Foreword: Jeremiah and Jonah
By Thomas L. Friedman
Meron Benvenisti is the Middle East expert to whom Middle East experts go for advice. Believe me I know. As a reporter for the New York Times in the Middle East for nearly a decade, I learned the difference between the mirage and the oasis. Meron is an oasis of knowledge in the intellectual deserts of the Middle East—deserts where charlatans and ideologues, hucksters and holy men, regularly opine and divine, unencumbered by facts, history, or statistics.
Whenever I wanted to cut through this mirage to the real, solid bedrock of what was happening and why, I called Meron—confident that his take would be original, his data unassailable, and his conclusions delivered without regard to whom they might offend or support. He was a man of the earth, a geographer and historian by training, and his opinions were always rooted in the earth, in the facts on the ground. He lways connected me with the true Middle East, that often irrational, tribal world where people only do the right thing for the wrong reasons.
I first got to know Meron when I was the New York Times bureau chief in Jerusalem from 1984 to 1988. The fate of the West Bank and Gaza Strip was being hotly debated at that time. The question of the day was this: Had years of Israeli settlement building in the occupied territories gone so far as to inextricably knit Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank together, or could one still speak of Israel giving back these areas one day, despite the degree to which they had been integrated into the economic and political life of the Jewish state?
One of the remarkable things about that debate, though, was that for all its centrality in Israeli political life and for all of the attention it got in the international media, very little hard data had been assembled to inform the arguments of either side. Wishful thinking was the currency of this debate.
That was what led me to Meron's door. Working out of a small apartment, with a computer and a few researchers, he combed through Israeli government budgets, official abstracts, agricultural and water data, and brought them all together in something called "The West Bank Data Project," which painted a statistical picture of developments in the occupied territories. On a per capita basis (number of times quoted divided by the number of researchers involved), the West Bank Data Project, founded in 1982, was without question the most influential think tank in the debate about the occupied territories. Meron's conclusions alternately drove each side in that debate crazy and provided them with the statistical resources for their best arguments.
So, for instance, the settlers used to love to quote Meron's statistics about how deeply their rising numbers had sunk roots into the territories and how impossible it would be to expel them. But it drove them crazy when Meron showed how much it was costing the Israeli taxpayer to bus settler schoolchildren from their caravan homes on some remote hillock in the West Bank all the way to Jerusalem, where they could attend Jewish classes. The Palestinians hailed the West Bank Data Project for cataloguing just how much private and state land previously under Arab control had been expropriated by Israel since 1967. But it drove them crazy when Meron warned them that their maximalist approach to diplomacy and refusal to take half a loaf in order to slow Israeli settlement activity were tantamount to national suicide. While the peace talks remained deadlocked, he argued, the relentless worker bees of the Israeli settlement movement were throwing up prefab home after prefab home, making it harder and harder ever to separate Bethlehem from Jerusalem, or Tulkaram from Tel Aviv.
Meron was probably the most oft-quoted and oft-damned analyst in Israel in my day—Jeremiah and Jonah wrapped into one.
As time went by, though, Meron tired of being the reality principle for a debate in which no one was really interested in reality. So, much to the chagrin of journalists such as myself, he gave up the West Bank Data Project and began a life as a writer. Now, instead of providing the data for others to write about the territories from one political perspective or another, he deploys his own data in service of his own unique perspective. This book is one of the results. Meron's perspective is informed by his training at Harvard University as a political scientist, nurtured by his tenure as deputy mayor of Jerusalem from 1973 to 1978, and inflamed by his passion for the people, the stones, and the history of the land of Israel.
For years I had been after Meron to write just such a book as Intimate Enemies. Indeed, his stubborn refusal to do so really annoyed me. He was like this brilliant doctor whose clear-sighted ability to diagnose the heart of the problem, without even an x-ray machine, left you speechless. And when you asked for a prescription, this brilliant doctor said he did not do prescriptions. "But, doctor," you said, "the patient is ill, quacks are dispensing advice from soapboxes on every corner. Don't leave him like this." But he would just shake his head. He did not do prescriptions.
Well, with this book, the doctor is finally in, and I am glad he is. To understand this book, the reader must understand that Meron is what I would call a "tribal realist." That is, his view of the world, and the Arab-Israeli conflict, is essentially that humans are tribal beings and that tribal bonds, passions, memories, symbols, allegiances, and connections to pieces of land are the DNA building blocks, the double helix, at the core of Arab and Israeli behavior.
