- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 13, 2005

On Sept. 13, 1993, Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization signed the Oslo I agreement and the related Declaration of Principles, which were ostensibly designed to bring into being a process that would lead to the end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Initially there was great hope that the agreement signed by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat would pave the way to a peaceful resolution of the conflict. But this seems further away than ever.

During the past 12 years, a succession of Israeli leaders from the relatively dovish Labor Party and the hawkish Likud Party have signed one agreement after another with two Palestinian leaders: Arafat and his successor Mahmoud Abbas. While the specifics of these agreements have varied, the substance has remained broadly the same: Israel agrees to recognize the Palestinians’ national aspirations; to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza; and to give them responsibility for governing themselves. In exchange, the Palestinians agree to recognize Israel and take action to prevent Palestinian terrorists from attacking it. During this period, Israel has ceded territory time and again. But all too often that territory has been used as a launching pad for new waves of terror.

Since his election in February 2001, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has pursued a very different approach to making peace with the Palestinians from that of his predecessors. To be sure, part of this has involved extraordinary concessions, including Mr. Sharon’s agreement to the creation of an independent Palestinian state as part of a final peace settlement and to the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.

But Mr. Sharon understands in a way that his Oslo-era predecessors generally did not that no peace with the Palestinians is possible unless Israel is prepared to use force to defend its citizens. Equally important was his decision to build Israel’s security fence — a more effective defense perimeter to prevent suicide bombers from entering the country.

Since early 2002 when the terrorist siege against Israel became intolerable, Mr. Sharon has dramatically reduced the Israeli casualty level from terrorist attacks and restored part of Israel’s deterrent capability which eroded since the Oslo peace process began. To be sure, the prime minister now comes under heavy fire from the Israeli right for everything from the Gaza pullout to his belief that Mr. Abbas really wants peace with Israel. While there’s a measure of truth to the criticisms, they miss the central point: One cannot understand the significance of Mr. Sharon’s policies without understanding the flawed policies of some of his predecessors.

Although the groundwork for the Oslo peace process of the early 1990s had been laid by leading representatives of the Israel’s dovish political left, Rabin used hawkish-sounding rhetoric to make his case for negotiating with Arafat. He said that Arafat would deal with terrorists “without a Supreme Court, without B’tselem [an Israeli human-rights organization that is sharply critical of the government’s treatment of terror suspects] and without all kinds of bleeding-heart liberals.” The implication was that Arafat would be ruthless in dealing with the challenge posed by Palestinian terrorists who opposed his plans for peace with Israel. The reality was completely different. From the start, Arafat made clear that he would do little more than attempt to peacefully persuade Hamas to behave itself.

On April 6, 1994, Hamas put to rest all doubt that Arafat’s conciliatory policy towards Hamas and other rejectionists would have a terrible cost for Israel: Hamas bombed a bus in Afula, killing eight people. One week later, a Hamas suicide bomber killed five people on a bus in the coastal town of Hadera. Six months later, Hamas killed 22 people and wounded more than 50 in a Tel Aviv bus bombing. After the 1994 attacks, Arafat and the PA came under pressure from the Israeli and U.S. governments to act against the rejectionists (a pattern that has continued right up to the present day under Mr. Abbas).

What the situation called for was a sustained, dedicated effort to stamp out terrorist groups like Hamas: killing and capturing terrorists; pre-empting attacks by acting in a timely fashion on intelligence forwarded by Israel about the terror networks; and either shutting down or restricting the activities of the mosques and social-welfare programs the jihadists use to recruit a new generation of suicide bombers. What actually occurred was a passive, episodic reaction to terror which generally consisted of rounding up the usual suspects, then freeing them once the pressure from Washington and Jerusalem was loosened. On occasion, when Hamas or its much smaller rival, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, started riots, or demonstrated too much independence in deciding how and when to target Israelis, the PA did kill, imprison or torture the radicals. But that was no substitute for a systematic campaign against Palestinian terrorist organizations..

In an eight-day period beginning Feb. 25, 1996, Hamas and the PIJ demonstrated that they could murder enough Israelis to change the course of Israeli elections: Sixty-seven Israelis died in bombings of two Jerusalem buses, a bus stop in Ashkelon, and a Tel Aviv shopping mall. Following the attacks, Arafat came under intense pressure from the Clinton administration and the Israelis, so he arrested scores of Hamas operatives and cracked down so hard against the PIJ that that organization was effectively sidelined until September 2000. But Arafat’s actions came too late for Israel’s dovish prime minister, Shimon Peres, who had replaced Rabin following his assassination the previous November. Mr. Peres plunged in the polls following the February-March attacks, enabling Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu to narrowly defeat the Labor Party leader in the May 1996 election to become prime minister.

