Reconquer, Negotiate or Separate?

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres is set to meet with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat in Berlin next week under the aegis of the German government. Peres has proposed a "gradual" or phased cease-fire. In a plan presented to U.S. envoy to the Middle East, David Satterfield, and the U.S. ambassador to Israel, Daniel Kurtzer, Peres called for a staggered cease-fire in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, according to Ha’aretz. The plan would divide the West Bank and Gaza , and the Palestinians and Israelis would restore calm separately in each area until a total cease-fire is reached.

The Palestinian Authority will be required to take measures to restore security in each area, while Israel will withdraw its troops and ease closures on Palestinian populations.

But there are only a shrinking number of Israelis who still hold out a slender hope that Israel and the Palestinians can negotiate a peaceful end to the last 11 months of violence. The rest agree on one thing: Ariel Sharon’s government must do something. It cannot allow the Palestinians to dictate the terms of what they increasingly define as a war of attrition. Across the political spectrum, Israelis are not prepared to sit and wait for the next suicide bomber to blow them up. As always, however, they differ fundamentally on what Sharon, his army and his diplomats should do. On the right, there are voices demanding that Israel reconquer the Palestinian territories and send Arafat back into exile. The left, however disenchanted with the peace process, still contends that Israel has to talk to the Palestinians. Peres, an indefatigable peacenik, has lowered his sights, aiming for a cease-fire rather than the utopia of a "new Middle East." But he will not accept that the 1993 Oslo accords, the gift he and the late Yitzhak Rabin bestowed on their nation, were a mistake. They remain the only option, he told his Labor Party colleagues.

"I am in favor of a military response when necessary," Peres said. "But you can’t fight fire purely with fire, because then you give the rifle a monopoly."

Even as Sharon shored up his government with the inclusion of the Center party, the debate continues, no longer one between left and right. The left has become more hawkish. "What left?" one of their tribunes asked.

The right is divided on tactics, if not on ultimate objectives. Hanan Porat, a former National Religious Party legislator and veteran settlement ideologue, said Israel must reconquer the whole of the Palestinian territories, the Gaza Strip as well as the West Bank. It would cost lives, he acknowledges, but not as many as if they let the daily shootings and bombings continue.

"We shouldn’t allow the Palestinians either sovereignty or weapons," he said from his home in the West Bank settlement of Kfar Etzion. "That just gives them the chance to kill us. We have to go back in, then not just stay there but govern. We can reconquer the territories in a couple of days. Then they can have autonomy, run their own municipal affairs, but only under Israeli rule."

Yet, even the most militant settlers do not speak with one voice. Yisrael Harel, a former chairman of their council, wants a much more rigorous military response than Sharon is currently giving them, but he draws the line at reoccupying Nablus and Gaza or driving out Arafat. He doesn’t think it would work. If he did, he wouldn’t hesitate.

"We should send in a company, or even a battalion if necessary, to achieve specific, tactical goals," he said. "For example, to destroy an armaments factory, or to locate and capture those who mobilize, train and send the murderers. We have the trained units to do the job."

The aim, Harel explained, would be to throw the Palestinians on to the defensive. "They will be preoccupied with running away and hiding. They won’t have the time or the nerves to plan suicide attacks against us. They will be using their energy to save themselves. I believe that will be enough." Some Israelis have suggested that Israel do for the Palestinians what the United States did for the Japanese after World War II — conquer, then impose democracy.

Efraim Inbar, a pragmatic right-winger who heads the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, dismisses the idea as impracticable. "There is room for more military actions," he said, "but they must be calibrated. I don’t think the problem is soluble by military means. All it would do is limit the damage. I am against trying to bring down or exile Arafat. I prefer the Palestinian Authority to disintegrate."

Political engineering, he warned, was beyond Israel’s means. "America could democratize Germany and Japan after defeating them in war. Israel doesn’t have the power, and I don’t think that Arab society is ready for democracy. You can’t just occupy and democratize. We are not the British Empire."

Rather, Inbar foresees a long war of attrition in which the Palestinians will gradually lower their appetite. "We should make them suffer more," he suggested. "

There are two competitions going on at the moment, one for inflicting pain, one for bearing pain. We should inflict more pain — not so much on the people, but on the leaders. But we have to tread a golden path. We shouldn’t make them starve. We don’t want to drive them into despair."

On the sober left, Mark Heller, a Tel-Aviv University strategic analyst, cautions that neither force nor diplomacy alone offers a viable answer. "If you’re not capable of imposing unconditional surrender on the other side," he said, "the only way to get durable stability is through political agreement. But you don’t get a political agreement divorced from the threat of force. If you’re the prime minister, you talk and fight at the same time."

Israel had, however, to operate within certain constraints, Heller added. "You work within a regional and international environment in which you have interests that you don’t want to destroy. You don’t want to push things so far that you get yourself into a wider conflict with the Arab world. You don’t want to push things so far that you end up totally isolated internationally and exposed to the risk of an imposed solution."

Above all, Heller warned, Israel must not destroy the possibility of having somebody to talk to on the other side. "That means," he said, "not destroying the Palestinian Authority, until or unless you think you have a better alternative."

No one, Jew or Arab, has yet come up with such an alternative. And the rifle still has a monopoly.