- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 14, 2000

Even by Mideast standards, last weekend's announcement by the Arab League that Israel risked war if it withdrew unilaterally from Lebanon was extraordinary. The Arab foreign ministers served notice that the Jewish State had to first address what they called a "time bomb": as many as 360,000 Palestinians who have lived for years in squalid refugee camps on Lebanese territory and who demand the right to return to live in what they call "Palestine" an area that on their maps includes all of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Israel within the "green lines" (that is, territory it controlled prior to the Six-Day War in 1967.)
This being the Middle East, things are rarely what they seem. The Arab ministers were moved to issue their threats not solely, or even primarily, by sympathy for the Palestinians. After all, many of the participating nations have unnecessarily compounded and politically exploited these refugee's plight by confining them to just such camps elsewhere in the region and by refusing to assimilate a generally talented and hard-working people into their own societies.
Rather, the Arab League acted at the behest of Hafez Assad of Syria, a ruthless dictator who appears no more willing to allow Israel to live in peace today than at any other point in his murderous, decades-long reign. Mr. Assad, who has been as hostile to the Palestinians as any Arab leader, appreciates that if Israel ends its widely denounced occupation of a 9-mile-wide strip of Lebanon, his own, despotic occupation of the rest of Lebanon may become politically untenable.
The Israelis are in an unenviable position. They have, for the first time in their history, effectively conceded military defeat by an Arab army albeit the rag-tag irregular one of Hezbollah, the Iranian- and Syrian-backed Islamic extremist group that insists on driving the Jews not only out of Lebanon but out of the rest of greater "Palestine" as well, and "into the sea." As a result, Israel's northern border will remain exposed, and surely subject, to continuing attack.
The relatively "low intensity" bloodletting served up by Hezbollah is likely to pale by comparison with the danger that would ensue should Israel accede to Arab demands to grant the "right of return" presumably not only to Lebanon's Palestinians but to as many as 2 million refugees scattered around the world since 1948. Indeed, even before any new influx of Arabs into Israel occurs, the Jewish State is increasingly facing a "time bomb" of its own an armed and dangerous Palestinian nation emerging in its midst and the prospect of a fifth column formed from Arab citizens of Israel. Here are a few of the ominous storm clouds gathering on the horizon:
Last week, Israel's Supreme Court issued a ruling that calls into question the longstanding policy of locating Jewish communities in areas for strategic purposes. The decision was a defeat for the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency, established during the period of Britain's Mandate Palestine to promote Jewish immigration and settlement there. The New York Times reported on March 9 that, the agency's chairman, Salai Meridor, said "The main issue is not equality [between Israel's Jewish and Arab citizens.] We're all for equality. The question is how we ensure equality while also making sure that areas with a massive Arab majority near the territory of an emerging Palestinian entity will remain part of the state of Israel. Along with equality, Israel must safeguard its national and security interests."
That these interests are at risk was underscored by a news item published a few days later in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz. On March 13, the paper revealed that Yasser Arafat's "Palestinian Authority [PA] has been implementing a policy of 'strategic construction' inside East Jerusalem and on the outskirts of the city, building thousands of new apartments there since 1997 although a substantial portion of the buildings remain vacant. Sources at the PA say that, during the final status negotiations, the Palestinians will demand the return of more than 100,000 refugees, some of whom will settle in the buildings currently being constructed in East Jerusalem… . Israeli intelligence agents … suggested that the Palestinian construction aims to cut through and isolate Jewish settlements around the city."
On Feb. 2, an Arab member of the Israeli Knesset used his position to force a public, if brief and uninformative, discussion of one of the most delicate of Israel's national security matters: the Jewish State's suspected but unacknowledged nuclear arsenal. As Gerald Steinberg put it in an opinion article in the Jerusalem Post of Feb. 18, "Issam Makhul [of the Arabs' Hadash Party] insisted on raising the subject, but did not demonstrate any understanding of or interest in the substance and dilemmas of the Israeli policy. His main purpose was clearly to needle the government on a very sensitive issue, in order to gain popularity and publicity in the Israeli Arab sector. For the past decade, the Egyptian government has led an obsessive crusade to strip Israel of its deterrence capabilities, and to use this issue in order to isolate Israel."
Incredibly, the Clinton-Gore administration appears to be exacerbating the dangers Arabs within Israel might pose to the United States' most important ally in the Middle East. On Feb. 14, one of the Knesset's most influential leaders on national security matters, the Likud Party's Uzi Landau, wrote President Clinton a stern letter. It said, in part: "The following headline appeared in Yediot Aharonot, Israel's most widely read newspaper, on Feb. 11: 'U.S Embassy tries to mobilize Arab support in the referendum.' According to the article, senior U.S. Embassy officials have of late conducted a series of meetings with Israeli Arab leaders. The express aim of these meetings, according to the report, is to pressure Arab leaders to produce a large turnout among their constituency in the event that a referendum is held regarding the future of the Golan Heights, as the Arab vote could prove decisive. In addition, the report states that the U.S. diplomats promised to arrange financial assistance to back information campaigns that will be undertaken by Israeli Arab groups for this purpose. In response, the U.S. Embassy spokesman did not deny this information.
Mr. Landau correctly concluded, "If the information in the article is accurate, this would constitute an unprecedented and intolerable act of gross interference in Israel's internal affairs. I cannot emphasize enough the severity of this act, which demonstrates blatant disregard for the most elementary norms of accepted international behavior between states and nations." It is unknown at this writing what, if any, response the Knesset's former Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman has received.
The converging demographic (the Arabs have a far higher birthrate than Israel's Jews), strategic and political trends constitute a true "time bomb" for Israel. Starting with the round of negotiations that will get under way in Washington this week, President Clinton must make clear to Mr. Arafat, Mr. Assad and other Arabs that the United States opposes measures that will jeopardize the security and integrity of the Jewish State. To do so, however, he must see to it that his administration is not actually a party to such measures.

Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is the president of the Center for Security Policy and a columnist for The Washington Times.

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