What Meron does in this book is take two very primordial tribal encounters between Israelis and Palestinians—the massacre of Palestinians by Israeli police on the Temple Mount in October 1990 and the handshake between intimate enemies Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin at the White House three years later—and posit them as the competing models for the future of this conflict. It is either the raised fist or the outstretched hand. There is not much in between. While Meron does not write out an explicit prescription for avoiding the former in favor of the latter, one can be gleaned from his analysis.
Meron acknowledges that as a tribal realist he was taken a bit by surprise by the Arafat-Rabin handshake. Being a man so rooted in the land of Israel and so sensitive to others' connections to the land and its symbols, he never believed that Arafat would surrender or that Rabin would accept that surrender and then live with a defanged PLO. What Meron missed in the past (which he acknowledges in this book) were some of the large historical forces that reshaped Israeli and Palestinian attitudes, despite their tribalism—forces such as the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Gulf War, which deprived Arafat of his economic lifeline. For Israelis, it was exhaustion with this conflict produced by the combination of the Palestinian uprising and the rising Israeli standard of living. This last factor—a growing desire among Israelis to separate themselves from the Palestinians so that Israeli society could live the good life without them—was critical in shaping an Israeli majority in favor of The Handshake.
In other words, it was the nightmare of extinction for Arafat and it was the dream of separation for Israelis that combined to produce this breakthrough. But Meron insists that while he may have missed some of the forces producing that embrace at the White House, the tribal elements have not gone away; they have been temporarily muted. And he is right. The dream of separation is possible in Gaza, a neatly self-contained unit. But how will it be fulfilled in Jerusalem and the West Bank, where the Jewish and Arab populations are so much more intertwined, and the symbolism of every stone is so much more potent? And if there is to be lasting separation, can it be based on Palestinian surrender? No, he essentially argues, it cannot, for there must be an element of equality in any final Israeli-Palestinian deal; otherwise a separation is no more sustainable than a divorce without an equitable division of property. The short-changed spouse will always be resentful and will come back to the judge for more.
And that gets back to the choice between the Temple Mount and the White House lawn. The Temple Mount represents the rage that is produced by a separation based on inequality; the White House lawn represents the hope inspired by separation based on equality.
So Meron leaves us with these three options: Will it be a continuation of the shepherds' war between peoples fated to share the same sidewalks, but who want it all. Or will it be the shepherds' pie, divided, slice by slice, not in equal shares but in shares based on the power relationship between the parties—meaning that the Jews will get the lion's portion, the Palestinians the beggar's bowl. Or will it be some third option—the Benvenisti option—call it shepherd's stew, in which Israelis and Palestinians somehow learn to share equally the territory of historic Palestine west of the river Jordan.
Meron describes this dream as one in which Jewish and Palestinian "cultural relations, human interactions, intimate coexistence and the attachment to a common homeland will be stronger than militant tribalism and segregation in national ghettos." Those who dream of such coexistence, Meron adds, "are entitled to suggest a system that combines ethnic and cultural separation within a common geopolitical framework."
That is not a prescription likely to win many adherents on either side for the moment; I have doubts about it myself. But even if you don't agree with Meron's conclusions, his analysis will provoke you to rethink the future of the conflict. As for me, I am just happy that the handshake at the White House has taken a professional pessimist, a tribal realist, and restored in him the power to dream the dream. [Written 1995]
Thomas L. Friedman is Foreign Affairs columnist for the New York Times and author of From Beirut to Jerusalem.
Deus ex Machina When a plot gets hopelessly tangled in classical Greek theater, a large box drops from the flies. From it emerges one of the gods. He ties up the loose ends, and the play, which has already gone on too long, reaches its anticipated denouement. Not that the dilemmas have been resolved or the ways of fate understood, but the audience can go home with its catharsis. After all, they were not looking for an answer, only for consolation. And tomorrow there will be another play.
