Text size

Operation Defensive Shield has fomented a deep change in the political debate in Israel and redrawn the demarcation lines between left and right, which had become blurred in the decade of the Oslo accords and the brutal clash with the Palestinians. The right is now urging that Israel retake control of the territories, while the left is pushing for an enforced settlement with the aid of an international force. Occupation or internationalization: These are the parameters within which the public discourse will henceforth be conducted in Israel.

What both approaches have in common us their recognition that there is no longer any prospect of reaching an agreement with the Palestinians. Not a permanent settlement, not an interim agreement, not even a temporary cease-fire. There may be nothing new about that, but the operation in the territories brought about the collapse of the Palestinian governmental structure and put an end to the concept of "Rajoubization," the security model - the epithet is based on the name of Jibril Rajoub, the head of Palestinian preventive security in the West Bank - that placed the battle against terrorism in the hands of Palestinian subcontractors in return for personal and economic advancement and vague political promises.

The operation is now drawing to a close, but Israel is stuck with the same old problem: Who will take care of security in the Palestinian towns and cities after the departure of the army? To leave a vacuum is to create a hothouse for terrorist attacks. There is talk within the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) of rehabilitating the Palestinians' capability and establishing security mechanisms in a "different format" so that someone will take responsibility - and even more, take the blame for failure. The Palestinian leadership is not eager to fall into this trap, hence its opposition to the cease-fire document worked out by U.S. emissary General Anthony Zinni and Yasser Arafat's stubborn bargaining with Secretary of State Colin Powell.

In the absence of a strong Palestinian government, there are two bodies that can see to security. The Israeli right wants to do a historical turnabout, boot Arafat out of the territories and return the territories to the situation they were in before Oslo. This is the prevailing line of thought not only in the National Union but also in a moderate-right party such as Shas, whose leader, Eli Yishai, has called for the re-conquest of the West Bank. As the right in Israel was never enthusiastic about Oslo, the restoration of the occupation does not involve a conceptual revolution.

The left, which rested its policy on the alliance with Arafat, lost its way after the blow it took at Camp David and the eruption of the intifada. Former foreign minister MK Shlomo Ben-Ami (Labor) and Meretz leader MK Yossi Sarid were the first to call for international intervention instead of an agreed settlement to leave the territories and bring about Palestinian independence.

Labor's Yossi Beilin, who clung to the idea of an agreement and was vehemently against unilateral separation and internationalization, has recently changed his approach. In the current state of affairs, Beilin supports the deployment of a "significant international force that will replace the Palestinian Authority and preserve quiet," and if the left returns to power, he is proposing that a year be allotted for negotiations and that separation or internationalization be invoked if the talks reach a total impasse.

Still caught in the political no-man's-land are the three leaders of the national unity government, who continue to declaim the text of the old discourse. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon examined the possibility of a renewed occupation and the re-installation of the Civil Administration in the territories, and found that this course of action would be prohibitively costly. His words speak against foreign intervention but his actions are leading toward it, in accepting a European team of observers in the territories, in agreeing to American supervisors and in calling for a regional conference. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said this week that Israel is called upon to make a supreme effort in order to avoid an enforced solution, and he is talking about some vague "political horizon." And Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer? He is making do, as usual, with the notion of "entering a political process" that will be followed by some sort of settlement, somehow, or maybe not.

Operation Defensive Shield ended with a major missed political opportunity. In many countries, Palestinian terrorism was accorded legitimization as a national war of liberation, Israel lost the moral validity of its operations, and statesmen like Powell and Javier Solana are longing to be rid of both Arafat and Sharon. There is a growing tendency within the international community to intervene and bring order out of the chaos, without requesting permission from the irresponsible Israelis and Palestinians. United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan has already called for a strong international force to be deployed in the territories, along the lines of the one in Afghanistan, and not to wait for the agreement of the sides.