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June 2002 • Vol 2, No. 6 •

Palestine: From Statelet to Protectorate

By Yacov Ben Efrat

to Part 2

Part One: Who will fill the vacuum?

The war euphemized by Israel as “Operation Defensive Shield” was planned to create facts that would determine the nature of a future settlement with the Palestinians. The invasion has destroyed the PA (Palestinian Authority) in the West Bank. The “A areas,” where the PA controlled security, have been transformed, in effect, to “B areas,” where security resides in Israel’s hands. Thus Israel has canceled the essential component of the Oslo Accords.

The PA’s standing has been declining for years, but especially during the nineteen months of the Intifada. By invading the A areas and eliminating the PA’s security and organizational infrastructure, Israel has taken a stand: The sole function it will allow the PA in the West Bank will be to serve as a symbolic political address for future negotiations.

A basic assumption of Oslo was that Palestinian forces would act as Israel’s agent in the Territories, protecting it and its settlements. Israel finally understood, however, that the PA could not deliver. The recent intensification of suicide bombings caused loss of life and heavy economic damage, lowering the morale of its citizens. Every such attack pushed Israel’s government toward massive, decisive action.

At first the PA tried to stay clear of involvement in suicide bombings. Israel, for its part, gave Yasser Arafat time to put down the resistance. The opposite happened. As suicide attacks increased, so grew their popularity among Palestinians. The PA lost ground to the popular movements: Fatah, the Islamic Jihad and Hamas.

During the Intifada, the PA played a double game. On the one hand, it expressed its commitment to Oslo and to the American mediation proposals (Mitchell and Tenet). On the other, fearing to lose its popular support, it avoided confronting the movements that carried out suicide attacks. It focused instead on a futile attempt to split Israel’s national-unity government. Since Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon refused to allow it political gains, the PA claimed that it had no hope to offer its people as a reason to stop the fight. By escalating the conflict, Arafat reckoned, he would foil Sharon’s campaign promise of “peace and security.” Israelis would behold his failure and the Labor Party would leave the coalition.

This assessment proved totally wrong. Instead, the Israeli street has become convinced that Arafat supports terrorism. Some of the PA’s staunchest Israeli allies in Labor have turned their backs on it. Many who condemned Sharon in the past because of his role in the Lebanon War today show understanding for the motives that led him to devastate the West Bank, bringing yet another tragedy on the Palestinian people. The PA has found it convenient to personalize the conflict, focusing on Sharon as the culprit. The true cause of violence, however, has been the Oslo Agreement itself. The present Intifada started out as a popular expression of rage against Oslo, including both partners: Israel and the PA.

It is no wonder, then, that PA leaders attempted to divert that rage. At Oslo, after all, they had put their people’s fate in the hands of Israelis like Sharon. (See “The Trouble with Oslo” in Challenge # 64)

Ariel Saron, current prime minister of Israel and internationally recognized war criminal (starting with the Sabra and Shatila massacre of September, 1982).

Sharon’s Strategic Objectives

The fog that surrounded Israel’s invasion of the Palestinian cities made it hard at first to identify the operation’s goals. Israel claimed that it went in to destroy “the terrorist infrastructure.” Yet even as the invasion was underway, Defense Minister Ben Eliezer admitted that the country would gain at best a few months’ respite.

If the operation could not uproot terror, what then was the purpose? Was it revenge against the Palestinian people, which had rejected Israel’s offers at Camp David and followed this with suicide bombings? Or did Sharon want to deport Yasser Arafat and create a new leadership? Was the aim to eliminate the PA?

On the basis of what has taken place, we can now define the Israeli objectives more clearly: 1) to defeat the Palestinian militias, over whom the PA had lost all control; 2) to spread terror among the inhabitants; and 3) to eliminate every last vestige of the PA in the West Bank, while creating a governmental vacuum. The Gaza Strip, significantly, was not on the agenda. The first city to be invaded was Ramallah, where the IDF besieged and isolated Arafat. In Nablus and Jenin, by contrast, Israel entered in order to break the resistance organizations, which had operated in those cities with absolute freedom. Most of the suicide bombers came from them.

The siege on Arafat’s headquarters in Ramallah was part of the program to eliminate the PA (except as a symbolic address). So too was the blowing up of PA buildings in the West Bank. The conquest of the Center for Preventive Security in Betunia had particular significance. This was the power center of Jibril Rajoub, erstwhile darling of the Israelis and the CIA. By going against it, Israel showed that it has no intention of ever depending again, in the West Bank at least, on an organized Palestinian security force. The army also invaded and systematically destroyed the many offices of the PA—for example, the Palestinian Broadcasting Authority, the Ministry of Education and the Bureau of Statistics, as well as the offices of civilian institutions like the International Bank of Palestine. The army gutted every computer in sight. The systematic and universal nature of this assault on knowledge shows that its target was not terrorism, but rather the entire institutional basis of the PA.

