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The Last Time, Again

It is rightly said these days that Americans have acquired, by a sudden and savage experience of terror, an understanding of the gruesome dimensions of Israeli existence. This is true, and no doubt it accounts for the Bush administration's acquiescence in the full measure of Israel's fury at last weekend's bombings in Jerusalem and Haifa. But an important difference remains. The American experience of terror is shocking, but the Israeli experience of terror is formulaic. The Palestinian attack on Israel; the pride of some Palestinians about the attack and the apathy of other Palestinians (the ruling Palestinians) about the attack; the Israeli retaliation; the international condemnation of the Israeli retaliation; the American insistence upon the resumption of the hallowed "peace process"; the return of the Palestinian community to a condition of incitement, and of the Israeli community to a condition of dread: the script is crushingly familiar.

What Israel announced to the world last week is that it is done with the script, that there is nothing banal about the murder of its citizens. And at least this week, at least in the United States, the Israeli insistence that Yasir Arafat must put an end to Palestinian terror seems inarguable. But we have been here before, and it is unlikely that the Department of State will suddenly shut down the peace process that it has just attempted to revive. It is more than unlikely that Yasir Arafat will see the light. For he is a proven stranger to the light; a moral dwarf and a historical midget; a man of tactics and not strategies, of phrases and not principles; a man who confuses his own survival with the survival of his people, and prefers the establishment of a security service to the establishment of a state; a man who lives more in fear of his friends than in fear of his enemies; a leader who does nothing but follow; a leader who aspires only to the prestige of a victim; the smallest leader of a movement of national liberation in the history of movements of national liberation.

There is the view, of course, that Arafat is preferable to what will come after him. This view would be plausible if Arafat were not already doing the work of those who will come after him. He has not accepted any diplomatic solution that will not fulfill the entirety of Palestinian aspirations on all of the west bank of the Jordan River, and he has not stopped or restrained Palestinian terror. In what significant way, then, is he different from Hamas? Indeed, the courting of Arafat by the international community, the endless diplomatic reiteration of the notion of his historical indispensability, serves only to conceal the truth about the political culture of the Palestinians, which is that it has undergone a momentous and profoundly disturbing transformation in the last decade. 

What has happened is this: the theocrats are now ascendant. They were emboldened by Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000, which they interpreted as Hezbollah's defeat of Israel in Lebanon. The "second intifada" of the past year must be understood not only as a popular war against Israel, but also as an internecine struggle within the Palestinian community, as an attempt by Hamas and Islamic Jihad to steal power and authority from the Palestinian Authority, which has chosen to give the mullahs and the martyrs the shovels--the freedom of action and the aura of legitimacy--with which to bury them. The leadership of the Palestinian polity is now divided between principled medievals and corrupt moderns. Jihadists and apologists, fevered people blowing themselves (and others) up and avaricious people puffing themselves up: this is the Palestine over which Arafat has presided.

If it is true, as Colin Powell remarked last weekend, that the recent atrocities were "not only ... a terrible attack against innocent Israelis, a terrible act of terror, but ... also an attack against [Arafat], it was an attack against his authority, it was an attack against the Palestinian leadership," then it is also true that Arafat was complicit, now as before, in the attack against him. Israel may be forgiven if it elects to respond to its mortal enemies in a different spirit. Does this mean that Israel's new "war on terrorism" indicates an abandonment of the peace process? It depends what you mean by the peace process. If General Zinni represents an attempt to continue the phony discourse of the recent past, to perpetuate the illusion that Yasir Arafat is a figure of magnitude who will make the grand compromise that will be necessary to create a state of Palestine that will live gladly in peace alongside the state of Israel, then General Zinni does not deserve the support of any Israeli interested in peace, and his mission is not really a peace mission. Blessed are the peacemakers, not the peacefakers. 

This article originally ran in the December 17, 2001 issue of the magazine.