Although the ancient Greeks may have invented the deus ex machina, it is perhaps the Semites who have developed this dramatic technique to supreme perfection. In the ongoing drama of the Israeli-Arab conflict, both the critics and the players have dispensed with plot. For them, history is nothing but an endless series of unexpected events. The god from the machine constantly intervenes to fake a resolution of the story's complications, one sufficient to allow the curtain to come down, or go up, as required. Pious hopes and towering fears are postponed to the next act, and so it goes on. The agonized audience, whose distress these rituals presume to express, does not dare question the tragedy's basic structure. It wants to forget the dissension and violence of the present, to fight off despair, to turn a blind eye to the ominous contradictions—and yearns to put off all its dreams and nightmares until tomorrow. Journalists and authors of political texts, commentators and thinkers, all gladly offer the people in the theater the illusion of "the inevitable development"; they provide diversion and comfort. No one will take them to task for having complicated the plot they have concocted. When necessary, they will again bring down the deus ex machina, to once more remit their errors and their self-righteous preaching. Only a few will dare say, in an undertone, that the deus ex machina is nothing but a fraud, and that only the worst of dramaturges would use it. Only a few will remonstrate that tomorrow is already here, that the tragic Israeli-Palestinian plot is cyclical, not linear, because its causes are fixed and existential. Everyone will shout them down.
As early as April 1990, a few months before Iraq overran Kuwait, Saddam Hussein threatened Israel with "binary chemical weapons" and bragged of his ability "to burn half of Israel." At the time attention was focused on the Intifada, especially on its murderous manifestations. Not long before, a young Jewish man had fired indiscriminately into a group of Arab laborers, and two Jewish boys had been kidnapped and murdered in Jerusalem. The Iraqi dictator's threats were dismissed as more of the baseless bravado he was known for. The right-wingers who did take note of them were dismissed as warmongers and the enemies of peace. The Palestinians were still playing their cat-and-mouse games with the Israeli army, but were exhausted after thirty months of Intifada; they heeded the voices from the north. The protagonists in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were ready for the descent of whatever god was on duty, but the chorus was still declaiming the old refrains.
Shortly after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, Knesset members from the parties of the left and from Labor met in Jerusalem with Palestinian leaders from the territories and adopted a "joint statement of principles." The first section of the document stated unambiguously: "The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the heart of the Middle East problem and must be solved immediately." Some of the less dovish participants wondered whether the document was an analysis of the situation or simply wishful thinking. They wanted a reference to the occupation of Kuwait and "demanded unambiguous condemnation of the action." A Palestinian spokesman told them: "We haven't come here to solve the problems of the world, only the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. . . . The occupation of Kuwait is an internal Arab matter." In the end, the meeting, described as "positive and constructive," did not address the approaching Desert Storm. Those assembled continued to work on "the heart of the matter" and appointed a drafting committee that was supposed to address unresolved questions, such as the Palestinian right of return, the status of the PLO, Jewish immigration, the question of borders, and Israeli security. "We're talking about an exceptional meeting," enthused one of the leading Jewish participants. "If the people who participated were those responsible for reaching a peace agreement, it would happen soon."
But there was no chance at all that those who attended the meeting would ever reach a peace agreement on their own. When it came down to it, neither the Israeli peace movement nor Palestinian intellectuals directed the drama. The Palestinian public did. The Intifada had taken both the Jewish and the Palestinian participants in the dialogue by surprise. What threatened the status quo was not the publication of statements of principles; it was something spontaneous and "irrational." Most of the Palestinian intellectuals were shunted to the margins, and center stage was taken by the Shock Committees and the Unified Command.
The Palestinian intellectuals spent several months in trauma, after which they managed to find themselves positions as commentators on and propagandists for the Intifada in the West. They were snidely referred to by fellow Palestinians as the "Intifada Notables." The Jewish peace movement and its leaders were stirred by the Intifada, applauding the "anticolonial uprising." Yet they did not and could not do much other than publish fervent articles about it. Their delicate status on the edge of the Jewish consensus did not allow them even to support the Intifada; they could only explain the "inevitable historical process that gave birth to the uprising," a process proving that the Palestinian state would certainly be created. "Everyone knows it will happen," they said. They were condemned to be a background chorus while others determined the drama's development. The Palestinians had never, after all, trusted the peace movement. They conducted dialogues with it, participated in joint delegations, took advantage of its sensitivity to human life and to the denial of human freedom, all in order to raise Palestinian ratings in world public opinion. There were Palestinians who believed there might be a way of reaching the hearts of Likud supporters, but most of them thought that the Jews would not get out of the territories of their own volition and were sure that the status quo could be shattered only by a blow from outside—the charge of an Arab cavalry led by a modern Saladin, or American pressure on Israel.
