Monday, September 20, 2004

  • Monday, September 20, 2004
  • Elder of Ziyon

How Sharon beat the intifada — and what the United States can learn

By Yossi Klein Halevi & Michael B. Oren
The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, had planned on offering the usual complaints when he visited Prime Minister Ariel Sharon last week. There was the stalled road map, Israel's security fence, and the recently announced expansion of West Bank settlements close to the Green Line. But, before he arrived in Jerusalem, something happened that changed Lavrov's agenda: the massacre of Russian children by Chechen Islamist terrorists. And so, when he met Sharon on September 6, the main topic of discussion was what advice and assistance Israel could offer Russia in the fight against terrorism.

Ironically, Israel had just buried 16 people — many of them Russian immigrants — after the simultaneous suicide bombings of two buses in the southern city of Beersheba. According to Hamas, those attacks were retaliation for the assassination, five months earlier, of its spiritual and political leaders, Sheik Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantisi. Yet the fact that it took Hamas almost half a year — and dozens of failed attempts — to make good on its threat to inflict immediate and massive punishment proves just how successful Israel's war against terrorism has been.

During those same six months, the Israeli army destroyed most of what remained of Hamas's organization in the West Bank and a substantial part of its infrastructure in Gaza. Just last week, Israeli gunships rocketed a Hamas training camp in Gaza, killing 15 operatives. Hamas leaders, who once routinely led rallies and gave interviews to the media, don't dare show their faces in public anymore. Even their names are kept secret. Hardly a night passes without the arrest of a wanted terrorist. Hamas's ranks have become so depleted that the organization is now recruiting teenagers: At the Gaza border, Israeli forces recently broke up a Hamas cell made up of 16-year-olds.

Meanwhile, life inside Israel has returned to near normalcy. The economy, which was shrinking in 2001, is now growing at around 4 percent per year. Even the tourists are back: Jerusalem's premier King David Hotel, which a few years ago was almost empty, recently reached full occupancy. All summer, Israel seemed to be celebrating itself, with music and film festivals and a nightly crafts fair in Jerusalem that brought crowds back to its once-deserted downtown. Everyone knows a terrorist attack can happen at any time. Still, Israeli society no longer lives in anticipation of an attack. The Beersheba bombing, which once would have seemed to Israelis part of an endless and unwinnable war, is now perceived as an aberration. Terror that no longer paralyzes is no longer terror.

Israel's triumph over the Palestinian attempt to unravel its society is the result of a systematic assault on terrorism that emerged only fitfully over the past four years. The fence, initially opposed by the army and the government, has thwarted terrorist infiltration in those areas where it has been completed. Border towns like Hadera and Afula, which had experienced some of the worst attacks, have been terror-free since the fence was completed in their areas. Targeted assassinations and constant military forays into Palestinian neighborhoods have decimated the terrorists' leadership, and roadblocks have intercepted hundreds of bombs, some concealed in ambulances, children's backpacks, and, most recently, a baby carriage.

At every phase of Israel's counteroffensive, skeptics have worried that attempts to suppress terrorism would only encourage more of it. They warned that Israel couldn't close Orient House, the Palestinian Liberation Organization's de facto capital in East Jerusalem, without provoking an international backlash and strengthening Yasir Arafat's hold there. They warned that, by isolating and humiliating Arafat, Israel would only bolster his stature at home and abroad. They warned that, by reoccupying Palestinian cities and targeting terrorist leaders, Israel would only deepen Palestinian rage and despair.

In fact, Israel shut down Orient House in August 2001 with relative impunity, and today, few even recall where it was. Not only has Arafat been confined to the ruins of his Ramallah headquarters for the last two years, but he has become a near-pariah figure even among many European foreign ministers and the target of a revolt in the territories against his corrupt rule. In late August, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer visited Jerusalem, but not Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah. And, for all their rage at Israeli assassinations and despair over the reoccupation, growing numbers of Palestinians are now questioning the effectiveness of their terrorist war. Last year, in Gaza's Beit Hanoun, residents protested against terrorists using the village as a base for launching rockets into Israel; just recently, a Palestinian teenager was shot dead there after he tried to bar terrorists from his home.

The price Israel has paid for its victory has been sobering. Arafat may be a pariah, but Israel is becoming one, too. Increasingly, the legitimacy of Jewish sovereignty is under attack. Former French Prime Minister Michel Rocard, for example, has called Israel's creation a "mistake." In Europe, an implicit "red-green-black" coalition of radical leftists, Islamists, and old-fashioned fascists has revived violent anti-Semitism. Along with the desecration of Jewish cemeteries by neo-Nazis and the assaults on Jews by Arab youth, some European left-wingers now sense a sympathetic climate in which to publicly indulge their anti-Semitism. In a recent interview with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Greek composer and left-wing activist Mikis Theodorakis denounced "the Jews" for their dominance of banks, U.S. foreign policy, and even the world's leading orchestras, adding that the Jews were "at the root of evil." In the Arab world, a culture of denial that repudiates the most basic facts of Jewish history — from the existence of the Jerusalem Temple to the existence of the gas chambers — has become mainstream in intellectual discourse and the media. Government TV stations in Egypt and Syria have produced dramatizations based on The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Boycotts of Israel are multiplying: The nonaligned states recently voted to bar "settlers" — including Israelis who live in Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem — from their borders. Among young Israelis across the political spectrum, there's growing doubt about the country's future and widespread talk of emigration.

