Six Wars and Counting
By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
It's clear now that the Israeli-Palestinian clashes that erupted in the
spring of 2002 qualify as the sixth Arab-Israeli war - going down in history
with the 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973 and 1982 wars. The 2002 war doesn't have a
proper name yet (the Suicide War?). But like all previous Arab-Israeli wars,
it is having a proper aftermath - shaking up Arab, Israeli and Palestinian
politics as much as the five previous wars did.
Let's start with the Palestinians. Well before this war there was already
bubbling Palestinian criticism that their "al-Aqsa intifada" had no clearly
defined goals and that Yasir Arafat, instead of developing them, was just
surfing on his people's anger and trying to direct it away from his own
misrule. Yes, Mr. Arafat is still the most nimble survivor of his own
mistakes. But this time he has really hurt the Palestinian cause, and
Palestinians know it.
First, by provoking Israel with repeated suicide bombings, Mr. Arafat
triggered an Israeli retaliation that didn't just destroy Arab cities - as
he did in Amman in 1970 and Beirut in 1982. This time he provoked the
destruction of Palestinian cities: Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin and Bethlehem.
Second, by encouraging this Suicide War - after rejecting a clear-cut U.S.
plan for a Palestinian state - Mr. Arafat has badly damaged Palestinian ties
with America. President Bill Clinton met with Mr. Arafat more times than
with any other foreign leader. Today Mr. Arafat couldn't get to see
President Bush if he signed up for a White House tour.
Third, this Suicide War has badly alienated the only party that can deliver
the Palestinians a state - the Israeli silent majority. The whole history of
the peace process can be reduced to one simple point: If the Palestinians
persuade the Israeli center that they are ready to live side by side in
peace, they will get a state; if they don't, they won't. Everything else is
The aftermath of the Suicide War on Israeli politics has been equally
profound. "It has ended the deep political debate between the left and the
right that has dominated Israeli politics since 1967," said Moshe Halbertal,
a Hebrew University philosophy professor and fellow of the Hartman
Institute. "The two big ideas that have dominated Israeli politics have both
Indeed, the idea of the Jewish right that Israel could maintain a colonial
occupation of the West Bank, and continue to seize Palestinian land for more
settlements, and that the Palestinians would just roll over and take it, has
been exploded. But the idea of the Israeli left that Mr. Arafat, if returned
to the West Bank, would build a decent government and civil society that
would end the conflict with Israel on the basis of a two-state solution has
also been undermined.
As a result, Israel today, instead of being divided around two ideas, is
united around two ideas: A clear majority of Israelis are ready to smash the
Palestinians as long as they persist in suicide bombings, and an equally
clear majority of Israelis are ready to consider the Saudi peace
initiative - full withdrawal in return for normal relations - as the basis
for a settlement if the Palestinians ever persuade them that they are ready
to end the violence.
The big impact on Arab leaders is their realization that the explosion of
Arab satellite TV stations and the Internet means they can no longer control
public opinion. The tabloid Arab media have inflamed the Arab street with
images of the West Bank fighting. No, this inflamed street won't topple any
leaders soon. But popular discontent over the Arabs' weakness in the face of
Israel is melding with popular discontent about the weakness of Arab
economies and dictatorial regimes, in ways that are worrying moderate Arab
leaders and making them eager to get this Palestinian show off the air.
Bottom line: The region is more ripe than ever for a big U.S. initiative.
Unfortunately, none of the leaders - American, Israeli or Palestinian - seem
willing to step up to what's needed. That is, to create a transition
structure in the West Bank and Gaza - a new mandate under U.S. or NATO
supervision - that would oversee the gradual building of a responsible
Palestinian Authority and the gradual unbuilding of settlements. If we shirk
that task we'll just be setting the stage for the seventh Arab-Israeli war.
In my May 15 column I referred to Eric Rouleau as the Middle East
correspondent for Le Monde. Although he served in that role for many years,
Mr. Rouleau is no longer associated with Le Monde.
Onward and Upward!