For years the Palestinians had hoped that their oppression, misery, and sacrifices would spur the entire world to take action. They believed that they need do nothing but appeal to its sense of mercy and its conscience. When they despaired at the Arab and Western world's apathy, they began their uprising. For many months they hoped that the great impact made by their "boys with the stones" would produce political fruit, and that the Arab world would act. In November 1988 they made a great ideological sacrifice and agreed to the partition of Palestine and to the rest of the terminology demanded by the Americans in exchange for "dialogue" with them. Yet nearly two years passed and the "dialogue" produced nothing; then it was terminated. An atmosphere of depression pervaded the territories; young men imposed a reign of terror, and the number of Palestinians killed in assaults by the "shock forces" overtook the number killed by Jewish bullets. This murky atmosphere was broken by a flash of lightning in the form of a new Saladin, a fearless knight who, with the stroke of his sword, would overturn the status quo in the Arabian peninsula and wreak terror on the West. He would then come at the head of his horsemen and destroy the Crusader-Jewish state. "Whoever he may be," a Christian Palestinian journalist wrote in an Israeli newspaper, "he revealed to me something revolutionary and wonderful that is summed up in the traditional motto he adopted—Allah hua akbar, Allah is great. That, as I understand it, means faith in the great God, in a God greater than sophisticated aircraft, greater than modern technology, greater than the combined power of the twenty-eight countries that attacked Iraq"—and certainly greater than Israel, that flaccid appendage of the contemptible West.
There is no way of knowing whether Yassir Arafat was carried away by messianic fervor or whether he was being opportunistic when he reached the conclusion that Saddam Hussein would succeed in killing his prey. In any case, he went to Baghdad and kissed his brother, throwing the Palestinian national movement into an incongruity that it would take long to escape. The Palestinians found themselves supporting Iraq's occupation of Kuwait while simultaneously demanding the end of Israel's occupation of the territories. In retrospect, we know that Arafat bet on the wrong horse, but the real damage he caused was to set back the Intifada's achievements. He had not started the uprising, but for many long years he had succeeded in focusing attention inward, on what was happening in the Palestinian homeland, and forcing the world and the Jews to confront the root of the problem. Arafat's embrace of Saddam Hussein returned the PLO and the Palestinians to square one.
Gods from machines may be disguised as new gods, but their role seldom changes. Fifty-five years before, in what the Jews called the "Troubles," the Arabs of Palestine had made a heroic attempt to take their fate into their own hands, to break free of the great and amorphic Arab framework and fight the existential threat presented by Zionism. The unplanned "Arab Rebellion" was, however, doomed from the start. The fragmented Palestinians had no chance against the British army. One thousand days after it began in April 1936, when the plot had thickened into immobility, the deus ex machina appeared in the form of the Arab states, which "suddenly" intervened, allowing the Palestinians to descend from the limb they had climbed out on with their strength and honor barely preserved. Their independent struggle was subsumed by Arab nationalism and eventually reached the point of ignominiously supporting Nazi Germany. Both "independent Palestinian action" and "the collective Arab struggle" failed time and time again, with discouraging regularity, during the second half of the twentieth century—the 1947-49 war, the Nasser period and 1967, the "popular uprising" in the territories and "Black September" (in 1970), the adventurism of the "alternative homeland" in Lebanon, the Intifada, and the collective Arab stand in the peace process.
Each of these swings of the pendulum between the internal Palestinian pole and the pan-Arab pole began and ended with an event that seemed to create a new reality, to be commemorated in one more of those symbolic anniversaries that pack the Arab calendar. The "boys with the stones" and Saddam Hussein were the gods currently on duty in the Palestinian tragedy. Like their predecessors, they symbolized despair, helpless anger, inability to cope with an existential threat. They were evidence that the Palestinians were completely unwilling to recognize the constraints of objective reality, adamant in their belief that they could not compromise in a just cause, and certain that justice would eventually win by the sword.
The Saddam-initiated swing of the pendulum to its pan-Arab role made most Israelis sigh with relief. Now they could perceive the conflict in its pan-Arab guise and view the Palestinians (by their own testimony) as one component of the conflict and not its focus. They could revert to global considerations of an external military threat, of conventional and unconventional war. The strange "war" the stone-throwing Palestinian boys had forced on Israel, the war that turned a great army into a police force, the war that so contradicted the accepted "doctrine," simply melted away.
