Deadly Progress in the Middle East

By Richard Cohen

Tuesday, June 25, 2002

To an observer in Chappaqua, N.Y., it seems that the Israeli-Palestinian struggle is approaching a "tipping point." The phrase comes from Malcolm Gladwell's book of that name and refers to the moment, the point, when an accumulation of little things suddenly turns into something momentous. To Bill Clinton, speaking to me by phone from his home, that tipping point is in the numbers. Palestinian terrorists are showing that terrorism works.

Not too long ago, Palestinians died in far greater numbers than Israelis. Recently, the gap has narrowed -- from about 8 to 1 to about 3 to 1. On June 18 and 19, for instance, two bombings in Jerusalem killed 26 Israelis and wounded 124. The two bombers themselves died, but it seems an inexhaustible supply of others is eager to take their place. (Since September 2000, 548 Israelis and 1,428 Palestinians have been killed.)

The harsh logic of the numbers is not lost on the terrorists and their sympathizers. If it cannot be said that they are winning, at least it can be said that they are not losing as badly as they once did. The effect may be to destroy both the standing and the logic of moderate Palestinians, just the sort of people who recently signed a manifesto calling for an end to suicide bombings. They argued that it hurt their cause. The fatality figures, though, can be used to argue otherwise.

Some time ago I wrote that the Israeli-Palestinian struggle had entered its Battle of Algiers phase. The war for Algerian independence that ended in 1962 cost the lives of 250,000 Algerians and 25,000 French soldiers. Ultimately, the French could not prevail over a population that simply wanted them out. The more repressive France was, the more it radicalized the Algerians. Finally, de Gaulle ended it.

Would that Israel had a de Gaulle. The Jewish state desperately needs someone to say that the present policy of repeatedly attacking Yasser Arafat and punishing the Palestinians is not working. This is because Arafat is no longer capable of restraining the more militant elements in Palestinian society -- even his infrastructure has been destroyed -- and because every Israeli retaliation amounts to a recruitment drive for suicide bombers. Since the breakdown of the Camp David talks in 2000, Arafat has effectively negotiated via terrorism. It cost many lives. It cost him his credibility.

In an odd way, Ariel Sharon has lost credibility also -- and Israeli polls show it. His formula is more of the same. He wants to be rid of Arafat, but Arafat is not the problem anymore -- it's rising Palestinian militancy. Repeatedly, Sharon has retaliated and repeatedly suicide bombers have come right back at Israel. Now Israel has returned to the West Bank, once again penned in Arafat, and intends to stay until it has eliminated terrorism. That will take time, an Israeli official close to Sharon told me, noting that after many months the United States has yet to eliminate al Qaeda, whether in Afghanistan or elsewhere.

The analogy is imperfect. The United States is not occupying Afghanistan. A more apt analogy is what the Soviet Union attempted there and why it failed. Israel will fail, too -- and it, unlike the Soviet Union, is morally restrained from waging all-out war against a civilian population, no matter how hostile.

Only the United States can break this impasse. This is not just because America is the world's lone superpower but also because -- in Clinton's words -- "we are the only big country who Israel believes cares if it lives or dies." The confidence Israel has in Washington's intentions should not be used solely for mere pats on the back. Sometimes a little tough love is in order.

But the Bush administration, while strongly pro-Israel, has been reluctant to engage persistently in a tough, protracted, diplomatic initiative. Colin Powell, who favors this approach, has been nowhere near as active as previous secretaries of state. In Clinton's view -- and few people have his experience in the Middle East -- this is a mistake. The situation has worsened while the United States dithered, but it now has the opportunity to act.

Bush's speech yesterday, however, offered the Palestinians nothing in the short run -- not even an immediate halt to building new Jewish settlements in the West Bank. And Bush's demand that the Palestinians dump Arafat can only bolster him in the near future. For the Palestinians it is a plan that could have been written in Tel Aviv, not Washington.

Still, the hard work of persistent diplomacy has to be done -- even at a time, and this is one, when a breakthrough seems remote.

"You have to ask yourself if the problem is getting better if you leave it alone," the former president said. His answer -- apparent in newspaper headlines -- is no. "It's going to get worse if we don't get involved, that's for damn sure."

© 2002 The Washington Post Company