Operation Defensive Shield effectively ended yesterday, a month after it began, in a two-way deal: the encirclement of Yasser Arafat's Ramallah compound was ended, as was the siege imposed on the Israel Defense Forces by the United Nations fact-finding team. This trade, Ramallah for Jenin, was in the works last Tuesday; but it could not be brought to fruition until a crisis atmosphere prevailed in both of its components.
IDF preparation for an operation in the Hebron area - in response to Saturday's terror attack at Adura - and continued talks about the armed Palestinians at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (IDF officers insist that Bethlehem is not part of the deal) provided the background to yesterday's basic lesson: The Ramallah-for-Jenin deal proved that Israelis are stronger than Palestinians and Americans are more powerful than Israelis. The Palestinians were unable to put up strong resistance to the IDF, apart from Jenin (and even in Jenin the commanders of various terror squads turned themselves in).
In discussions among themselves, and also in conversations with Israelis, Palestinians admit that pulling the IDF onto their home turf enabled Israel's army to put on a show of strength that vanquished them, and made them think anew about the prospects of victory in an armed struggle.
From the start, the IDF General Staff had doubts about the political mission entrusted to it via the "isolation" of Arafat in his office compound. As most IDF officers see it, the release of Arafat is an advantage, not a drawback; even the few ranking officers who are looking for an opportunity to send Arafat overseas and prevent his ever coming back, must first allow the PA leader leave his compound in Ramallah.
The demand for the extradition of Rehavam Ze'evi's murderers was supremely important to government ministers. By conferring a special status to Ze'evi's assassins, these politicians sent a signal: Deterring Palestinians from strikes against ministers is more important than deterring them from launching attacks against ordinary Israeli civilians.
The Bush administration viewed the diplomatic impasse created by the Ramallah situation as too costly; and because Washington decided not to put up with it any longer, the Ramallah situation became too costly for the Sharon government as well.
In one interpretation, Arafat was kept confined by warrior Sharon as a bargaining lever to be used in a crisis. The idea was to pull out the Arafat card at a moment of truth, in order to turn defeat into victory; and the Jenin fact-finding team affair is such a defeat for Sharon . IDF officers charge that Israel's consent to the UN mission was conferred in a negligent phone call by Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. Peres, in this interpretation, wasn't thinking of the facts and the implications when he gave the nod to the idea.
The Israeli team that was sent to New York proved unable to patch up the situation; in fact, this team's efforts just made matters worse. Though all sorts of verbal assurances and rumors were bandied about, the final, printed description of the UN team's mission was less sympathetic to Israel's positions than the original draft that was scrapped last week. In fact, the final draft was so bad for Israel that its blunt terms turned into an advantage - since nothing was ambiguous, it was easier for the Sharon government to oppose the UN fact-finding team, and to hope that it will be able to persuade the Bush administration that its position is justified.
In terms of the Ramallah situation, the proposal that was forwarded yesterday, by which a British and U.S. team would be deployed at the Palestinian jail, is hardly the step toward "internationalization" that Israel has feared. Arafat is hoping that the Americans will protect the Palestinian suspects from Israel; for him, it's not a case of Americans guarding Palestinians, period. All told, this is a revamped version of the "Sinai field contingent" that emerged from Henry Kissinger's diplomatic efforts to defuse disputes between Israel and Egypt in August 1975.
The American team sent under this accord was deployed for just a very short time. Similarly, the British force (the first of its kind to be deployed on the West Bank since the fall of the Jordanian Legion there in 1967), and the American team, will not be the harbingers of an international force used as a buffer between Israel and Palestine. Such an international force can only be sent after a peace accord.
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