Pouring Religious Oil on Nationalist Fires

Experience teaches that the prime minister, defense minister and foreign minister are not always able to control their emotions when they order responses to Palestinian terror attacks.

Experience teaches that the prime minister, defense minister and foreign minister are not always able to control their emotions when they order responses to Palestinian terror attacks. The displays of contrition following the demolition of homes in Rafah is the latest example of a decision which was reached in a highly emotional state, rather than in a prudent frame of mind.

Likewise, members of the security-political cabinet ought to think deeply in retrospect about the decision to assassinate Raed Karmi. Shimon Peres emitted a peep of doubt when he announced that "I heard on the radio that he [Karmi] had a work accident." That was the foreign minister's way of saying that he didn't support the timing of the killing of the Fatah man.

Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer sounded half-apologetic when he claimed that the terror attack last Thursday night at Hadera (which was carried out in reprisal for the Karmi assassination) had been planned long ago, and was not necessarily a direct response to the assassination. In their hearts Sharon, Ben-Eliezer and Peres must know that the "targeted liquidation" strike against Raed Karmi accelerated, if not renewed, the bloodshed.

The smoke billowing up from the Palestinian-Israeli battlefield obscures a clear view of the sides' position, and intentions. At first glance, Israel's position has a clear moral advantage: As Israel sees it, the Barak government proposed a far-reaching set of concessions to the Palestinians; Yasser Arafat rejected the proposal, violated his pledge to refrain from violence (a vow which he had taken under the Oslo accords), and declared that he will not forgo the demand for the refugees' right of return within Israel's borders.

Under such circumstances, Israel is fully justified when it defends itself against Palestinian terror, stands up for its existential-survival interests, and takes military steps to reduce dangers posed to its citizens.

The problem is that this line of defense can also serve as a smokescreen to cloak hidden intentions, ones that are less agreed upon. Doubts have arisen several times recently about Sharon's actions; the suspicion is that he has a secret agenda that he is trying to advance via pre-emptive measures, moves taken with the approval of Labor ministers Peres and Ben-Eliezer.

When Sharon's year in power is viewed in retrospect, it seems clear that he brought about escalation in the armed conflict with the Palestinians, a halt to diplomatic talks, and an intensification of rage and thirst for revenge on both sides. In other words, the conflict with the Palestinians worsened, and the solution to the impasse seems today to be much father away than it was when Sharon took office.

At first glance, Israel's prime minister would not appear to be responsible for the downward swing. Arafat's schemes and moves are to blame. Yet there are a number of indications suggesting that this result accords with Sharon's view - a view which holds that there is no room for compromise in the national conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, and that the only outcome that can be accepted is a clear, decisive verdict which strengthens Israeli control within the Green Line and also in a large swath of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The possibility that Sharon really holds this view cannot be ruled out, despite his declarations of readiness to accept "painful compromises" in negotiations.

A series of steps taken by Sharon suggest that his policy orientation might be this hardline, no-compromise position. He has worked to humiliate Arafat and damage symbols of PA sovereignty (including the strike yesterday aimed at the broadcast station in Ramallah); and a plan discussed recently at senior government levels to re-open the Temple Mount to Jewish visitors also might reflect this uncompromising stance. Each such policy step can be supported by its own plausible set of arguments; yet, taken as a whole, they serve a hidden agenda, namely to render the Palestinian national movement impotent, and to crush its leadership.

Anyone who thinks in these terms - particularly anyone who is not afraid to pour religious fuel on the pyres of the nationalist dispute - proves once again that impulses, rather than sober judgment, govern his decisions.