Israel also arrested Marwan Barghouti, chief spokesperson of the Intifada, who heads Fatah and its military wing, the Tanzim, in the West Bank. This arrest is further proof that Israel is no longer interested in the existence of any popular or party base that might conceivably challenge it or resuscitate the PA. Israel has learned the lesson of the symbiosis between the PA and Fatah. The operations pulled off by Fatah, Arafat’s political organization, allowed the PA the flexibility mentioned earlier. Insofar as it was bound to Oslo, the PA couldn’t declare war on Israel. Yet Fatah, in the form of its al-Aksa Martyrs’ Brigades, was able to carry out attacks that shored up Arafat’s popularity, covering for the PA’s official passivity.

Despite the systematic destruction and chaos that Israel has wrought in the West Bank, it has left the PA leaders in place as a symbolic political address. It defined Arafat as an enemy, but it refrained from declaring war on him. In other words, Israel demolished the military and administrative wings of the PA, but it did not cut the threads to those persons who are still formally committed to the Oslo framework.

Uzi Dayan, head of Israel’s Council for National Security, confirms this point: “Even when you fight with someone and make demands on him, this means there’s an address where you make the demands. It would be an error to eliminate the PA as an address, because in that case the address would become three and a half million people. To switch to a situation where we rule over the Palestinians and administer their lives would be a big mistake in the long run.” (Yediot Aharonot, Weekend Supplement, April 26.)

Why did Israel refrain from invading Gaza?

While ransacking the West Bank, Israel left the PA bases in Gaza alone. In order to understand the significance of this fact, we need to recall the original formula of the Oslo Agreement: “Gaza and Jericho first.” There was a consensus in Israel, at the end of the first Intifada, for getting out of Gaza. The question of the West Bank, however, was more complex. Israel has strategic interests there, especially in connection with Jordan, where it wants to ensure the continuation of the monarchy. A sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank would threaten the future of this kingdom, most of whose subjects are Palestinian.

The problem of the West Bank’s future troubled Israeli PM Yitzhak Rabin throughout the discussions on a future settlement. He preferred that the Palestinian entity be divided into two centers of authority: one under Arafat in Gaza and the second, in the West Bank, under Faisal Husseini and the “internal” leadership (i.e., those who represented the Palestinians at Madrid). We described Israel’s sensitivity concerning the West Bank in September 1993, in a booklet (in Arabic) entitled Gaza and Jericho First: A Step Toward A State—Or A New Form Of Israeli Colonialism? Rabin was prepared, we wrote, to grant Arafat considerable leeway in Gaza. “In the West Bank, however, the Israelis want to maintain strict supervision over the Palestinian administration. They wish to give Faisal Husseini the central role. The Israeli proposal, supported by America, envisions two regimes with separate power-bases. The division of authority will leave them weak—dependent on each other and on Israel.” As for the West Bank, we wrote, “In certain areas, a measure of authority will be given to the Palestinian entity, but only after this has proved itself in Gaza. After three to five years of such an arrangement, the Palestinians will have no basis to demand either a significant withdrawal or the dismantling of the settlements. Before negotiations start toward a final agreement, the option of a Palestinian state will seem farther off than ever. We should not expect this topic to reach the agenda.”

(Since those words were written, the words “Palestinian state” have crossed the eminently readable lips of George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon, but no one is deceived as to what sort of state this would be.)

During the Madrid Conference of 1991, Arafat—from Tunis—contested the division of authority that Rabin had in mind. To this extent, at least, he got his way. He then punished Faisal Husseini, distancing him from the centers of power.

Today Arafat is besieged in Ramallah, after failing to implement what Oslo required. Thus nine years later he faces an option like the one Rabin proposed at the start.

The consensus behind the Sharon Plan

PA officials like to claim that Sharon wants to re-conquer the Territories and return to the days of direct occupation. This is demagoguery. If that were the plan, Sharon would not have established a national-unity government with the Labor Party. When he did so, he was facing the new Intifada. The result has been an emergency regime, based on purposes and principles uniting all the major Israeli political currents.

Sharon’s present policy reflects the lessons he learned from the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which resulted in many losses and eventual retreat. He has understood the necessity of coordinating his actions with the United States. Luckily for him, he has found a willing ear in George W. Bush. He has also understood that the Labor Party is an essential ally in implementing his policy toward the Palestinians.

