When the Cat's Away

They were the loveliest (and most irresponsible) days of our childhoods in school - those days when the teacher was sick. In the "free hours," we could do whatever we wanted. Forget obligations like homework, long live freedom.

They were the loveliest (and most irresponsible) days of our childhoods in school - those days when the teacher was sick. In the "free hours," we could do whatever we wanted. Forget obligations like homework, long live freedom.

After the first shock of the terrible tragedy in America, that same feeling spread across Israel. The teacher's sick. It's our free hour and we can do anything. Furthermore, the world will finally understand our war against Palestinian terror. Under cover of the terrible darkness that descended on the world, there are some in Israel who think we can beat the Palestinians, and be saved.

The first signs of this way of thinking were evident on the day after the disaster when the Israel Defense Forces invaded Jenin and Jericho. Israel made efficient use of the cover of the world's darkness - never before had an incursion into Area A lasted so long. By the end of the week, there were 12 people already killed in Jenin, including a little girl and a woman, and 90 were wounded. A researcher for B'Tselem, Ghaslan Hahjana, who spent the past days in the besieged city reported at least 15 houses that were totally demolished, mostly belonging to civilians.

Our forces also conducted operations in Jericho and there were civilian casualties there, as well. But nobody paid any attention. In light of the world's silence, the Israeli government yet could undertake what it has long wanted to do and didn't dare - elimination of the Palestinian Authority.

The cheerleaders are already heard in the background. Ariel Sharon compares Arafat to bin Laden; Benjamin Netanyahu compares Palestinian terror to Nazism, while like him, ministers Avigdor Lieberman and Uzi Landau and the rest of the right-wing ministers make do with vocal criticism of a Peres-Arafat meeting. None of their rhetoric, of course, would ever be considered incitement.

Worse, though not surprising, is that similar voices are being heard from the rubble of the former Israeli left, or what claimed to be the left. "I want to scream at our leaders, don't miss the opportunity! Now's the time to strike with all our power!" writes vox populi Dudu Topaz, who used to call himself a "man of the left," in Yedioth Ahronoth. Fight with all the strength, writes Edna Shavit, another "former leftist" in Ma'ariv.

If the teacher doesn't recover, if the world "understands" or doesn't pay attention, those voices could lead us from a terrible disaster in America to a terrible disaster in the Middle East.

It may be that now - when the world's enemy is Arab terrorism and bin Laden and Arafat are one and the same, while in Ramallah and Nablus they're handing out candy - the world will let Israel strike at the Palestinians. Even if there are hundreds of innocent civilian casualties, it won't bother anyone while America buries its dead in the thousands. The world, or at least the U.S., might even breathe a sigh of relief if the PA collapses and Arafat is eliminated. From that point of view, those eager for battle are right; this is the time, for them.

But what happens afterward? Who will fill the vacuum left by the PA? Zionist Palestinians? Nobody can seriously believe that more blows at the heads of the Palestinians will eliminate the terrorism. Those calls for striking now against the Palestinians come mostly from a greedy desire for vengeance that has nothing to do with wisdom.

It's reasonable, therefore, to suggest precisely the opposite: Now, more than ever, when the Arabs and Muslims have been pushed into the corner, when the world doesn't care about the Palestinians and the PA is at its lowest and only a return to negotiations can save it - Israel has the opportunity to try to accelerate the process.

Political negotiations can succeed only when they serve the interests of both sides, and Arafat now needs political progress at almost any price while Israel has always needed it. Instead of exploiting his weakness to strike out at him, it's time to try to blow some life into the political process with some generous offers.

But other than Shimon Peres, whose options and courage are limited, it appears that nobody in the government understands this. There, they want to gird for battle, and now, with the teacher sick, even more so.