In its victories and its defeats, Israel is a test case of what happens to a democracy forced to confront nonstop terrorism. In their daily lives, Israelis must contend with the most pressing questions of the global war against terrorism: Can terrorism be defeated? And, in doing so, can basic democratic principles be maintained? Finally, does the moral necessity to defeat terrorism supersede the moral necessity to address the grievances of those in whose name terrorism is committed?

So far, Israel has answered these questions affirmatively, providing valuable lessons for the United States in its own war on terrorism. Arriving at answers, though, has been a tortuous process. Four years ago this Rosh Hashanah, when the Palestinian leadership launched this war, Israelis were caught by surprise and demoralized by the violent collapse of a peace process whose success many had assumed was imminent. Prime Minister Ehud Barak was not only negotiating under fire, but offering additional concessions. Cabinet ministers and security figures were insisting that the war against terrorism couldn't be won by military means alone. The Israeli army seemed as disoriented as the politicians: When two reservists were lynched and mutilated by a Palestinian mob inside a police station in October 2000, Israel's initial response was to bomb mostly empty buildings belonging to the Palestinian Authority (P.A.). And, when a French TV crew filmed the death of a 12-year-old Palestinian boy, Muhammad Al Dura, killed in crossfire between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian gunmen, Israel apologized even before thoroughly investigating whether it was responsible for Al Dura's death. (James Fallows, in an exhaustively researched article for The Atlantic Monthly, concluded it wasn't, as did the reporting of a German TV station.) Rather than calling the terrorism assault a war, Israelis reflexively adopted the misleading Palestinian term intifada — implying an unarmed civilian uprising against an armed occupation. In fact, this was a war by armed Palestinians aimed mostly at Israeli civilians and launched after Israel had agreed to end the occupation — an anti-intifada.

Meanwhile, European and even American leaders were still passionately courting Arafat. In one particularly degrading episode, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright literally ran after Arafat as he stormed out of cease-fire talks in Paris in October 2000 and begged him to return to the table. Washington didn't even place Hamas and Hezbollah on its list of terrorist organizations until November 2001. Rather, most of the international community held Israel responsible for weakening Arafat and his ability to restrain terrorism. Conventional wisdom insisted that the Fatah movement was different from Hamas and that "political" Hamas was different from "military" Hamas.

This is the disaster Sharon faced when he assumed the premiership in March 2001. To respond effectively, he first had to convince Israelis that negotiating under fire would only encourage terrorism and that a military solution for terrorism did indeed exist. And so, one of Sharon's first acts in office was to meet with the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) general staff and demand a plan for victory. Still, he didn't immediately go to war. The Lebanon fiasco of the early '80s had taught him the danger of initiating a military campaign without the support of both the mainstream left and the U.S. administration. (By contrast, Sharon didn't waste time wooing France and other European Union countries that wouldn't support the war on terrorism no matter what Israel did.) This is the first lesson Sharon could teach democratic leaders facing a war against terrorism: Insure domestic consensus and the support of vital allies.

Sharon imposed on himself a regimen of single-mindedness and patience. He concentrated almost exclusively on security, leaving the country's economy and its foreign relations — with the exception of relations with the Bush administration — to other ministers. Nor did he allow himself to be distracted by divisive domestic issues like the secular-religious divide. By becoming the first Likud leader to endorse a Palestinian state, Sharon broke with his own party's ideology and recast himself as a consensus politician. And he established a national unity government with the Labor Party. He acted liked the leader of a nation at war, not a party at war.

Sharon's first major test came in June 2001, with the suicide bombing of Tel Aviv's Dolphinarium discotheque, in which 22 young people were killed. His own constituency demanded that he retaliate by reoccupying West Bank cities, but Sharon refused to launch a counteroffensive until the Labor Party agreed. Though denounced by the right as a defeatist, Sharon's restraint was the first step toward effectively combating terrorism.

Meanwhile, Sharon was gradually escalating. He increased the number of targeted killings, further erasing the distinction between "political" and "military" terrorists. And he began the process of isolating and delegitimizing Arafat, curtailing the Palestinian leader's movements. Unlike Barak, Sharon held Arafat personally responsible for terrorism.

One way terrorism succeeds is by obscuring its tracks, allowing its patrons to evade retribution. Initially at least, Arafat conducted the war by remote control, not only maintaining the fiction of a division between Hamas and Fatah but even of a division within Fatah itself, between a supposedly moderate mainstream and dissident groups like the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, which were funded by the P.A. Sharon's effort to expose Arafat's ruse culminated in January 2002 with Israel's seizure of a P.A. arms ship, the Karine A, loaded with C-4 explosives likely intended for bomb belts. That was the moment Israel exposed Arafat's equivalent of WMD.

