November 30, 2000
The accolades came in fast and thick the night Ehud Barak was elected Prime Minister of Israel
in a landslide over Benjamin Netanyahu. New York Times columnist Thomas
Friedman hailed the neophyte politician as a “statesman” who could bring an
end to the country’s “national nightmare.” Similar gush was heard from the
Clinton Administration, which had dispatched its political hit team of
Carville, Greenburg & Shrum to defeat the evil Bibi and, it was assumed, Give
Peace a Chance.
The wages of appeasement
That was 17 months ago. Since then, Mr. Barak has done just about everything
people like Mr. Friedman and Mr. Clinton have wanted him to do. He made a
good-faith offer to Syria to return nearly all the Golan Heights. He withdrew
the Israeli army from its outposts in southern Lebanon. He went to Camp David
and reportedly made Yasser Arafat an offer beyond anything the Palestinian
strongman could have expected given previous Israeli conditions. The offer is
said to have included 90% of the West Bank and half of Jerusalem.
And where has this got him? Syria imperiously rebuffed the Golan offer
because it amounted to a mere 99% of its demands.
Hezbollah has been
launching attacks into northern Israel on the claim that a sliver of Lebanese
territory remains in the “occupiers” hands. (Even the U.N. disagrees.)
The Palestinian leadership did not waste much time in tagging the new Prime
Minister as “Barakyahu.” When the opportunity presented itself in the form of
Ariel Sharon’s allegedly provocative visit to the Temple Mount, they launched
their latest bloody “uprising.”
Now Israel is facing up to a real horror: terrorist bomb attacks within Israel proper,
something that didn’t happen even in the “nightmarish” Netanyahu years.
Internationally, too, the situation has worsened. An Israel that found itself
ostracized under Mr. Netanyahu’s government is now nearly a pariah state,
routinely accused of the excessive use of force, war crimes and even
genocide. This despite the fact that Israeli soldiers have in the present
crisis acted only defensively or reactively, going so far as to warn
Palestinians in advance where helicopter gunships are going to strike.
Meanwhile, the Clinton Administration that did so much to bring Mr. Barak to
power has offered only halfhearted support for Israel, terrified as it is
that in so doing it might offend Mr. Arafat. Not that it helps: Mr. Arafat
has now taken to denouncing the U.S. for providing Israel with military
All this came to a head on Tuesday, when Mr. Barak, facing a vote of no
confidence, was forced to call for new elections, probably to be held within
the next six months. Current opinion polls show that Mr. Barak would lose
narrowly to Mr. Sharon or otherwise be trounced by Mr. Netanyahu, should the
former prime minister choose to throw his hat in the ring. As it is, Mr.
Barak may not even make it that far: members of his own party are disgruntled
and may challenge him for the leadership.
So what’s been learned from all this? Tom is confused. The current fighting,
he says, “makes no sense.” The Israeli strategy is “whacky” and the
Palestinian one “insane.” Saying the world’s gone mad is, of course, what
people often do when their predictions prove wrong.
Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary
of State Madeleine Albright thinks the peace process can “move ahead” as soon
as the violence ends. But she, of all people, should know that you can never
go home again.
Israelis, however, do seem to be learning something. They are learning that
the international support generated by territorial concessions can last only
as long as it takes the Palestinians to gin up another grievance — and
there’s an endless supply of those, from hassles with work permits to the
“right of return” for refugees.
They are learning that goodwill gestures are
taken by their enemies as a sign of weakness, not goodness.
They are learning
that Palestinian demands are non-negotiable, calling into question the
utility of negotiation.
They are learning that to have formal relations with
their neighbors counts for little, as the recall of Egypt’s ambassador last
They are learning, in short, that after more than a half-century of
existence they are still fighting a war for independence.
So Israelis will soon go to the polls and change the composition of
government. That they alone among their neighbors can do this is not a fact
much commented on in the Western press (much less in the Arab one).
But as little Israel again comes under siege — from Hamas terrorists, Tanzim
militiamen, Hezbollah guerrillas as well as sanctimonious Westerners — it
bears notice that this little country remains free, and brave and, it now
seems, a little wiser.