"Saddam Hussein did good public relations for some of Israel's defense theses," one military commentator noted. The civil defense authorities issued gas masks. Israel began preparing for war, its fifth or sixth with the Arabs. And when Israel prepares for war, everyone unites; if the Palestinians support the enemy, they can go to hell. The Israeli left was a bit unmannerly, indecorously overeager, in the speed with which it divorced the Palestinians. Not a week had passed since the "historic meeting" with the Palestinian leadership in a neutral hotel in Jerusalem, and now the Israeli left was turning its back on its anticolonial confederates. There are, of course, plenty of historical parallels from the more distant and more recent past that testify to how weak the ideological bond is when national instincts awaken. Yet the left spoke with more than a bit of condescension and a sense of relief. "When you again ask for my sympathy for your 'legitimate rights,' you will discover that your cheers for Saddam Hussein have made me deaf," one said, and added: "If I had supported the establishment of a Palestinian state only because the Palestinians also deserve a state, I would now revoke that support. But I continue . . . because it is my own right to be rid of the occupation and its harmful effects. You may very well deserve the occupation, but we do not. I insist, despite everything, on preserving my humanity, but I do not need Arafat, Hussein, and [Mohammed] Daroushe [leader of the Arab Democratic party] in that supreme effort, which is all mine, and which is nearly inhuman in its humanity."
If anything, the peace movement, which had expressed such sympathy for the despair that gave birth to the Intifada, should also have expressed sympathy for, or understanding of, the despair that induced the Palestinians to line up behind Saddam Hussein. When it comes down to it, what did the Palestinians do except cheer and make contradictory declarations? The Palestinians' emotional reaction was met with a no less emotional response, and with the same motives. For the Israeli left, the outbreak of the Intifada was a deus ex machina that came to redeem them from the pangs of conscience. For one thousand heroic days, the Intifada had allowed them to live the sweet illusion that the end of the occupation was at hand, and that they need not lift a finger. Had Saddam Hussein not appeared, the members of the Israeli left would have had to invent him. His sudden appearance gave them, and the Palestinians, a way to get off the high limb they were stuck on with what remained of their honor intact. It dulled the pain of their reversal and made it easier for them to retract all their rosy forecasts and learned historical analyses. It allowed them to lose themselves in the embrace of the Israeli consensus.
Yet the eagerness with which the spokesmen for the Zionist left latched on to the Palestinian cheers for the Iraqi leader grew out of a deeper need. With the conflict restored to its interstate dimensions, the left could revert to the view that was mother's milk to the Labor movement. A conflict whose focal point is "external"—between Israel and the "Arab world"—is fought by two collectives, and the question of legitimacy does not threaten the left's universalist-humanistic self-identity. Military-political conflicts of this type do not require soul-searching about moral and ideological questions of the kind raised by the internal, intercommunal conflict. Menachem Begin had forced the internal conflict on Israel. The internalization of the conflict was, for him, a kind of victory for Zionism, and permanent rule by force an inevitable consequence of the consummation of Zionism's goal. On the Zionist left, however, the internalization of the conflict created unresolvable ideological contradictions, which were expressed in bitter disputes over military service in the territories, the Palestinian right of return versus the Jewish Law of Return, the limits of obedience, human rights, and political rights. Saddam Hussein made it possible to revert once again to the sterile vocabulary of interstate disputes and escape the intercommunal conceptual conundrum.
Moreover, since Saddam had externalized the dispute, perhaps the pre-1977 world could be recreated. Yossi Sarid, the classic Labor movement's keeper of the flame, wrote on the eve of the Gulf War: "After the crisis the tables will turn and it will be easier and more practical, in my estimation, to break through the front of the Arab countries. I do not mean to stop the world and get off to wait, because we simply do not have the time. The solution to the Palestinian problem will be a by-product of arrangements with Egypt and Syria, and the Palestinians will not be able to blame anyone but themselves and their leadership."
