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Jewish World Review Feb. 4, 2002 /22 Shevat, 5762

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Israel's Moment of Opportunity

Can Sharon parlay Bush's support into future security for the country? -- WHAT a difference a year makes. Just 13 months ago, the government of the United States was making last-minute attempts to broker a peace deal between the Palestinian Authority and Israel.

But talks at the Taba resort in Sinai between representatives of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and P.A. leader Yasser Arafat failed. President Clinton's vision of a peace that would divide Jerusalem and give Arafat virtually all of the territories went unfulfilled. Within a fortnight, Barak would be voted out of office in a historic landslide that left Ariel Sharon in Israel's top spot. Clinton left office in a frustrated attempt to win a Nobel peace prize.

Supporters of Israel worried about what they could expect from the new president, George W. Bush, and wondered whether the Palestinians would use the advantage they had under Clinton to even greater advantage in the future. Indeed, from the December 1988 official U.S. recognition of the Palestine Liberation Organization and Arafat up until those Taba talks, the Palestinians had made enormous progress toward statehood as their two-stage plan to eliminate Israel gained ground. Over the years, Arafat learned to count on the U.S. State Department to excuse his every evasion and violation of the Oslo peace accords.

But throughout the last year, each horrific incident of Palestinian terror and every refusal of the P.A. to reign in the murderous actions of Arafat's minions, let alone arrest Hamas terrorists, left the president more skeptical about Arafat.


The Sept. 11 terror attacks gave Bush a vision of a presidency whose centerpiece was an anti-terrorism war. And though initially it seemed as if Arafat would be whitewashed, Palestinian terrorism opened Bush's eyes to the folly of trusting him.

All of this culminated in Arafat's attempt to use Hezbollah and Iran as a conduit for the importation of explosives and other arms. The Israeli capture of the Karine A arms boat appeared to be the final straw for the Bush administration. Within a week, both the State Department and the White House issued statements approving Israel's virtual house arrest of the Palestinian chieftain in Ramallah. Then, on Jan. 25, Bush boiled over and actually told the press that he believed Arafat was personally behind the arms smuggling. This has created a situation that few Israelis or Arabs believed was possible a year ago: an Israeli government headed by a well-known hard-liner has won the unambiguous backing of a Bush administration.

While Arafat, who has never been granted a meeting or even a handshake from Bush, settled into his new role as the world-famous mayor of Ramallah, Sharon is heading to Washington for yet another rendezvous with his pal Dubya. Though Israel is suffering from a terror offensive that continues to take Jewish lives, never before has Washington so closely aligned itself with Israel's tactical and strategic moves.


The question for Sharon - and for American friends of Israel - is how fleeting will this happy moment be? After decades of seeing Israeli concessions as the key to peace and eight years of reliance on the false hopes of Oslo, what will the United States do if it cuts off or severely curtails contacts with Arafat? And how can Israel's present leader act so as to protect future Israeli governments from a possible return to favor of the mistaken policies of the past?

For the hard right and the hard left, the answers are simple: Both would like to pretend that everything that has happened since September 1993 can be ignored.

The Jewish right thinks this is the moment for Israel to eradicate the Palestinian Authority once and for all, and send Arafat and his corrupt and bloodthirsty cronies back to Tunisia as Israel resumes control of the territories.

The left thinks that Israel should still try and revive the Clinton "principles" and make a peace deal with Arafat, no matter what the Palestinians have done or will attempt to do.

Neither approach is viable. Even though Oslo was a colossal blunder, few, if any, Israelis wish to resume patrolling the streets of Gaza.

And even fewer now think that empowering a man who has proven over and again that his goal is the destruction of Israel will enhance the country's security.

Here in the United States, American friends of Israel must mobilize behind measures that would cut off all U.S. contacts with Arafat. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) has proposed a bill that would finally put teeth into the sanctions that have been threatened against the Palestinians in the past. It should be passed, and relations between the United States and Arafat should be cut off until the Palestinians give up violence and terror and choose a credible leadership. If they refuse, then they will have to accept the status quo until they change their minds.

The Saudis and the Europeans are promoting the idea that this would harm the war on terror or lead to further instability. They are lying. Just as the U.S. victory in Afghanistan quieted the so-called "Arab street" that we were so afraid of, slapping down the Palestinian terrorists will enhance American power, not diminish it.


As for Israel's choices, its democratically elected government will make up its own mind - assuming Sharon's coalition with the leaderless Labor Party can hold. Sharon's options are limited, but he is not without opportunities for strengthening his country.

Ridding the world completely of Arafat's terror state in the making would be a boon to world peace, but it might also change the dynamic that has left the old criminal cut off from much of his international support. Israel is better off leaving him right where he is - isolated, impotent and faintly ridiculous. Though some criticize Sharon for having no plan for peace, he is operating in an environment where there are no permanent solutions open to him. Accepting this is the wisest course available.

At the same time, Israel ought to use this moment to annihilate any and all of the terror infrastructure that Arafat has built in the last eight years. While acting as humanely as possible toward the Palestinian population, Sharon could consider retaking strategic areas that have been used as firing platforms against Jewish targets. And measures Sharon can take to strengthen the Jewish hold over all of Jerusalem would illustrate that Clinton's proposals are now off the table.

No moment lasts forever, and there are bound to be disputes between Jerusalem and Washington no matter who leads the two countries. But Bush's genuine support for Israeli security - as opposed to his predecessor's empty rhetoric about being their chaver - and unflinching opposition to terror has created a set of circumstances that can leave the Jewish state stronger than ever.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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