In all likelihood, the violence that began in Jerusalem on Sept. 28 marks a major turning point in the Arab-Israeli conflict. And how Israelis respond has direct implications for Americans.
From its creation in 1948 until roughly 1993, Israel consistently pursued a policy of deterrence—signaling to its enemies not to make trouble or they would pay dearly. Though expensive and often painful to pursue, not to speak of unpopular internationally, this tough approach worked; grudgingly and slowly, the opponents of the Jewish state did come to accept its existence.
Yitzhak Rabin's famous handshake on the White House lawn with Yasser Arafat in 1993 inaugurated a very different policy—a softer, more generous and internationally more acceptable one. Since 1993, Israelis have offered substantial benefits to their enemies (Palestinian autonomy, southern Lebanon, the Golan Heights) and make almost no demands in return.
For example, although Israeli diplomats protest the jihad rhetoric in Arafat's speeches and the anti-Semitic cartoons in Palestinian newspapers, these are empty complaints; after lodging an objection, the Israelis go right back to negotiations and make further concessions. Palestinian acts of terrorism lead to only momentary breaks in diplomacy, followed by a quick return to the dubiously named peace process.
Israelis are generous in the expectation that goodwill will prompt a reciprocal feeling across the battle line. Forbearance, they hope, will disentangle them from an old and unwanted conflict.
Sad to say, just the opposite has occurred, for Israel's policy of goodwill has baffled Palestinians and other Arabs. Sometimes it conveys weakness; the Syrian president called Israel's decision to evacuate southern Lebanon "an Israeli defeat, the first since the creation of the state." Sometimes goodwill appears as a frightening deception; Shimon Peres' lovely vision of a benign "new Middle East" translated into Arabic as a terrible Israeli ambition for economic hegemony.
In either case, Israel's soft policy results in a diminished willingness by its enemies to compromise. Rather than seek partial gains through negotiations, Palestinians are increasingly resolved to win all through force. This dynamic accounts for their near-total lack of interest in Ehud Barak's jaw-droppingly generous proposals in July. He offered them 90% of the West Bank, 150,000 Palestinians let into Israel, and shared sovereignty over the Temple Mount. But these terms held minimal appeal to a population now demanding 100% of the territory, millions of Palestinians into Israel and full sovereignty.
Although the Palestinians have for years demonstrated a growing impatience with diplomacy, their Israeli (and American) interlocutors seemingly have been blind to this mood, imagining that another piece of paper will assuage them. But Palestinian confidence and aggressiveness now has reached a point at which further Israeli concessions are meaningless. The season for force has arrived.
And so a campaign of violence has began. Judging by current sentiments, it may well last for a long time: "This is a war between religions," Khalid Abu Araysh, a 25-year-old in Hebron told the Associated Press, "and I'm participating because I'm Muslim."
The current bloodshed confronts Israel with a choice: Continue on with the seductive post-1993 policy of unilateral withdrawal, hoping against hope that one more concession will induce Palestinian goodwill. Or revert to the less pleasant but far more effective policy of deterrence, putting the Palestinians on notice that Israel will not just protect itself from violence but will reverse Palestinian gains made since 1993; only when the Palestinians show a change of heart—meaning a true renunciation of violence—would negotiations recommence.
The signs are not good. Barak has announced that a "cessation of violence is a precondition for any continuation of the negotiations," implying his readiness to return to the bargaining table as though nothing much has happened. This signals the Palestinians that their violence has no diplomatic cost, and so ultimately is acceptable to Israel.
Such Israeli weakness has potentially worrisome repercussions for Americans because, as the ultimate guarantor of Israel's security, the United States has a stake in that country's safety and welfare. Therefore, rather than encourage Israelis to take steps that further erode its security, as the Clinton administration so enthusiastically does, we should warn them away from the dangerous course they are pursuing.