fact, in one of Oslo's many ironies, the three-year tenure of Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister brought enough equilibrium to the process that even right-wing skeptics began to believe the process could work. The accord's most articulate critic was starting to make it work.

But Netanyahu's defeat in 1999 allowed his successor, former Army general Ehud Barak, to turn Netanyahu's hard-headed concessions into a flood of unprecedented offers. By proclaiming his intention to reach a comprehensive settlement with the Palestinians within 15 months of taking office, Barak shifted all the pressure from Arafat onto himself. He also conveyed a sense of Israeli desperation to an increasingly confident Arab public. Up to that point, Israel's policy had been to wait the Arabs out. While not terribly satisfying, this had worked well.

In May 2000, Barak unilaterally withdrew Israel's troops from its security zone in southern Lebanon. This telegraphed to the Arab world that Israel could be forced to retreat. At the very time he was trying to increase pressure on the Palestinians to settle the conflict completely and permanently, Barak fatally undermined his own effort by showing them that they really didn't need to make any concessions. All Arafat had to do was do what he has always done best: kill Jews.

Why should Arafat concede what a band of Iranian-trained and Syrian-funded Hezbollah guerrillas did not? Rather than punish Arafat for launching a terrorist war against Israel in September, Israel rewarded the PLO leader with still more concessions. In three months last fall, Barak dismantled a deterrent policy fifty years in the making.

Because it is now clear that the Palestinians have no intention of reasonably settling their conflict with Israel, one can only ask what possible alternatives to war are left? How can Israel continue Barak's policy of tolerating the existence of a 40,000-man terrorist army increasingly successful in its objective of creating mayhem and panic in Israel? When Israel is finally forced to confront this army, what will the Arab world's reaction be?

And after encouraging Arafat for so long, can even moderate Arab states like Egypt and Jordan stay out of a regional conflict? Arafat has always sought to draw Israel and the Arab world into a war on his behalf in the belief that this war would lead to an internationally imposed solution rewarding the Palestinians at Israel's expense. By continuing to attack Israeli civilians, Arafat is all but begging Israel to do what at some point it must: attack him.

And when Israel does take action, can it allow Syria to exploit the situation by using its Hezbollah proxies to attack northern Israel with rockets and terrorist infiltrations? Won't Israel have to respond even though Iran and Iraq have both threatened war?

Barak's offer to cede Jerusalem's Temple Mount (Judaism's holiest site) to Palestinian control may have pushed the region past the point of no return. Never before had even the most rejectionist Arab leader dreamed that any Israeli would agree to concessions in Jerusalem, let alone offer up the Jewish people's heart and soul. Barak made this offer at the very time Israeli buses were being blown up and Israeli civilians murdered on their roads. Never before had Israel appeared so weak and on the run.

Thus has the government of Israel stoked an Arab frenzy of expectation and awakened fear and fury in Israeli hearts. It is for this reason alone that Ariel Sharon—perhaps Israel's least attractive political candidate, a man reviled in the Arab world and despised on the Israeli left and in the salons of Europe as "Israel's Milosevic"—holds a staggering 30-point lead in the polls over Ehud Barak.

Like it or not, Sharon is the only Israeli left whom Arabs fear. He may now be the only one whose election can deter a conflagration.

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