Playing by the Rules

As the Al-Aqsa Intifada enters its second year, one can see the emergence of certain "rules of conduct" for the protracted conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, under an umbrella of support provided by the international community.

As the Al-Aqsa Intifada enters its second year, one can see the emergence of certain "rules of conduct" for the protracted conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, under an umbrella of support provided by the international community. The guiding principle behind these rules is an agreement on the "playing field" on which the fighting is to take place - an agreement reminiscent of the "understandings" that came out of Operation Grapes of Wrath and remained in effect in southern Lebanon before Israel's withdrawal from the region. The agreement is also reminiscent of the long, drawn out war between India and Pakistan in Kashmir.

The Palestinians and Israelis want to limit their military confrontation to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Palestinian attacks against Jewish settlers in the territories and on Israel Defense Forces troops are viewed by the international community as a legitimate expression of the Palestinians' struggle to liberate themselves from the Israeli occupation. Israel does not retaliate in the wake of sporadic attacks on settlers and launches harsh responses only after terror attacks carried out within the Green Line.

As was the case in Lebanon, any deviation from the "accepted" rules of conduct - in the form of a suicide-bombing, shots fired at the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo or a bombing run by an F-16 fighter jet in Nablus - automatically leads the international community into pressuring the two sides to "calm down" and to return to the "playing field."

The international community, which is refereeing the "game" between the Palestinians and the Israelis, has no interest today in a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The interest of the United States and its European partners can be defined as the "maintaining of regional stability," which is another way of saying "abundant supplies of oil at reasonable prices, plus the survival of the regimes in Cairo, Amman and Riyadh." Low-intensity combat on the outskirts of Palestinian cities and bypasses does not threaten this stability.

Thus, a deterrent balance of power has been created. In this sort of situation, both sides exercise restraint, maintain channels for dialogue and avoid escalating the conflict to the level of a Bosnia-style ethnic war. The Palestinians shoot from a distance and plant bombs; however, they do not copy Hezbollah tactics and hence avoid infantry attacks on settlements or IDF outposts. For its part, the IDF does not use the full extent of its firepower to crush the Palestine Liberation Organization and to drive PA Chairman Yasser Arafat out of the territories. The desire for international legitimization works as a brake on both sides.

In the absence of any decisive military victory, there are no prospects for an end to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. If you are strong, you simply do not back down. The agreements between Israel and the Arabs were signed because of strategic weaknesses following the Israeli War of Independence, the Yom Kippur War and the Gulf War. Weakness was also a factor in Israel's unilateral withdrawals - from the Sinai Peninsula in 1956, and from Lebanon last year.

Former prime minister Ehud Barak failed to achieve peace with either the Syrians or the Palestinians not because he did not want an agreement, but rather because the price that the other side was quoting appeared too high in his eyes. Israel is not that weak that it would surrender national symbols like the Temple Mount or the shores of the Sea of Galilee or that it would back down on its demands regarding security arrangements.

The Barak affair also exposed the limits to which the United States is prepared to become involved in the Middle East conflict. For years, U.S. involvement was regarded by the Israeli left as a sort of wonder drug. The moment a bridging proposal is tabled, promised former justice minister Yossi Beilin and his associates, the peace domino will go into action automatically.

However, the United States, as its leaders have continually declared, cannot be more interested in a peace treaty than the warring sides themselves. Furthermore, gone is the strategic motivation that existed during the Cold War, when the United States wanted to capture the Soviets' military vantage-point in Egypt and, therefore, pressed for an Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement.

The terror attack on New York City's World Trade Center revived hopes among the proponents of international intervention, following the initial months of slumber into which the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush had sunk. The members of Israel's right-wing camp hoped that the outbreak of anti-Arab hatred, in the wake of an attack by Arabs on the United States, would ensure American backing for the liquidation of Arafat, "our very own bin Laden" as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has termed the Palestinian leader.

For their part, the members of Israel's left-wing camp began to hope for the launching of an aggressive peace process. Former foreign and public security minister Shlomo Ben-Ami is hopeful that buyers will now be found for his proposal that the United States should force both the Palestinians and the Israelis to accept the Clinton program.

The United States has no such intentions. Its involvement and its pressure boil down to telephone calls. Arafat and Sharon are regarded by Washington as a perpetual headache that is prejudicing the chances of securing Arab support for the new coalition being formed to fight global terrorism. The moment the present intifada broke out, the United States began to perceive Israel as a heavy strategic burden and to see Arafat as an unruly child who likes to play with matches.

The U.S. solution is to impose discipline on both sides and to contain the conflict between them, without taking any political or military risks. America will not dispatch military divisions to the territories so as to to dismantle Jewish settlements there or to smash Hamas. The Palestinians and the Israelis will be left to their own devices as far as their conflict is concerned; and they will have to manage with the game-rules that they themselves have established.