Tactical Victory, Strategic Debacle

With its meandering route, the separation fence reflects Israel's situation today, after four years of warfare with the Palestinians. It constitutes a tactical victory and a strategic debacle.

With its meandering route, the separation fence reflects Israel's situation today, after four years of warfare with the Palestinians. It constitutes a tactical victory and a strategic debacle.

Defying expectations held by many, Ariel Sharon has proven that forceful methods can be used to fight terror, and that democracy, internal unity and American support can be preserved at the same time. True, terror has not been extinguished completely; but the war has been moved to enemy Palestinian territory, and Israeli citizens enjoy a relatively placid period. The flow of suicide strikers has, for the most part, been plugged, thanks to the fence and preemptive, anti-terror measures.

Israel has succeeded in restraining terror, but it has failed to translate its tactical success into a strategic victory. The Palestinians have not caved in, despite the devastating blows they have endured. Facing Israel's military superiority, the Palestinians have turned for support to the international arena, where sympathy tends to be on their side. The goal of their struggle has been clear, and easy to explain to the world: an end to the occupation, and the removal of Israelis from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Israel has found it difficult to formulate the goal of its fight against this Palestinian campaign.

Sharon invested tremendous effort in his personal fight against Arafat. The Palestinian leader is confined in his Ramallah compound, and the international community has somehow become accustomed to this situation. But what good does this really do? Even without his flights to posh European residences and his visits to the White House, Arafat remains the Palestinian leader; his message has not changed, and nobody around him will be content with anything less than Israeli withdrawal from all the territories and some sort of right of refugee return.

Sharon began as prime minister from a position of weakness, following concession offers made by Barak at Camp David and Taba. He tried to remove these offers from Israel's agenda, or at least defer discussion of them until his own terms in office are done. In this respect, his success has been incomplete. George W. Bush allowed him to avoid negotiations with Arafat, yet even without peace talks Sharon has been compelled to move closer to acceptance of the Palestinians' positions.

In today's world, wars are about legitimacy and not about destroying the enemy. Mighty America is today learning these facts in Iraq, just as Israel has encountered them in the territories. The international community has come to terms with the fences and roadblocks and assassinations, and yet it has also become more committed to the Green Line as Israel's ultimate borders. Paradoxically, it is precisely Israel's military success against terror which has weakened Israel's bid to control parts of the territories. As terror attacks abated, world demands for a complete end to the occupation grew more vociferous. The advisory decision reached by the International Court of Justice at the Hague, deeming Israeli activity in the territories illegal, expresses international opinion.

Sharon's right-wing government is not entangled in a protracted struggle, and its status continually erodes. Israel has agreed to designating the 1949 cease-fire lines as the basis for final borders, as emphasized in the Road Map and Bush letter which it has enthusiastically accepted. Israel has accepted close American monitoring of every home in Jewish settlements as a first stage in an internationalized solution; and, after some waffling, Israel accepted moving the fence closer to the 1967 Green Line.

Israeli spokesmen can say that the fence moved due to the High Court ruling and not because of the Hague Court. The result is the same. Sharon wants to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, and he promises to freeze circumstances on the ground for some years. That sounds good, but it is not persuasive. A side which is ready to leave the Philadelphi Road and entrust security on Gaza's southern border to the Egyptians is not entitled to insist on continued control of the Jordan Valley.

Israel is currently fighting to preserve settlements in western Samaria, Gush Etzion and the Jerusalem area. Sharon and his aides believe that the world will applaud the withdrawal from Gaza, and leave Israel to solidify its presence elsewhere in the territories. Likud renegades and settlers at outposts have different ideas. For everyone, life will get harder after the elections in America, after Bush or Kerry takes steps to soften European and Arab hostility toward the U.S. partly by stepping up pressure on Sharon.