For a while it looked as if the pressure being brought to bear on President George W. Bush by the Arab world and European leaders had succeeded in eroding the U.S. administration's support for Israel's battle against terrorism.
Following the events of September 11, Washington viewed Israel as an ally in the battle against terrorism that the president was leading. Hamas and Islamic Jihad were put on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations and the president repeatedly voiced his disappointment with Yasser Arafat as leader of the Palestinian people.
"If you provide a haven for terrorists; if you fund terrorists; if you arm terrorists, you are a terrorist," the president said; and nobody could have failed to notice that this description fitted Arafat like a glove.
But a week after the government of Israel ordered the Israel Defense Forces to take the battle against Palestinian terrorism into Palestinian cities and villages in Judea and Samaria, President Bush began delivering a different message to Israel. "Enough is enough," the president declared, demanding an Israeli withdrawal from the Palestinian cities that had been occupied.
In the days that followed, Bush emphasized that the withdrawal should be carried out "without delay;" and just in case that had not been clear enough, he said it should take place "now".
"I meant what I said," Bush announced before dispatching Secretary of State Colin Powell on his mission to the Middle East.
But on arrival in Jerusalem, Powell was met by another Palestinian act of terror, in the Mahane Yehuda market on the eve of the Sabbath. Surely that injected a dose of realism into the secretary of state, and hopefully also a better understanding of the challenge that Israel is facing at this moment in time.
It was Powell, then a general and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the U.S. Armed Forces, who was reported to have played a key role in the decision of former U.S. president George Bush Sr. to cease military operations against Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War, before the Iraqi dictator had been deposed.
The unfinished business that was left behind has turned out to be a serious headache for his son, on becoming president. The cease-fire agreements that the Iraqis signed obligated them to destroy their arsenals of missiles and non-conventional warheads and to suspend all further activities in these areas. UN inspectors were to oversee the execution of this section of the agreement.
In the meanwhile, however, Saddam Hussein has got rid of the UN inspectors and is continuing his non-conventional weapon activities. He recently appeared on television, demanding that his nuclear scientists step up their efforts to provide him with a nuclear bomb. It is now generally admitted that interrupting the offensive against Iraq before Saddam Hussein had been deposed had been a grave error. The job should have been finished.
The same mistake should not be repeated here. The task with which the IDF has been entrusted - to take the war against Palestinian terrorism to the cities and villages in which the acts of terror are being planned and organized - must be completed. There could be no greater mistake than to stop the operation half way. There is no doubt that Israel's civilian population would have to pay a heavy price for such a mistake.
Israel's restraint in the face of the Palestinian campaign of violence over these past 18 months was seen by Arafat and his associates as a sign of weakness and lack of resolve and led to a steady escalation of the acts of terror and an ever-increasing toll of Israeli civilian casualties. Close to 500 Israelis have been murdered during this period.
Nobody is laboring under the illusion that the present IDF operation, once completed, will bring about a total cessation of Palestinian acts of terror. But it should lead to a significant reduction of such acts and the human toll they take. No less important, however, the operation will leave behind the message that it is this kind of Israeli response to acts of terrorism against Israeli civilians that the Palestinians must expect in the future.
Hopefully, the majority of the Palestinian population will realize that Arafat's leadership has only brought them suffering and ruin, that their well-being and their lives are being sacrificed by him for the sake of the vain claim of the "right of return."
And maybe this knowledge will bring forward a new leadership among the Palestinians - a leadership that is more pragmatic than Arafat, that is concerned with the fate of the Palestinians living here and that is prepared for compromise in the interests of the constituency they represent. This is the only road to peace.
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