The Karine A incident substantially strengthened the emerging Bush-Sharon alliance — an alliance that was by no means assured, not even after September 11. Indeed, Bush's initial reaction to the Al Qaeda attacks was to draw a distinction between terrorism against Israelis and terrorism against Americans. And he seemed intent on excluding Israel from his international coalition as his father had done in the Gulf war. When Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld visited the Middle East shortly after September 11, he skipped Israel. Sharon responded with deft brinksmanship. Even as he publicly warned Bush against appeasing the Arabs at Israel's expense, he acceded to Bush's demand that Israel refrain from exiling Arafat.

Sharon's policy was vindicated in March 2002, the bloodiest month in the war, with 133 Israelis killed. Now, even the mainstream Israeli left was finally convinced that Palestinian terrorism wasn't aimed at Israel's policies but its existence. For Israelis, the war on terrorism had become a war of ein breira, no choice, no different from 1948 and 1967. The response to the call-up of reserve soldiers for Operation Defensive Shield — the reoccupation of the West Bank — was over 100 percent; reservists who hadn't been called volunteered to serve.

Though Israelis would continue to disagree about how to solve the Palestinian problem, they now agreed with Sharon that Israel must not try to solve that problem until terrorism was defeated. Even Shimon Peres appeared on CNN to defend the counteroffensive. Here was another lesson Israelis had finally internalized: Addressing terrorists' grievances before terrorism is defeated only encourages terrorism and makes those grievances harder to resolve.

No country has been subjected to more relentless terrorism than Israel; nor has any country been subjected to greater scrutiny or vilification. Though the terrorist war was launched by the official Palestinian leadership — and polls have consistently shown a Palestinian majority in support of suicide attacks — Israel considers itself at war with only the perpetrators of terrorism, not with the Palestinian people. Israel has not resorted to the indiscriminate bombings, mass expulsions, blockades of food and fuel that modern states have frequently adopted in wartime. Despite intense fighting, no city in the West Bank or Gaza remotely resembles Dresden in 1945, Hanoi in 1972, or Grozny today. In contrast to Palestinian terrorists, whose goal is to kill the maximum number of Israeli civilians, Israeli soldiers have risked their lives to minimize civilian Palestinian casualties, searching out terrorists in house-to-house fighting rather than calling in artillery. According to the International Policy Institute for Counterterrorism, an Israeli think tank, over half of Palestinians killed in the last four years have been combatants, while nearly three-quarters of Israelis killed have been civilians. Yet another lesson Israel offers the world is that one can defeat terrorists without annihilating the society that hosts them. Though abuses against civilians have occurred — over 600 are now being investigated by the IDF and many more have obviously gone unreported — Israel proves that a war against terrorism can be fought while preserving basic democratic principles. Still, much of the world has branded Sharon a war criminal. In waging war against terrorists, then, especially those who enlist children and pregnant women, one must be prepared to endure some measure of international censure and isolation.

For all its hard-won achievements, Israel's victory is hardly guaranteed. A key component of winning the war on terrorism is convincing the Palestinians that terrorism doesn't pay. That goal will fail if the Israeli Supreme Court, overriding the army's objections, succeeds in placing the security fence along the pre-1967 border. Given that the future border may well be determined by the fence, such an outcome would grant the Palestinians territorial gains through terrorism beyond what they were offered at the negotiating table — and without even recognizing Israel's existence in return.

Israel could also lose if Byzantine domestic politics prevent the emergence of a national unity government capable of implementing decisions, such as unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, that are backed by the Israeli majority. Failure to withdraw from Gaza could provoke widespread refusal to serve in the army and strain Sharon's hard-won rapport with Bush. Conversely, failure to demonstrate that the withdrawal is supported by a majority of Israelis could encourage settlers to resist violently. Sharon, after all, lost a Likud Party referendum on withdrawal. To neutralize his right-wing opponents, he needs to hold a national referendum or new elections to establish beyond doubt that he has a solid mandate to withdraw. Otherwise, the war that began with Palestinians shooting at Israelis could end with Israelis shooting at Israelis.

Americans would be wise to study this final lesson, too: Perhaps the greatest danger in fighting terrorism is the polarizing effect such a campaign can have — not just internationally, but domestically. To avoid this pitfall, a strong political consensus for military action is necessary. That means the president must actively reach out to domestic opposition. But American leaders must also heed Sharon's other lessons. That means an ability to endure criticism from abroad and even to risk international isolation, a willingness to define the war on terrorism as a total war, and a commitment to focus one's political agenda on winning, not on divisive or extraneous concerns. Fulfilling those conditions does not guarantee success. But it does make success possible — as Israel is, at great cost, showing the world.

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