Text size

It's an asymmetrical war, they say in the Israel Defense Forces. The strong are forbidden to use their full power against the weak who make their misery their art - space cadets against cave dwellers - and last night the asymmetry got a new meaning. When Yasser Arafat does too little, failing in the face of the terrorists, Israel does too much, acting not according to the cool judgment of the military planners between each of the major terror attacks.

One bus, one attacker, one burst of bullets, one bomb, 10 dead, 30 wounded - and all the sophisticated talk about intentions to safeguard the Palestinian Authority and respond to the American wishes, disappear under the force of public pressure, real or imagined, to do something, to hit something.

Those same general staff officers who explained moments before the attack near Emanuel how ineffective are the attacks on Palestinian targets, that the attacks do nothing to motivate Arafat to fight the Hamas, dusted off their operational plans to present them to the ministerial committee on security a few hours after the attack.

Emanuel means God is with us, but last night, it wasn't clear who God was with - even though it was made clear that America is his representative on earth, and with America (like Robin with Batman) is Europe. Everyone who isn't fed by second-hand reports and doesn't hide behind the politically correct is now fed up with Arafat; they showed him the way, and by evading taking the path they showed him, he was caught in his own errors.

On paper - and there have been a lot of papers - the plan was simple. Get a cease-fire, the two sides restrain themselves a little, a period of "confidence building measures" begins and the political process is renewed.

That plan, in its various incarnations, has had a lot of names - George Mitchell and George Tenet, Colin Powell and Anthony Zinni. To implement it, however, requires one more name. Arafat. If only he behaved like the Pakistani ruler, Perevez Musharraf, moaned Javier Solana a week ago in his office in Brussels. Solana is the European Union's foreign policy czar, and a member of the Mitchell Committee, ghostwriter of its report and recommendations.

If only the Palestinian leader understood the change required by the terror attacks of September 11, to get used to the demands that change requires of him, to win the world's sympathy; if only Arafat was what he isn't - Musharraf.

But Arafat refused to be someone else, and Solana the Spaniard - a veteran of the process that was launched in Madrid, got diverted to Oslo and crashed on the Temple Mount - dared say the words that until the end of November remained stuck in the throats of the Europeans: Palestinian terrorism.

Solana refused to crack the mystery of Arafat's personality. "I am a physicist, not a psychologist," he said evasively. He's an expert on the conversion of mass to energy, not the ambitions and passions that motivate the PLO leader, or any other leader. "My message to Arafat," he said, quoting himself, "is that he must act against the terror in the territories, to stop it. That's what I told him and that's what I told the heads of his security services, Dahlan and Rajoub. The terror must cease. One can struggle against occupation and for independence, but terror is prohibited."

Three days later, Shimon Peres went to Brussels and Ariel Sharon's humor crowned Peres as the person who persuaded the EU to finally stiffen its approach to Arafat. In effect, Peres arrived to a done deal, withe the groundwork prepared by the Israeli representative to the EU, and Solana frustrated by Arafat's behavior, shocked by the attacks in Jerusalem and Haifa. Even before Peres's arrival, Solana went out of his way to explain his position to the Israeli ambassadors in Western Europe and to Israeli journalists. You speak with Peres often and then are disappointed by Sharon's policies, said one of his guests; as if Jerusalem is ruled by Peron - half Peres, half Sharon. Don't worry, chuckled Solana, "I know who's boss." And he didn't mean Peres.

Yesterday morning, in the sun-drenched parade ground in front of the Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv's Kirya, two long limousines were parked beneath Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer's office: Solana's Volvo and the car of Miguel Moratinos, the EU's special envoy to the Middle East. With them was their adviser on the ground, Alistair Crooke. They had come to hear Ben-Eliezer's reading of the situation; maybe they'd find a crack in the wall of fire that divides the Israelis and the Palestinians, and if there's some kind of lull, maybe a role for them, the Europeans, might yet pop up.

"We're coordinated with Powell and Zinni," the Europeans proudly declared. But they are in a somewhat embarrassing situation. With all due respect to Solana, he's not the soloist. That's the Americans' job and the Europeans provide accompaniment. Solana calls Powell a lot, Moratinos shares a hotel with Zinni, and Crooke and his handful of men are supposed to become the nucleus of a monitoring group for a cease-fire that refuses to be born.

In their conversations with the defense minister, they discussed various ideas for partial cease-fires. Regional, zone, local arrangements, or by types of weapons, perhaps. "Do the mortars particularly bother you?" asked Solana, inviting a positive answer. But he was told that the mines and the shooting is much more dangerous. The Europeans left and the Americans - Zinni, who uses the American ambassador's German car - showed up to agree the situation is difficult but not desperate.

After more than 1,00 dead (240 Israelis, more than 780 Palestinians) and tens of thousands of wounded, including more than 2,300 Israelis, both sides are digging into their positions even deeper. They haven't sacrificed so much to give in now. And Arafat, who hears the Israeli bombs and Bush and Zinni's declarations echoing in his ears, remains paralyzed opposite the Hamas.

If he does shake off that paralysis and act, as opposed to the most current assessments, it won't be Bush or Sharon that made him do it. It will be Ahmed Yassin. The reports from the territories, particularly Gaza, should worry him; in the mosques the Islamic zealots are preaching against him, while the public, sinking even deeper into despair, is beginning to call for alternative institutions that will provide government and administration instead of a Palestinian Authority that is threatening to disintegrate.