Turning Back the Clock

Political constraints and the bending to international conventions are not all that require Israel to change its approach toward the Palestinians; the public position of the prime minister does, too.

Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, Israel's second president, died in 1963. His funeral resembled that of Yasser Arafat at the Muqata on Friday: Citizens en masse, many of whom were new immigrants, surged toward the shawl-draped stretcher that was borne through the streets of Jerusalem in an effort to touch it. Ben-Zvi, a down-to-earth and modest president and a scholar of the tribes of Israel, was particularly loved by the former Diaspora Jews. Bidding him a final farewell, with a touch, a kiss, was part of an accepted ritual for them, particularly among the Jews from India. The lessons learned from that disorderly funeral remain on record as procedures for conducting state funerals of a dignified and controlled nature.

The Palestinians, too, will draw the required conclusions from the funeral, which almost got completely out of hand two days ago. In the not too distant future, they will establish a state for themselves and, among other things, approve procedures for conducting state funerals. In the immediate wake of Arafat's death, Israel must ask itself how it is preparing for that day and what lesson it is drawing from its relations with the Palestinian people in the 41 years that have passed since it was unable to organize an orderly burial for its president.

The direction has already been voiced in the past 24 hours and speaks for itself - the declaration by U.S. President George W. Bush that over the next four years, the United States will provide resources in order to bring about the establishment of a Palestinian state; the announcement by British Prime Minister Tony Blair that he expects to join forces with the United States for the purpose of laying the political, economic and security foundations for the establishment of a Palestinian state; EU foreign policy coordinator Javier Solana's call on Israel to accept the new Palestinian leadership and allow it to function; and the approach to Israel (through the media) by Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), Mohammed Dahlan and Saeb Erekat to leave the Palestinians to manage their own affairs and to allow them to set up an alternative leadership.

Within the coming days, the government of Ariel Sharon will have to decide if it will cede to the Palestinian demands to leave them to hold elections without its presence.

On the agenda is the Palestinian demand for an Israel Defense Forces withdrawal from the entire Gaza Strip, as well as the West Bank cities it has entered - either in the framework of Operation Defensive Shield, or in specific operations in recent weeks. From an Israeli point of view, this is no simple demand: The IDF's return to the West Bank cities has been a significant factor in the downslide of the terror curve, and military pressure on the Strip is designed to stop the firing of the Qassam rockets. Just as Israel perceives these measures as vital in the defense of its security, they are seen by the Palestinians as belligerent steps designed to embitter their lives and shed their blood.

The Palestinian demand for the removal of the IDF from all of Area A - with the argument that, without this, it will be impossible to hold elections in a free atmosphere - is, indeed, a pretext aimed at turning back the clock to the situation that prevailed in September 2000, on the eve of the outbreak of the current violent conflict; but Israel must cede to it, despite the inherent security risk. The Sharon government cannot appear to be undermining the implementation of a democratic process in the Palestinian Authority; the declarations and announcements listed above testify to the fact that the international community, including the United States, will not allow it.

But political constraints and the bending to international conventions are not all that require Israel to change its approach toward the Palestinians; the public position of the prime minister does, too. Speaking in the Knesset some three weeks ago, Sharon said: "Not by the sword alone will the bitter struggle in this land be decided .... Regrettably, we don't have a partner for serious dialogue on making peace .... Arafat chose the way of blood and fire and the shaheeds .... We don't want to remain in control of millions of Palestinians .... Israel won't be able to uphold this reality for long." To the Palestinians, he said, "We didn't want to build our lives in this homeland on your destruction."

Now, with Arafat dead, Sharon will be called on to make good on his word.