Ahead on Points as the Fifth Year Begins

As we enter the fifth year of the intifada, the war has become the existential situation of the Israelis and the Palestinians. No one is talking about an end to the confrontation, only about a mutual "exacting of a price."

As we enter the fifth year of the intifada, the war has become the existential situation of the Israelis and the Palestinians. No one is talking about an end to the confrontation, certainly not about a resolution of the conflict, only about a mutual "exacting of a price." There is broad agreement on both sides to continue with the war and there are no internal pressures for a respite, despite the horrific price.

As we enter the fifth year of the intifada, the international community has despaired of the Israeli-Palestinian bloodletting and has filed it in the drawer of chronic conflicts, like Kashmir, where it's a pity to waste one's energy. The cliche that calm in the Holy Land is important to preserve both regional stability and the price of oil has been proved false. The Arab regimes have survived smoothly the Israeli occupation in the territories and the American occupation in Iraq. In contrast, the Israeli convention that it's important to win a war quickly, before the great powers impose a cease-fire that favors the Arabs, has collapsed. The great powers no longer care.

As we enter the fifth year of the intifada, Israel is updating its war aims. The aim of "eradicating terrorism" has been forgotten. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon promises that terrorism will continue in any event. Also dashed are the hopes for a "victory of perception" in the confrontation: The Palestinians are continuing along their old path. Now Israel is fighting for goals that are territorial, not psychological: annexation of the "settlement blocs" in the West Bank and a long-term hold on the Jordan Rift Valley. That's the purpose of the separation fence, the disengagement from Gaza and the smashing of Palestinian sovereignty. There is broad political agreement for this, the gap between the camps having narrowed to the question of the fate of the settlements that will find themselves on the other side of the fence. Sharon promises to retain them "until an agreement," while Ehud Barak will propose that they be evacuated in return for placing the West Bank city of Ariel inside the fence.

As we enter the fifth year of the intifada, the obsession of the government and the defense establishment with Yasser Arafat remains unabated. Brigadier General Michael Herzog, until recently the military aide to the defense minister, wrote in a position paper of the Washington Institute: "After four years, the question of the day is `What is to be done about Arafat?' Because he retains the power to be a spoiler, most observers agree that ignoring him is not going to make the problem disappear." The report by the Shin Bet security service about the four years of the confrontation, which was made public last week, reiterates the claims that Arafat "approved funding for Tanzim [Fatah militia] activists in the knowledge that the funds would be used for terrorist acts against Israeli civilians." The Shin Bet reveals its sources: "The interrogations of Fatah senior figures Marwan Barghouti, Nasser Awis, Nasser Abu Hamid and Ahmad Barghouti." The report's authors do not mention that the four were arrested more than two years ago, so that since then, presumably, no new evidence against the chairman has come to light.

Despite the clumsy formulation and the paucity of intelligence material, the struggle against Arafat bore fruit. "Sharon did not succeed in making him irrelevant, but he did succeed in making him a non-partner," says a leading figure of the Israeli left. Sharon thus gained twice over: by neutralizing external pressures for the renewal of the negotiations and by putting an end to the internal opposition on the left, which was left with no banner.

As we enter the fifth year of the intifada, the initiative has returned to the Israeli court. In the early stages, the Palestinians were in the forefront of the confrontation and the fighting was conducted on buses and cafes in Israel. The international community recognized the military accomplishment of Palestinian terrorism and adopted the vision of a Palestinian state. In the fourth year, by means of a combination of military measures (fence and assassinations) and a political initiative (the disengagement plan), and with the help of external developments (the miring of the Americans in Iraq), Sharon succeeded in removing the issue of Palestinian independence from the international agenda and in expanding the settlements in the West Bank. So what if he declared in 2003 that a Palestinian state is an Israeli interest and promised to freeze building in the settlements and to dismantle the settlement outposts. Now, in the face of the rain of rockets on the town of Sderot and the opposition of the settlers to the disengagement plan, the test will be Sharon's ability to maintain the initiative and take the confrontation into the sixth year while he is still ahead on points.