The government and the right-wing groups represented in it were, of course, most pleased. "Reformed leftists have reached heights that pure rightists may never attain," a right-wing activist noted sarcastically. The government was unafraid of the left, but none of its ministers enjoyed the flagellation of the leftist columnists. They could take good advantage of the left's abdication to tighten the screws on the coercive regime in the territories, knowing that no one would raise a cry. As for Saddam Hussein, one prescient Israeli commented: "The right, well aware of the weight of brutal facts in relations between nations, relies on the ability of a persistent historical fact to gain legitimacy, or at least tacit assent. In this it perceives reality more accurately than those of us who still hope in the depths of their hearts that the outside world will rescue us from the quandaries that are first and foremost our own moral dilemmas."
The right understood the challenge presented by the thief of Baghdad—he was a threat to the status quo in the entire region, not to Israel alone. He endangered the vital interests of the West and of the Arabian peninsula. He evoked the long-standing frustration and anger of millions of Arabs, taunted all authority, and aspired to upset the fragile balance of power that had just barely kept the Middle East from slipping into chaos. It was not only the West that had to respond to this challenge. The regional powers of the status quo also had to react. Ironically, Israel's enemies were willing to consider Israel an integral part of the regional status quo—but only so long as it did not demand a public declaration to that effect, was not contemplating any military response to Iraq's provocations, and continued to occupy itself only with the Palestinians it so badly wanted to control.
The Gulf War was not a renewal of the Israeli-Arab interstate conflict—historical processes never retrace their steps. Saddam Hussein repeated Gamal Abd al-Nasser's slogans: Arab unity and an end to the artificial borders and fictitious sovereign entities created by European imperialism—the root of all the Arab nation's ills. But Saddam Hussein's revisionism appeared an entire generation after the Europeans had gone; his bluster sounded hollow. He was not Nasser, who fought imperialism and defeated it, and neither did he come from Cairo, the Arab world's capital. He did not come to impose order on the inheritance of a recently withered colonialism; rather, he was seeking to challenge a geopolitical system that had already been institutionalized.
Saddam Hussein's very attempt to do so is, paradoxically, evidence of how much the countries of the region, notwithstanding their "artificial" borders, have become defined, viable entities. The Iraqis tried to destroy Kuwait, a sovereign entity lacking any ethnic or historical distinctiveness, a creation of Britain's anachronistic interests. Yet Iraq itself is nothing but a collection of Ottoman provinces that the same European power cobbled together into a political entity for long-obsolete reasons. The artificiality of Iraq's borders and the fact that the majority of its population is composed of ethnic and religious groups that detest the Iraqi Sunni "nation" did not keep Saddam Hussein from putting together a military and political regime that was considered legitimate as long as it did not try to make changes in the name of anti-imperialist ideology. Those who threaten "artificial borders" and "fictitious entities" actually threaten all countries in the region, since which of them (Egypt excepted) is not based on the same fiction that Kuwait is? Whoever chooses to eliminate an Arab state, rather than the "artificial Zionist entity" cannot seriously mean to lead his cavalry to the Holy Land and liberate it from the infidel.
Saddam Hussein did not heed the angry warnings of Arab rulers that his conquest of Kuwait legitimized Israel's conquest of the territories, forced them into an alliance with the West, and thus perpetuated the geopolitical status quo in Palestine. His actions were dictated by the uncontrollable desire of a greedy, power-hungry tyrant. His pan-Arabist and anti-Zionist rhetoric was no more sincere than the Islamic and social-equality blabber he produced. As a result, few Arabs fell for his incitement, and the leaders of Syria, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia in particular took no risks when they allied themselves with the United States against the "sister nation" of Iraq. The consolidation of an international and local coalition was resounding proof of the legitimacy of the existing system and the illegitimacy of the challenge to it.
American rhetoric created the impression that the United States planned to create a "new order" in the Middle East, a Pax Americana. The Americans, so some hoped and so others feared, had come to stay, to impose an era of peace on this conflict-ridden region. But rhetoric is one thing and action another. The Americans acted only after a broad international consensus was reached; they made no move until the United Nations Security Council legitimized their actions. Because they had to bridge over the chasms between various interests, the Americans could act only when the justification for forceful intervention was unambiguous, when legitimate local elements supported it solidly, and when there was a broad national consensus in the United States. The Americans clearly distinguished between violent conflicts among countries—which harm the international system and have political and economic implications for global interests—and chronic internal and intercommunal conflicts. They have learned the lessons of their interventions in Iran and in Lebanon. Only when endemic internal conflicts break out in their backyard—as in Grenada, Panama, and El Salvador—do they allow themselves to intervene. It was not to revise the geopolitical system that they came to the Middle East, but rather to reestablish the status quo and restore the balance of power between the northern and southern parts of the Fertile Crescent and coexistence between desert and settled land. They acted to reaffirm a system that allows collections of tribes disguising themselves as sovereign states to continue to stew in their own juices, just as long as their quarrels pose no danger to world order.
