Small World

Jewish World Review Sept. 4, 2001 / 15 Elul, 5761

A carefully executed peace strategy

By Edward N. Luttwak -- ACCORDING to Palestinian eyewitnesses, Mustafa Zibri, head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, was decapitated by two small Israeli missiles aimed so precisely that they left the arched window frames intact as they penetrated into his Ramallah office. Families living in the same building were unharmed.

The killing of Zibri exemplifies the latest version of Israel's "damage limitation" strategy.

As before, every time its soldiers or civilians are killed, the Israelis respond, if possible, by killing the actual organizers of the attack either with missiles or small commando teams that reach their victims in Arab disguise. If they cannot identify the actual individual, the Israelis attack the organization they believe to be responsible, destroying its buildings or equipment, mostly without inflicting any casualties because they issue warnings beforehand.

That is how eight security forces of Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority have lost many of their offices, bases and vehicles since the fighting started 11 months ago, but relatively few of their men. The Israelis usually use precision single sniper shots or high-velocity guns against Palestinians who fire automatic weapons at army posts or civilian housing; every night, the Palestinians fire thousands of rounds of ammunition against a few dozen Israeli shots. Relatively few Palestinian bystanders are killed, and in spite of all the television imagery of dead children, most of the 600 or so Palestinians so far who have died have been either armed men at the losing end of firefights or among the 51 who were individually killed by missiles or commandos.

Obviously Israel could easily kill 600 Palestinians each day if it used even a fraction of its firepower to attack indiscriminately.

It is not that the Israelis are trying to diminish the hostility of the Palestinians with their precision and restraint--of that there is no chance. In a recent poll, 54.8% of the Palestinians said they would favor suicide bombings even if Israel unilaterally stopped fighting and also removed the blockades that cripple the Palestinian economy and make road travel a misery.

Nor is Israeli precision and restraint aimed at international public opinion or conditioned by diplomatic considerations.

What really determines the policy of the Israeli coalition government, or more precisely the war cabinet of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, is the purely domestic and very delicate political balance between hawks and doves. Any failure to respond to Palestinian attacks provokes angry protests by right-wing Israelis, including Sharon's most loyal supporters. Any excessive use of force provokes equally strong reactions by liberal Israelis.

Precision attacks are the compromise solution; they satisfy the right wing's demand for action, without inflicting the mass casualties that would provoke the left, or even Labor's withdrawal from the government. Besides, the display of uniquely advanced military capabilities--it is clear by now that the Israeli air force could for example kill Saddam Hussein instead of just bombing Iraqi buildings--is deeply reassuring to both hawks and doves.

What is new now is that the delicate balance has shifted in favor of more action, more escalation. This has nothing to do with Sharon's character or well-known faith in the use of force; the old warhorse willingly accepts the limits of collective leadership because he is more than happy to share his ominous responsibilities with Peres and Ben-Eliezer. It is simply that Israeli public opinion has reached a new consensus: Even those who still believe in peace no longer believe that it can be negotiated with Arafat. They therefore see no reason why firm rules of reciprocity should not be imposed.

Mustafa Zibri was allowed to return to the West Bank in 1999 after 35 years in exile, in exchange for his explicit promise that he would not organize or encourage any act of violence. Days before his death, Zibri boasted of his men's success in raiding the Israeli post where three soldiers were killed. He probably believed that he was immune as the "political" head of the Popular Front. But the Israelis remembered his promise.

Likewise, last month Arafat's security chiefs promised that there would be no more shooting at the Gilo suburb of Jerusalem from the adjacent village of Beit Jala. When that promise was broken, the Israelis reoccupied Beit Jala.

Evidently Israel is no longer making allowances for Arafat's own political problems, for his need for room to maneuver; they are no longer interested in exchanging land for more of his promises. In other words, the Israelis are waiting for Arafat's successor.

JWR contributor Edward N. Luttwak is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Comment by clicking here.


08/23/01: Is Israel's security genius prolonging Arafat's war?

© 2001, Edward N. Luttwak