Sharon has learned that he mustn’t indulge in grandiose fantasies aimed at completely redrawing the map. He knows he had best concentrate on a single, central strategic objective: to solve the Palestinian problem in a way that will leave Israel on top.

Israel’s latest deeds amount to war crimes—of this there is plenty of evidence—but the Palestinian people does not stand today before a transfer like that of 1948. Nor does it stand before a conquest along the lines of 1967. If there is a catastrophe, we may date it to 1993, when the leadership sold its rights in return for generous bribes.

The Palestinian people does stand today before an Israeli prime minister who uses his military supremacy and destructive power to achieve well-defined political ends. These have received the concurrence of both the American administration and Sharon’s Labor allies. All agree that the PA can no longer function as a partner in the Oslo process. That is, it can no longer fulfill the strategic interests of Israel in exchange for a weak Palestinian state.

By its timing, Israel’s incursion looked like a spontaneous response to the suicide bombing at the Passover meal in Netanya. Not so. It was the fruit of a detailed plan, prepared after other measures had failed to put down the Intifada.

The countdown toward the invasion began in June 2001, when more than twenty Israelis died in a suicide bombing at the discotheque of the Tel Aviv Dolphinarium. From that time forth, Israel began employing means it hadn’t used earlier, including tanks and aircraft, with little regard for civilian casualties. It also stepped up assassinations of local leaders. The message to the PA was clear: “If you don’t do your job in keeping order, we’ll do it for you—by whatever means we choose.” Such actions undermined the PA’s authority, increasing the chaos in the Territories. These were increasingly dominated by armed bands free of PA discipline.

During the escalation, the US role was reduced to last-ditch mediation efforts, expressed in the plans of George Mitchell, George Tenet, and Anthony Zinni. The US accepted and transmitted Israel’s demand that the PA put down the Intifada as a precondition for negotiations. But growing Palestinian hatred for Israel and America placed the PA in an impossible dilemma, between the anvil of popular rage and the hammer of White House pressure.

Israel’s decision to eliminate the PA was taken after other approaches had failed. It is no light matter, for it creates a vacuum that will have to be filled by a new regime, in place of the one created at Oslo.

Sharon has long recognized that a Palestinian state of some sort is inevitable. He has said so a number of times. On his view, however, the road to this state will pass through lengthy intermediary stages. These will enable the US and Israel to gauge whether the Palestinians are ready to live in peace under Israel’s supremacy, recognizing its special security needs.

What apparatus will design the stages and provide for the filling of the power vacuum? On Sharon’s concept, it will be a new international conference along the lines of Madrid in 1991. Call it “Madrid II.” The conference will endow Sharon’s plan with the blessing of the Arab world and the international community. Such support will be needed to prop up the Palestinian negotiators, who will be pressed to agree despite the damage to their people’s rights.

From the actions of Israel during the recent invasion, we may infer the geographical dimensions of the Sharon plan. Gaza, it appears, will become the central domain of the PA. The settlements there may be dismantled. The West Bank will be another story. Israel will encompass it with a security zone, in which it will station its army: This zone will include the Jordan Valley, the Hebron area, and the major settlement blocs. The Palestinian areas will be connected to one another by narrow strips. “Madrid II” will determine the nature of the regime in these areas. (See box: The Revelations of Martin Indyk.)

September 11 changed the rules

Before September 11, U.S. President George W. Bush kept arm’s distance from the region. Arafat wanted to get him involved, and here too—as in his attempt to divide the Israeli government—he apparently thought that escalation, including suicide attacks, would help. They would teach the neophyte president a lesson, showing him what could happen if he didn’t step in.

This too was a miscalculation. Bush still refuses to invite Arafat to the White House (where, in the heady Clinton days, he was practically one of the family). Despite the pressures that Arafat has brought to bear through Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the new American president has not seen fit to change his position. He has adopted Sharon’s view: No negotiations while terrorism continues. His refusal to meet Arafat has been a political card in the hands of Israel, which conditions any such meeting on Arafat’s acceptance of its terms.

The attacks of September 11 have only toughened America’s stand in all that concerns the Middle East. The attackers did not come from an enemy such as North Korea, Cuba or Iraq, rather (most of them) from Saudi Arabia, a close ally. The PA, America discovered, was not the only regime to have problems with militant Islam. Most of the Arab states cannot control it either. In the White House, consequently, Israeli stock soared.

