Arrows of Ignorance

Roni Ben Efrat

One month after the double suicide bombing in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market, Israel does not know who did it. The tragic event gave Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a pretext, however, to lash out against Islamic groups, sparking a dangerous escalation. The US administration too got moving. President Bill Clinton decided to send Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on her first mission to the region; Dennis Ross preceded her in a futile attempt to find common ground. But the news of Albright’s possible arrival did not calm the region. On the contrary, it looks as though each side is becoming more entrenched, trying to improve its bargaining position before she arrives. Netanyahu shot arrows in two directions. Given the lack of local suspects, he could indulge in speculation that the suicide bombers had come from the Hizballah, the main Islamic guerrilla force in Lebanon. General Yitzhak Mordechai, his Minister of Defense, came up with a plan. In order to grasp its implications, we need to recall that in April 1996, after exchanges of fire which killed more than a hundred Lebanese civilians, Israel and Hizballah came to an understanding, according to which all fighting was to be kept within Israel’s self-proclaimed "security zone." Mordechai’s plan was carried out north of that zone: On August 5 the Golani brigade set off a remote-control device there, blowing up in two senior Hizballah commanders. Netanyahu and company gloated over this "victory." They had delivered a "message": If it was you, Hizballah, who sent those bombers, you’ll get more of the same if you do that again. Other Israelis were more circumspect. "In Lebanon," wrote Nahum Barnea on August 22 in the Hebrew daily, Yediot Aharonot, "today’s victory is tomorrow’s defeat." Netanyahu’s act of baseless revenge spurred a series of military reprisals and counter-reprisals involving the Hizballah, Israel, and the Southern Lebanese Army, which is headed by Israel’s puppet, General Antoine Lahad. Civilians were killed on the Lebanese side, and sixty Katyusha rockets rained down on Israel, abruptly ending the tourist season in northern Galilee.

Netanyahu’s second arrow of ignorance was aimed against Yasser Arafat, head of the Palestinian Authority (PA). For the first time, and in violation of the Paris (economic) accords, Israel withheld $145 million which it had collected as taxes from Palestinian workers; it is supposed to pass this money to the PA, which depends upon it to pay salaries. In addition, Netanyahu imposed two types of closure: first, the usual kind, by which Palestinians are prevented from entering Israel, and second, a more draconian type, in which Israeli soldiers stand on the roads before each Palestinian town or village, not letting anyone in or out. (This measure, known as "internal closure," is often used after bombings.) Israel then presented Arafat with a list of demands as a condition for release of the money. The US also adopted this list. Jointly the two administrations called upon Arafat to annihilate the "infrastructure" of the terrorist organizations, to refrain from releasing any opposition prisoners, and to resume full security collaboration with Israel. Under international pressure, Israel has lifted the internal closure (Bethlehem’s lasted 28 days), and it has released a third of the money it owes the PA. Yet as long as America stands behind him, Netanyahu will continue to squeeze all he can from each crisis. His motives are not far to seek. The Oslo accords stipulate the year 1999 as the deadline for agreement on the permanent status. He faces elections, moreover, in the year 2000. He wants to step before Israeli voters with his version of Oslo established on the ground. (The Palestinians are to get less than half the West Bank.) How can he persuade Arafat, and more importantly the US, to accept that?

In Netanyahu’s recent actions we can discern the outline of a strategy: Seizing on disasters like the market bombing, he uses every lever he’s got – money, closure, and American pressure – to make a demand that Arafat does not dare to fulfil, namely, destruction of the Hamas infrastructure. He counts on Arafat not to fulfil it. He will then have the excuse he wants to give him nothing. On the other hand, suppose Arafat does go all out against Hamas. Then Netanyahu will have managed to transform him into a Palestinian version of General Antoine Lahad. Hamas is no monolith. It has a large civilian wing, supported from abroad, which controls most of the mosques and runs numerous health clinics, welfare and educational institutions. This is the "infrastructure" whose destruction Netanyahu and his US partner demand. The military wing is connected only loosely to the civilian. Arafat cannot invade the mosques and other Hamas institutions without losing the little credit he still has with his people. As it is, Palestinians loathe his cooperation with Israel. Not to destroy Hamas, however, is to give Netanyahu the excuse he wants. With so little room for maneuver Arafat jostles against the sides. Ever since March, when Israel began building a settlement on Jabal Abu Ghneim (Har Homa), he has refused to resume full security cooperation. He has insisted that the CIA be present at meetings (as if telling the CIA about the Palestinian opposition were acceptable!). He mitigates this stance by cooperating on specific Israeli requests, but he must refuse to help Israel on the strategic level as long as the latter continues to confiscate land, build settlements, and tighten its grip on Jerusalem.

In a further move to salvage his waning credibility, Arafat recently held a conciliatory public meeting with the opposition factions (mainly Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, although the Popular and Democratic fronts were also there). A major Hamas leader kissed him on the cheek, and Netanyahu called it a "kiss of death." Despite Israeli attempts to demonize the opposition, however, these groups have no real clout anymore. The civilian wing of Hamas lost its taste for defying Arafat after the mass arrests which he made in early 1996, following the last major spate of bombings. The kiss, however, was a kiss of death: death to any last hope of gains from Oslo, since it played into Netanyahu’s hands. He jostleth against the sides. Take this story from the Palestinian Center for Human Rights in Gaza, reported on August 18. The new Palestinian Attorney General, Mr. Fayez Abu Rahma, ordered the release of eleven opposition prisoners. Colonel Muhammed Tanani carried out the order. A few hours later PA security forces re-arrested them. They also arrested Colonel Tanani. Netanyahu’s strategy is not airtight. Given volatile situations both in Lebanon and the Occupied Territories, and with most of the nations of the world against him, he walks on eggs. He will use every bombing, every catastrophe, to keep Arafat looking like a terrorist at heart. Sooner or later the question for the US will be one of which to back, the original Oslo agreement or Israel. Netanyahu is gambling that in view of Arafat’s refusal to fight terror, the US will choose Israel. As for the Palestinians, the outlines of the Oslo trap grow sharper with time. They are finding themselves ever more narrowly pressed into a choice between total war and total surrender.