The whirlwind unleashed on the Palestinians by the Israeli government following the Ze'evi assassination in October and now, in early December, on the heels of the suicide attacks in Jerusalem, Haifa, Afula and elsewhere, goes far beyond mere retaliation against terrorism. Viewed in the context of Bush's attempts to build a "coalition against terror," it is a last desperate effort to bring "industrial quiet" to what's been called the Second Front, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a precondition for building any sustained coalition that includes Arab and Muslim countries. This can be accomplished in one of two ways. Either a satisfactory political solution can be imposed on the parties with a lot of arm-twisting and sweetening, or the Palestinians can be made to submit to Israeli-American dictates.
The first, preferred by the Americans as a resolution of the conflict, have met fundamental obstacles on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides. The Israelis steadfastly refuse to dismantle their occupation and relinquish control to a degree that would permit a viable and truly sovereign Palestinian state to emerge. For his part, Arafat has failed to produce a coherent program for negotiations, and has squandered the opportunity given him by the Intifada to reframe the negotiations in a more equitable way. Faced with a unfocused resistance movement with no political program and fueled by ever more violent attacks against Israeli civilian targets, the American government seems to have been persuaded by Sharon and Peres to choose the second option: defeating the Palestinians outright.
Given their tight time-line for coalition-building and military actions, the Americans are looking for a quick fix, a reasonable period of industrial quiet in the Middle East. Allowing themselves to be persuaded that Israel can bring the Palestinian Authority to its knees within a matter of weeks, thereby reopening the "peace process" on terms favorable to Israel, has its attractions. It is in keeping with the long-standing American bias strongly in favor of Israel, it avoids conflicts with a solidly pro-Israeli Congress (89 senators issued a letter recently warning Bush against compromising Israel's interests), and it can be "sold" as legitimate retaliation against "Palestinian terrorism" - thus legitimizing Sharon's attempts to link Arafat and the Palestinians integrally with Bin Laden and anti-American/anti-"civilization" world terrorism. Given the weak, almost incoherent, political position of the Palestinians, this option seems the most workable in the short run.
Sharon, then, has received a "green light" from Bush to bring quiet to the region through military means, to be followed (no hurry here) by negotiations that will give the Palestinians a mini-state while leaving Israel in control of the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. (It was reported on the Channel One news on Friday night, December 7, that Sharon promised Bush not to kill or harm Arafat, to which Bush replied: "Just promise me you won't kill him.")
The strategy of Sharon, Peres and the others of the "National Unity" government has five main elements: 1. Massive military actions. Besiegement, military strikes against the fragile Palestinian infrastructure and assassinations of key political and resistance figures - the kind of attacks employing heavy American weapons we are witnessing now (early December) -- are fundamental to browbeating the Palestinians into submissiveness. But overt military actions must be carefully framed in order to maintain Israel's image as a mere peace-seeking "victim" and to avert attention from its ongoing, deepening and ever more brutal Occupation. Following violent acts against Israel, they are cast as part of a "war against terrorism," indeed as part of Israel's "natural right" to defend its people. Having removed the response from its political context - a struggle against an illegal occupation - Israel is then free to unleash its entire arsenal (nuclear aside) against whatever targets it wishes for as prolonged a period as it desires. Whatever we may think of Palestinian terrorism as a legitimate political and military tool, casting its military strikes as "retaliatory," justifying its massive destruction as part of a "war" with the Palestinians and concealing its Occupation allows Israel to engage in both political repression and state terrorism without being held accountable. Indeed, the entire chain of cause-and-effect is lost as Israel presents each Palestinian attack as a new and separate incident, divorced from the Occupation or previous Israel actions. The disproportionality of the attacks in October and December show clearly how specific incidents are used for far-reaching political and military gains.
2. A campaign of attrition. Certainly military attacks are part of an Israeli campaign of attrition designed to wear down Palestinian resistance over time. But long-term policies, less visible and less dramatic, are no less effective. House demolitions, land expropriation, permanent closure and prolonged curfews, restrictions on freedom of movement, induced impoverishment, economic warfare of various kinds (such as clearing agricultural fields, uprooting thousands of olive and fruit trees, prohibiting harvests, confiscating livestock and preventing the marketing of produce), "quiet" bureaucratic deportations and a dirty war employing collaborators - all these and more undermine the fabric of Palestinian society and weaken its ability to withstand the Occupation. The campaign is designed not only to break the will of the Palestinian people but to undermine its support for the Palestinian Authority, hopefully giving rise to a more compliant leadership.
