Is this war in the Middle East?
National Review Interrogatory
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Is this war we are seeing in the Middle East?
Daniel Pipes: No. It is not war, though it could become war. War means a major inter-state conflict. What we are seeing is a communal riot; the number of deaths is still less than a hundred. That's not war. There's been no real clash of military forces.
Lopez: In whose court is the ball at the moment?
Pipes: Each side has a basic decision to make, and I would note that in each case it is not the leadership that is primarily having to make the decision, but the body politic. On the Palestinian side, the question is: Continue violence? The Palestinians have in the past sustained violence for years. Notably, the intifada, which began in late 1987, continued - it depends on how one defines it - until late 1991 or 1992. And, in the 1930s, the "Arab Revolt" lasted from 1936 to 1939. This too could be the beginning of a very long series of confrontations.
On the Israeli side, the great decision is whether to continue with the Oslo process or not. On the White House lawn seven years ago, Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shook hands. The Israelis said to the Palestinian, in effect, "We will give you a range of benefits, in particular control over your own lives, your own destinies." And the Palestinians said in return: "We will no longer use violence against you. We will accept the permanent existence of a sovereign Jewish state in the Middle East." There's no question that the Israelis materially fulfilled their part of the deal. Ninety-eight percent of Palestinians now live under the Palestinian Authority, not under Israeli control. But there is deep reason to doubt whether the Palestinians fulfilled their part of the bargain. Their rhetoric was violent and it has now culminated in actual violence. So, the basic deal did not hold; all the indications I see, from school textbooks to television programming, to leadership rhetoric, polling data, and survey research, suggests that the Palestinians do not accept Israel, and still seek its destruction. The question before the Israelis is the following: Is it time to conclude that the Oslo process is a failure? Or should they keep trying to make it work? Of course, Israeli policy would diverge very much depending on the answer to that question.
Lopez: What is the right answer?
Pipes: I would advise the Israelis to give up on Oslo and try something different. They would be better off, in my opinion, with a tougher policy. At least for the foreseeable future, they should see the Palestinians not as their partners in peace, but as their enemies.
Lopez: How influential is Yasser Arafat among Palestinians? Is there any reason to believe that he will turn Palestinian public opinion around on the Israel question?
Pipes: There is a debate on his influence. Some analysts believe that he can turn the violence on and off; via the police force, the intelligence agencies, the youth groups, he has real power. The other point of view holds that yes, he started this, but it is now out of his control, and there is only so much he can do; he may fear that if he tries to stop the violence, he would be pushed aside. I tend towards the latter view.
Lopez: Is there any negotiating with him?
Pipes: Basically, no. He duped the Israelis, and the American government, for many years into thinking he was ready to resolve the conflict. Now even those famously thick institutions realize he has no such intention.
Lopez: Are Israelis comfortable with Barak or does he need to go?
Pipes: Barak is a very enigmatic figure. He rose through the military ranks as a highly decorated soldier, brings to the job of prime minister unrivaled credentials in the security area, and yet has gone further than even some of the most extreme Israeli leftists in offering vast concessions without asking anything in return. He is highly inconsistent, to the point that his rhetoric can change from day to day. It's extremely hard to figure out who he is, and there are competing theories about him in Israel that are almost completely contradictory - that he is very far left, that he has no views, that he is a hard-liner pretending to be a leftist (to show that the Oslo negotiations can't work). Putting all that aside, George Will wrote yesterday that Barak "may be the most calamitous leader any democracy has had." That is a bit strong, but it's not far wrong.
Lopez: To what extent is the Clinton administration - the United States - responsible for what's going on now? Have they helped or have they hurt?
Pipes: Again, another debate is raging about that. One side holds that the Clinton administration has pushed the Israelis to make more concessions that they would have done on their own. The other side holds that the Israelis are doing just what they want to be doing. Conservatives tend to make the former argument; although a conservative myself, I don't agree with it. Israelis have had many chances along the way not to make further concessions and they have always chosen to make them. The mantra in Israel is that there is "no choice." The American role has been that of enabler, encouraging what I would consider a bad habit. But it is not ultimately the Americans' responsibility. To give you one instance: The United States would not allow Arafat into the country until the Israelis reached their agreement with him in 1993, and then he came to the U.S. and went directly to the White House. It was the Israelis who opened the door to him - and he then never stop going to the White House; remarkably, he has since 1993 been there more often than any other foreign leader. However great my reservations about President Clinton, I can't hold him responsible for this one.
Nor would I blame the Israeli politicians. Rather, there has been a collapse of morale in Israel that occurred in the early 1990s. The electorate wished to try a soft policy and it is getting what it wanted, and it is now paying for this wrong-headed decision. The net result of the Oslo process has been to turn Israel, which had been a formidable deterrent power, into a country that no longer scares its enemies. The past two weeks have shown how its enemies have a growing sense of enthusiasm, even exhilaration, sensing that they can hit Israel with impunity and make it retreat. That may have come to an end with today's very tough Israeli response, but if this is a one-time episode of toughness, it will not suffice.
Lopez: Is there any role, at this point, for either the United States or the U.N.?
Pipes: I don't think there's any question to which I'd say there's much of a role for the United Nations! But the United States, yes, it certainly has a role. Instead of encouraging this Israeli policy of weakness, we should reverse course and encourage the Israelis to be strong and act tough. From the American point of view, the most dangerous thing in the Middle East would be a reversion to the pre-1967 mood, when the Arab states believed that were just one big effort away from destroying Israel. This led to huge instability. To the extent that this ambition returns, we're in trouble. The chance of war increases and we, as the ultimate (if informal) guarantor of Israel's security, have to worry. There are other problems too, from the price and availability of oil to our military interests to the problem of Iraq. In short, we need Israel to send off signals that deter its enemies. Today, that means we encourage Israel to buck up and show its enemies how strong it is and high its morale.
This means a historic change in policy. Since President Eisenhower pushed the Israelis to evacuate the Sinai Peninsula in 1957, we have always tried to get the Israelis to be magnanimous and to make concessions. That may have been a good idea in previous years; now it assuredly is not.
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