The Arab regimes are weak. With unstable economies and growing unemployment, it is hard for them to maintain, in the face of popular anger, their corrupt and dictatorial regimes. The only opposition on the Arab street today belongs to the extremist Islamic currents, which hone the despairing masses into a threat against the regimes. Whenever the Israeli-Palestinian situation heats up, the dictators in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan find it hard to defend their American alliance.

Even after September 11, which brought immense pressure from the White House and the American media, Saudi Arabia had still to condition its support for America’s war on terrorism. It told the US, in effect: we will be able to join you (in other words, to confront the militant Islamic organizations) if you adopt a more balanced stance on the Palestinian issue. Conveniently, Bush complied with a “vision” of Palestinian statehood.

Bush’s vision was succeeded, in due course, by its reward—the “Saudi initiative.” This proposes that the Arab states normalize relations with Israel if the latter withdraws completely from the Territories it occupied in 1967. The importance of the proposal does not lie in its content. After Oslo, most Arab states began to establish normal relations with Israel. The demand for complete withdrawal has never been taken seriously by Israel or the US. (Indeed, the proposal has since been watered down to the dimensions of the Mitchell and Tenet plans.) The importance of the initiative lay rather in the fact that the Saudis made it. For thus Bush received an Arab “cover” for his future international conference, which we have dubbed Madrid II.

There is a widespread delusion in Arab regimes, including the PA, that one can criticize Israel while supporting America. In fact, despite the public posturing of George W. Bush, the Israeli incursion into the West Bank has remained within the parameters of Washington’s vision for the region. Nor has it derailed the Saudi initiative. “Defensive Shield” began, in fact, on the day after the Arab summit in Beirut adopted that initiative. The incursion was not, as the Arab media portray it, a negative response to the Saudi proposal. On the contrary, it reflected Israel’s interpretation of it. The incursion was intended to transform this interpretation into a practical possibility.

The Israeli left too, with accustomed short-sightedness, has warmed to the Saudi initiative. We should understand it, however, within its context: The Arab world is re-entering the war against terrorism, whose next major target is Iraq. In the American view, the task of the hour is to defuse the Israeli-Palestinian front in order to release all forces for the fight against Saddam. America has no interest in weakening Israel strategically or achieving Palestinian freedom. Even as Bush advances the Saudi initiative, he recognizes Israel’s right to “defend” itself, that is, to wage a campaign of destruction against the Palestinian people and its leaders. The American position is not ambivalent. It wants to settle the conflict in a way that will preserve its interests, guaranteeing both Israel’s supremacy and the survival of the friendly Arab dictators. That is the sum and substance of Bush’s “vision.” It has no place for a viable Palestinian state in charge of its own land, sea and air.

Bush’s demand that Israel withdraw from the areas it has invaded fits in with the latter’s objectives. Israel does not wish to stay in these places, as it has asserted time and again. It learned this lesson in the first Intifada: there is no profit in trying to govern a hostile population. Israel wants to rule the Territories by remote control, without concern for the suffering of the inhabitants and without providing for their needs.

The events of September 11 changed the map of the world for many, including Israel. It knows that it cannot take decisions outside the framework of US policy. Its economy depends on America’s. Likewise its security. One cannot differentiate, therefore, between the aims of Sharon and those of the White House. Both agree on the Palestinian issue: It is possible to extract this thorn by establishing a dummy-state. Neither wants a state that would fulfill the rights of the Palestinian people.

Madrid II

After Israel demolished the West Bank’s civilian and administrative infrastructure, Bush dispatched his Secretary of State, Colin Powell. His mission was to get a compromise. He didn’t hurry. While the West Bank burned, the Secretary stopped at several Arab states and finally Madrid. There he met European representatives, as well as the Russian Foreign Minister and Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the United Nations. Upon leaving Madrid, he had almost wall-to-wall agreement, both Arab and worldwide, for a new international conference.

In Jerusalem on the eve of his departure, Powell defined the strategic objectives of the conference-to-be: “First of all, security and the prevention of acts of terror and violence, both from the side of Israel and from the side of the Palestinians. Second, serious and rapid negotiations for achieving a political agreement. Third, economic and humanitarian support for improving the tragic condition of the Palestinian people.” (New York Times, April 18.)

Sharon was quick to affirm his interest in an international conference. This represented a change of attitude. In the past, Israel had always resisted such parleys. At the end of the Gulf War (1991), the US invited it and the Arab states to Madrid for comprehensive negotiations aimed at settling the conflict on the basis of the UN resolutions. The talks floundered, but outside the international conference, with Arafat’s approval, the Palestinian team reached a separate agreement with Israel that paved the way to the Oslo Accords. The lack of an international framework for enforcing these accords is one major reason for the present deterioration.

