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The character of the military operation which has been conducted since Friday on the West Bank reflects the trap which snares Israel's relations with the Palestinians: though Israel Defense Forces actions do not fundamentally change the the situation which causes them to be undertaken, they appear to be unavoidable at the particular time they are ordered. The very definition given to this particular "rolling" operation presages its results: it will not attain its declared objectives.

The government defined the operation with these words: "Its goal is to vanquish the Palestinian terror infrastructure; Arafat is an enemy, and he will be isolated at this stage." These are problematic, if not wrong-headed, objectives: a state does not go to war, and conscript 20,000 reservists for the effort, to neutralize one man, Yasser Arafat. A platoon of regular soldiers would suffice to accomplish this end. Furthermore, if Arafat is the ultimate, total enemy, why has the IDF merely been told to isolate him - enemies are to be wiped out.

Similarly, the pretentious goal of vanquishing Palestinian terror is not realistic: Israel is incapable of chasing and tracking down thousands of Palestinian terrorists. A practical definition of the "Palestinian terror infrastructure" would be a few weapons plants, a few installations (which the air force long ago decimated), a few dozen military compounds and arsenals - and also scores of weapons-bearing persons. It is unrealistic to suppose that the State of Israel should replace the Palestinian Authority and assume responsibility for containing terror organizations. A broad interpretation of "terror infrastructure" would encompass the entire Palestinian population on the West Bank and Gaza Strip; this population, after all, supplies moral and practical succor to terrorists, and the terrorists carry out their attacks in the name of this population. Israel lacks the wherewithal to cast out this infrastructure.

Thus Israel finds itself this Passover "reconquering" lands which are already conquered, enlisting entire brigades to arrest (under the best scenario) a few hundred Palestinian suspects, and confiscating some weapons, which will in a short time be replaced by the Palestinians without much difficulty.

Due to such realities, the "rolling operation" is doomed to be a disappointment, or even to be mired in complications. There is the danger of international pressure causing the operation to be curtailed sooner than its planners envisioned; and there is the possibility that domestic pressure could mount, due to casualties among our troops and fundamental differences of opinion (among reservists as well) about the morality of Israel's presence in the territories. And then there is the likelihood of despair about the operation's results: after the IDF pulls out of Palestinian cities, terror attacks will in all likelihood continue.

The government's decision to isolate and negate Arafat's influence is particularly likely to breed disillusionment. The world will not allow Sharon to attain this goal. By making this goal the operation's top priority, the government displayed flawed reasoning. Pursuit of this objective is liable to cause convulsions throughout the Middle East; it adds to Arafat's luster in the eyes of his people, and enhances his international reputation as a tortured martyr. Moreover, diverting attention to Arafat distorts the essence of the dispute: Israel is embroiled in a bitter nationalist struggle with the entire Palestinian people, and not just the man who happens to be leading it at this time.

At first glance, these considerations seem to require a redefinition of the military operation: War should be declared on the Palestinian people as a whole. But it has been proven in the past that Israel is incapable of asserting control over the territories, a region whose population yearns for independence. On the other hand, Israel presented major, far-reaching proposals to the Palestinians at Camp David, and it received terror and a demand for a right of return in response.

Given this impasse, there's no choice but to go back to a banal idea, namely, issuing a declaration of renewed willingness to engage in final status negotiations, and discuss all of its components. These include Israeli withdrawal from the territories, Palestinian concession of the right of return, and sound security arrangements. This is the right conclusion to be drawn at a time when a military operation is rolling around; and it appears to be the right response to the series of brutal terror attacks, whose peak was the Passover seder massacre in Netanya.