"The best way to fight terror is to use terror itself," confessed Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer last week during a lecture he delivered in Tel Aviv.
According to Ben-Eliezer, terror is first and foremost the Palestinian Authority, which is responsible for the current terror because of the terrorist organizations that the PA "either cannot control or is not willing to control." This is the same Palestinian Authority, noted the defense minister, that is "claiming the right to an independent Palestinian state and is defining the conditions for the creation of that state, which is to be located in the very heart of the State of Israel."
If one were to make a hasty judgment of the way Ben-Eliezer handled his portfolio in the spring and summer of 2001, it would be that he will not be recorded in Israeli history as one of the country's most brilliant defense ministers. Nevertheless, he loves his job and dearly wants to continue holding on to this portfolio. If he were promised the post over the next few years, regardless of who would sit in the Prime Minister's Office, Ben-Eliezer would not turn down the offer. His positions are so center-of-the-road that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon cannot significantly deviate from them. With positions like these, Sharon certainly cannot snowball a limited military operation into a full-fledged war.
As Ben-Eliezer sees things, the war against terrorism must rely on the following components - patience, solid intelligence work, preventive actions, blocking off of exits (from cities on the West Bank that are defined as high risk), blocking off of entry (through the construction of fences), punishment for the villains combined with assistance to the innocent, and a real effort to "sit down at the negotiating table, in order to arrive at an understanding concerning the termination of terrorist operations, although, unfortunately, we cannot see at the moment any partner willing to join us in such a venture." This is not the only regrettable constraint. In Ben-Eliezer's view, the most effective weapon against terror is terror itself, however, the State of Israel, "which has chosen a path based on morality and values, cannot allow itself to kill innocent civilians, including women and children." Ben-Eliezer did not specify what exactly Israel had to give up doing - blowing up car bombs in downtown Nablus or employing Israeli police officers to shoot at Palestinian women in Ramallah.
The defense minister's observations were made while Israel Defense Forces troops were in the middle of a military operation in the West Bank cities. Ben-Eliezer's statements could be interpreted as an all-clear air-raid siren directed at the ears of both the Palestinians and the Americans, with the soothing message: "The present military operation is the most extensive action we have taken in the past 13 months of confrontation; however, it would be exaggerated to see this operation as a prelude to war. In the protracted conflict of attrition that is now taking place and in the absence of any other strategem, this is the only option we can use, but we will not go beyond the limits of such operations."
The military operation was a "post-mortem" action carried out in the wake of the assassination of tourism minister Rehavam Ze'evi but which could not be unequivocally defined in terms of cause-and-effect. Any cause-and-effect relation that does exist will be summed up once the troops are evacuated. The "balance sheets" in the various areas where the troops entered are, according to brigade commanders, "positive" in terms of the number of arrests made among those on Israel's "wanted" list and in terms of the number of terror attacks that have been thwarted. However, what connection is there between these "balance sheets" and the Ze'evi assassination, which released the safety catch and which launched a series of actions that were given a bizarre justification? This bizarre justification was as follows: The members of the club popularly known as "the Government" were humiliated and horrified by the fact that assassins had downed one of their friends, although Ze'evi was only one of the 191 Israelis who have been killed in the present conflict. The argument in favor of an escalation of the conflict with the Palestinians would have been more justified were the situation turned inside-out - that is, if the Palestinians had dared, after a year of assassinating government officials, to suddenly begin eliminating ordinary citizens.
Those who suspect the large-scale military operation launched last week could evolve into a sequel of the War in Lebanon, a sequel that could suddenly leap out from under the camouflage netting covering the Israeli tanks in Bethlehem, are expressing a natural sense of suspicion as to Sharon's motives; however, these individuals are ignoring the fact that Sharon's hands are tied.
Nine months after his electoral victory, the balance sheet for Sharon's prime ministership so far can be summed up as one big, fat zero - no progress and no retreats. The lesson of Lebanon was that military successes are illusory and transient and are not necessarily translatable into political assets: The moment Palestine Liberation Organization Chief Yasser Arafat was banished from Beirut, Bashir Gemayel betrayed Israel and the American administration published the Reagan plan, which was, to an extent, a slap in Israel's face.
Sharon is not storming Arafat in order to topple him. Sharon is only running, with heavy footsteps, sweating profusely and huffing-and-puffing on a treadmill in a gym.
With U.S. President George W. Bush and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres acting as personal bodyguards to protect Sharon from himself, the prime minister is actually only the shift manager on duty right now in the Prime Minister's Office. In light of the sudden flare-up of America's new policy on - or rather against - terrorism, Ariel "Arik" Sharon would have shown greater restraint than he is showing now, were it not for former prime minister Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu. The inhabitants of Area A - Arik's area - are very worried by the preparations being made in Area B - Bibi's area. The transfer of Arafat to another level of existence is Sharon's dearest wish - but it is not a practical plan that can be implemented. Sharon is not the hunter, he is the hunted. Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, who toppled the Peres government and who did the same to the government headed by Ehud Barak, is playing with his prey before he topples the Sharon-Peres cabinet and returns Netanyahu to power.
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