3. Creating irreversible "facts" on the ground. The grand project of expanding Israel's control over the Occupied Territories, systematically pursued according to the "master plan" presented by Sharon to Begin in 1977, is nearing completion. The Mitchell Commission's recommendations that settlement construction be frozen, which the Palestinians and others seem to think will be effective in halting the Occupation, is already irrelevant. Israel has enough land and settlements already: 60% of the West Bank and another 60% of Gaza are firmly under its control. 400,000 settlers live in some 200 settlements across the "Green Line. Now its efforts are dedicated to completing the infrastructural work needed to consolidate its hold on the Territories. Almost unnoticed is the construction of 450 kilometers of highways and "by-pass" roads which link the settlements but create massive barriers to Palestinian movement. Since these major infrastructure projects have been agreed to - and funded -- by the Americans, they fall outside the Mitchell Committee's "freeze." They constitute the last key element in the Matrix of Control Israel has laid over the Occupied Territories, and bulldozers are working ceaselessly to complete the system.
4. Delaying tactics. Sharon's demand for "seven days of quiet" before implementing the Mitchell Report has already delayed the resumption of negotiations by months. Time and again "crises" are manufactured (often following unprovoked assassinations, house demolitions or other acts on the part of Israel), which that provide a pretext for not implementing agreements or restarting negotiations. Broad hints by Israeli political leaders that they will seek only long-term "interim agreements" rather than a final status settlement will leave Israel in de facto control of the Occupied Territories - or at least in control long enough to complete its irreversible Matrix of Control.
5. Delegitimizing the Palestinian Authority. Since September 11 the Israeli government has worked tirelessly to cast the Palestinian Authority as an integral part of "world terrorism." Sharon has called Arafat "our Bin Laden," and following the attacks in Jerusalem and Haifa the Israeli government officially labeled the Palestinian Authority as a "terror-sponsoring entity" - obviously hoping to impart to the Palestinians the same international delegitimacy attached to other recognized terrorist organizations.
This is the program that unites the broad coalition of Israel's National Unity government, from the Labor party on the "left" through the Likud, the religious and the parties of the extreme right. At its base lies the rock-bottom refusal to truly share the country with the Palestinians, in either one state or in two. Yet - and this is the catch -- Israel needs a Palestinian state to "relieve it" of the three and a half million Palestinians of the Occupied Territories it can neither absorb (giving citizenship to this population would nullify a Jewish-dominated state) nor control forever by force. While the Palestinians strive for political independence in a viable state alongside Israel, Israel is striving for what is calls "autonomy-plus/independence-minus," a kind of occupation-by-consent that leaves in it in control of the entire country yet rids it of the Palestinian population. This, in a nutshell, describes what the Oslo "peace process" was all about.
Since occupation-by-consent will not be willingly accepted by the Palestinians, but a just peace based on true Palestinian independence is unacceptable to Israel, Israel must force it upon the Palestinians. For Israel, too, the time-line is tight. Bush's green light" is good for a couple weeks - perhaps somewhat longer if "justified" by further attacks on Israeli civilians - but it will eventually run into major obstacles: the recommendations of the Mitchell Committee and CIA chief Tenet which await implementation, General Zinni's mission to achieve a cease-fire, and the overarching need to sustain a coalition including the Arab and Muslim countries. Hence the ferocity of Israel's attacks, the final push to defeat the Palestinians once and for all.
It is one minute to midnight. Already Israel has largely completed its physical incorporation of the West Bank into Israel proper, foreclosing any possibility of a viable Palestinian state. If the current campaign of repression succeeds, occupation will be followed by the creation of a dependent Palestinian mini-state - a permanent occupation-by-consent not of the Palestinians, but of the US and a compliant Europe. These are the fateful days of reckoning: a just peace based on two viable and sovereign states, or the emergence of a Palestinian bantustan under Israeli control, a new apartheid.