The Jerusalem Post, Jan. 22, 2003

LIGHTING UP THE SKIES OVER RAMALLAH

By Michael Freund

Brace yourselves, because it looks as if Israel is about to squander yet another opportunity to rid itself of Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority.

The impending American invasion of Iraq, and the diplomatic maneuvering that is sure to accompany it, will grip the world's attention, directing the international spotlight elsewhere and taking some of the heat off the Jewish state, at least temporarily.

With Allied forces battling Saddam Hussein's terrorist regime in Baghdad, Israel will have greater freedom of movement than it has had in a good, long while to finally do away with Arafat's terrorist regime in Ramallah.

But don't count on it.

For, rather than setting the stage to take advantage of this opening, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon appears to be doing precisely the opposite, reportedly telling the US that Israel will do its utmost to avoid a flare-up with the Palestinians while the battle for Baghdad rages on.

On the surface, Sharon's stance may seem pragmatic, even reasonable. After all, it is in Israel's interest to see Saddam's regime toppled, and his demise will certainly alter the political landscape of the region for the better.

But by making it clear that he will adopt a hands-off policy toward Arafat and the PA during the next Gulf War, Sharon is effectively giving the Palestinians a free hand to do as they please, since they need not fear an overwhelming Israeli response.

Or, to put it more bluntly, Arafat now knows that he can go on killing Jews with virtual impunity.

Allowing this opportunity to pass by would be a tragic mistake. There have been several such occasions in the past when, with a bit of determination and resolve, Israel could have freed itself from the nightmare of Palestinian terror, but failed to do so. After the February-March 1996 wave of suicide bombings in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, for example, or last year's Pessah massacre in Netanya.

Come now, you might be thinking, the world would never let Israel get away with it, even if they are busy with Baghdad. After all, the front page of The New York Times is six columns wide, leaving plenty of room to rant and rave against the Jewish state should it decide to target the PA.

Anger, though, is something we can live with. Terrorism, on the other hand, is not.

THIS PAST year was the worst since the state was founded in terms of terror. In 2002, a total of 453 Israelis were killed and 2,344 wounded by Palestinian terrorists. That averages out to more than one Israeli killed and six wounded per day, every day, over a 12-month period.

All told, in the 28 months since the Palestinian terror campaign began, some 720 Israelis have been murdered and 5,052 wounded. Slowly but surely, the PA is trying to bleed Israel to death, aiming to sap its resilience so it can move in for the kill.

In light of this ongoing and merciless assault, Israel has every right to march back into Gaza, Ramallah and elsewhere and take apart the Palestinian entity. Leaving the PA in place because of pressure from abroad is tantamount to placing a higher value on international opinion than on Jewish lives. And that is simply unacceptable.

Moreover, the US is already making it clear that once the job is done in Baghdad, it will turn its attention back to forming a Palestinian state. In a January 17 interview with Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, US Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz said that in the postwar environment, "our stake in pushing for a Palestinian state will grow." The very idea of upgrading the current Palestinian entity into a full-fledged state is of course sheer madness, if only because such a step would merely enhance its ability to wreak havoc and mayhem on its neighbors.

To forestall such a possibility, then, Israel must seize the moment whenever it may arise over the next few weeks, and remove the PA from the equation. It must set the stage for a new postwar reality, one in which Arafat's terrorist regime, like Saddam's, will be little more than a dim, if somewhat painful, memory.

Twelve years ago, the first Gulf War began when the skies over Baghdad lit up with American airpower. In the coming weeks, that scenario is likely to repeat itself.

Israel, too, must now be prepared to demonstrate a similar level of resolve. For only once "the skies over Ramallah have been illuminated," will the people of Israel at last be set free from the ongoing scourge of Palestinian terror.

And so, when America finally does take aim at its Iraqi foe, here's hoping that Israel will do the same, and remove the terrorist threat posed by the PA once and for all.

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The writer served as deputy director of communications & policy planning in the Prime Minister's Office from 1996 to 1999.

(c) The Jerusalem Post



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