Arafat “cheated us a lot,” said Carni Gillon, the head of Israel’s Shin Bet (which is roughly equivalent to the FBI), a strong supporter of the peace process. When given a list of people Israel said were involved in terrorism, Mr. Gillon said, Arafat would sometimes acknowledge that the Israeli intelligence was correct, but said he would be killed if he arrested a given terrorist. On other occasions, he lied: Until the moment that Israeli intelligence agents killed Yahya Ayyash, Hamas’s top bomb-maker, in early 1996, Arafat falsely insisted that the terrorist was in Sudan.

During Mr. Netanyahu’s tenure as prime minister, which lasted until 1999, some things changed for the better. Unlike his predecessors, he refused to whitewash anti-Semitic incitement from Arafat and the PA; instead, he issued reports documenting it. And his decision to read the riot act to Arafat following two grisly terrorist bombings by Hamas in downtown Jerusalem in the summer of 1997 paved the way for a period of relative calm: three years in which terrorists virtually stopped carrying out large-scale attacks inside the Green Line, Israel’s pre-1967 border. But in other areas, Mr. Netanyahu was a disappointment.

In late September 1996, Arafat falsely accused Israel of seeking to destabilize the Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem and Palestinians rioted for several days. After the riots, Arafat and Mr. Netanyahu were summoned to Washington for a White House summit, during which Mr. Netanyahu was pressured by President Clinton and Arab leaders to withdraw from Hebron, then the only major West Bank city not under PA control. He ended up doing so on terms favorable to Arafat. In October 1997, after Israeli intelligence botched the assassination of senior Hamas operative Khaled Meshal in Jordan, Mr. Netanyahu had to release Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin from jail in order to secure the return of the Israeli agents.

Throughout much of 1998, Mr. Netanyahu was whipsawed by pressure from the right wing of his own coalition, who opposed further concessions to Arafat, and the Clinton administration and the Palestinians on the other side who sought to push the prime minister into making more generous territorial concessions to Arafat in advance of final-settlement talks. In the end, Mr. Netanyahu was unable to satisfy either side.

In May 1999, Labor Party leader Ehud Barak defeated him and was elected prime minister. Mr. Barak forged ahead with a unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000, which proved to be a fiasco. In the region, “the withdrawal looked like a defeat,” President Clinton’s special Middle East envoy Dennis Ross acknowledged, adding that it “fostered an environment supporting increased radicalism, not moderation.” In the Arab media, Hezbollah was celebrated for forcing Israel out while Arafat was depicted as a weakling who didn’t understand the need to employ violence against Israel. Within months, Arafat embarked on a campaign to prove the critics wrong.

Step one was Arafat’s decision in July 2000 to reject Mr. Barak’s extraordinarily generous peace offer. Immediately afterwards, Arafat ordered preparations for the war with Israel that broke out on September 29, 2000, and began releasing imprisoned Palestinian terrorists from jail. Over the next few months, terrorism and anti-Israel violence such as stabbings, random shooting attacks and bombings became routine. By March 2001, Mr. Barak was gone, having lost to Mr. Sharon in a 25-point landslide the previous month.

Mr. Sharon initially attempted to forge a dialogue with Arafat, but suicide bombings and other violence continued to escalate. In January 2002, Israeli forces captured the Karine-A, an Iranian ship that was caught funnelling arms to the PA. In the wake of that intelligence coup, Mr. Sharon’s government embarked on a public campaign to spotlight the roles played by Iran and Hezbollah in fomenting the terrorism and violence directed at Israel. In March 2002, Israel lost 133 people in terrorist attacks. Following the March 27, 2002 bombing of a Seder at a Netanya hotel in which 30 people died, Mr. Sharon launched Operation Defensive Shield, a fullscale offensive to uproot the PA terror network in the West Bank, an operation which resulted in the killing, capture or exiling of hundreds of terrorists who targeted Israelis.

Since that time, Mr. Sharon’s decision to build a West Bank security fence has made it much more difficult for terrorist groups to dispatch suicide bombers from the West Bank into Israel. This, combined with a continuation of targeted killings of terrorist leaders (including two Hamas chieftains last year) have taken a huge toll on the terrorists — a toll reflected in the number of Israeli deaths as a result of Palestinian terrorist attacks, which have plummeted since the beginning of Operation Defensive Shield.

Hamas and other terrorist groups remain determined to transfer their Qassam rocket infrastructure and the rest of their terror network from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank — closer to Ben-Gurion Airport and Israel’s population centers. And Israeli officials admit that by withdrawing from Gaza and scaling back their security operations in the West Bank in an attempt to bolster the political standing of Mr. Abbas with Palestinians, they are losing valuable on-the-ground intelligence assets who are critical to stopping terrorist attacks. Mr. Sharon has made considerable progress in reversing the erosion of Israel’s deterrent capability against terrorism that took place during the Oslo era. But his greatest challenges lie ahead.

Joel Himelfarb is the assistant editor of the editorial page of The Washington Times.

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