Yasser Arafat. This picture was taken shortly after Israel lifted the siege of his residence and offices in Ramulla

What has happened that Israel now agrees to an international conference? It has eliminated the PA as a source of authority in the West Bank, but it does not wish to return to direct occupation. It has no choice, therefore, but to find a third party to administer the area. Who will this be? Only an international conference can decide.

Despite the lack of an official announcement, people close to Israeli military and political sources are touting the idea of internationalizing the regime in the West Bank. One such person is Alex Fishman, the military pundit for the Hebrew daily Yediot Aharonot. In the political supplement of April 14, he wrote: “A few months ago, when Sharon raised the program of a ‘broad buffer zone’ (which includes an IDF presence in areas between one and ten kilometers east of the Green Line), people considered this just another whim, meant to torpedo the diplomatic process…. Now it appears that Sharon was thinking ahead. The buffer zones are intended to draw the map in accordance with Israeli interests. That is, the massive military presence inside these zones will establish a fact, setting a limit to the spread of the multi-national force in the lands of the West Bank.”

Fishman continued: “Because the term ‘multi-national force’ is anathema to Israeli ears, the cabinet ministers were surprised, last week, to hear the PM speaking of such a possibility and of the need to prepare for it quickly.”

According to Fishman, Sharon is engaging in preventive medicine: he doesn’t want the source of authority for an international force to be the UN Security Council, but rather a conference that will convene on a basis agreeable to Israel. Foreseeing the character of the force, however, Fishman uses as his model the “Green Berets” that were sent to Kosovo. “This is an active force,” he writes, “which imposes its rule on the sides and enforces international decisions by military might.”

When Secretary Powell described the aims of the international conference, he listed them in an order like that which was applied to the Balkans: security, a political agreement, humanitarian and economic aid. There the US first went in and demolished the nation, just as Sharon has done in the West Bank. Here, as there, the conqueror will return in the guise of a force for peace, coming to rescue the Palestinian people. The UN emissary to the Middle East, Terje Larsen, has described the human catastrophe that took place in the refugee camp of Jenin. Thus he prepares the ground for a new Occupation—this time by the international force—under the cover of humanitarian aid: first bombs, then blankets. The non-governmental organizations and the Palestinian bourgeoisie will play a vital role in these recuperative actions, which will focus on stability and security—not sovereignty.

Official pronouncements aside, the purpose of Colin Powell’s journey was not to get a cease fire, but to show Arafat that the days of the PA in the West Bank are irrevocably over. Instead of marching toward Jerusalem like a martyr as he promised, Arafat will return defeated to Gaza, in a worse position than when he arrived eight years ago. He is bargaining over conditions of surrender, not new gains. The battle has been decided by the United States, the international community, and now, also, the Arab regimes. The Saudi foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, has told a London-based newspaper, Sharq al-Awsat, that monitors would not be sufficient to create the kind of separation necessary between Israeli defense forces and angry Palestinians. “We now want international forces to protect the Palestinians and ensure security along the lines of what was done in the Balkans.” (Cited by Patrick E. Tyler in The New York Times April 29.)

We find further confirmation of this forecast in Amir Oren: “Barghouti has been arrested,” he wrote in Ha’aretz on April 19. “Jibril Rajoub has been whittled down to size. Other organization heads have been labeled terror-impresarios and declared ineligible. After all this, there remains no West Bank leadership to talk to. This is a sorry state of affairs, and to lift himself out of it Sharon needs another approach—for example, Gaza as a Palestinian state, though not the final one, with Mahmoud Dahlan at its head (and Arafat its honorary president)—and without settlements; as for the West Bank, we’ll deal with that when the Palestinians there come back to their senses.” All that remains for Arafat’s faithful is to secure their personal interests in the Territories: jobs, monopolies (over cement, petrol, cigarettes, and other items), the distribution of aid money and a measure of political presence for Fatah if it behaves itself.

Sharon, for his part, has expressed his readiness to let Arafat participate in the international conference, because he understands that without him, Israel will have a hard time getting approval for its plan.

To sum up Part One: The concept of Madrid II suits the position of both Sharon and Bush, who concur that it’s impossible, under present circumstances, to achieve a final agreement with the Palestinians. They seek an interim solution that will last a long time. The pronouncements about a Palestinian state are lip service, providing the political horizon they need in order to bring the Palestinians under the aegis of an international force. Whatever may be the composition of this force, its chief task will be to guarantee the security of Israel, as well as American interests in the region.

Part 2





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