It was not a new world order that was born from the Gulf War—it was the same bad old Middle East reincarnate. It was the same unstable, inflammable system of countries divided within by class, social, and cultural dissension unchanneled into democratic frameworks, tormented by jealousy of their neighbors and fear of the outside world's influence. It was a Middle East dreaming of an apocalypse that would recreate the long-lost Arab Golden Age. Political writers who found the status quo repulsive prepared the audience for a new act in the drama, one in which the long-awaited catharsis would finally take place. The Middle East would no longer be what it was, they said. The approaching war, they wrote, would change the situation fundamentally, bringing in its wake a regional peace imposed by the Americans. The major element in the postwar order would, they hoped, be Israeli withdrawal from the territories.
The Gulf War was seen by many as an opportunity to shatter the enduring status quo in the territories and find a way out of the quicksand of intercommunal conflict. Iraq's threat, and the Palestinians' support for Saddam Hussein, left no doubt in the minds of the left—Israel was once more on the eve of the total war they had "constantly warned" against. The costs of this war, they believed, would force Israeli society into a decision on the issue of the territories—their evacuation. Those who seek war find it, even if it is not their war.
The Likud government, like the left, chose to define the conflict in the Persian Gulf as a war in which Israel was directly involved—but for the opposite reasons. Iraq was a mortal danger, and that galvanized the right. The theses that Israel lived in a hostile world, that it could trust only in itself, and that "the Arabs" want nothing less than the destruction of the Jewish state were proven once again. When faced with such an enemy, there was no room for compromise—certainly not for a territorial compromise that endangered Israel's security. But even as they fostered a sense of public danger, the members of the Likud government hoped that the Gulf conflict might actually strengthen the status quo. The optimal means was to emphasize the danger while also stressing the caution and responsibility called for in making any preemptive military move. The greater the existential danger, the greater the value of restraint would be. Underscoring the fact that Iraq threatened Israel with missiles and weapons of mass destruction would change the image Israel had acquired during the Intifada. Powerful Israel, trampling on the Palestinians, would once more become identified with the persecuted Jews. If it were to sit quiet despite the danger, it would win points with the Americans, and when the dust settled, it would be among those that gained from the reestablishment of the status quo.
Defining the situation as a "state of war" was, then, a result of ideological needs and political considerations more than it was the result of rational military analysis. The minute a potential state of war was announced, expectations began fulfilling themselves. It soon metamorphosed into a "non-conventional" war, gas masks were distributed, and the entire Israeli economy made preparations for a state of emergency. There is ample evidence that the army, the professional body authorized to determine when there is a state of war, and to deal with it subsequently, was suborned by the politicians. Since everyone was afraid of being accused of failure, Israel chose to act on a "worst-case scenario." When Saddam Hussein sent his first barrage of missiles, the worst-case scenario was, so it seemed, confirmed, and Israeli society sank into a paralyzing anxiety.
The authorities took drastic steps and completely disrupted normal routine. Yet closing the schools, halting public transportation, and closing factories had implications beyond the disruption itself. Israeli society, tried in war, instinctively identified the familiar signs of a state of war. In previous wars, however, the disruption was caused by the call-up of the reserves and civilian vehicles, while this time everyone stayed home. This odd "state of war," without a front and without military activity, only a threatened rear and sealed rooms, was a new kind of experience, and so even more threatening. It goes without saying that the warning of a gas attack on Israel led to a panic about mass destruction and conjured up the specter of the Holocaust. This distress and anxiety were doubled and redoubled because the missiles hit Tel Aviv and its suburbs, Israel's soft underbelly. The illusion that ebullient Tel Aviv, that open and hedonistic metropolis, was thousands of miles away from any violent conflict was thunderously shattered. The panicky flight to violent Jerusalem, where the conflict was apparent in every corner, forced many to face up to their existential situation.
This traumatic experience was perceived as an extreme emergency and was officially defined as "war." The Israeli public reacted as it was accustomed to react to war. The sense of a common fate sharpened, the willingness to sacrifice for the general good grew, patriotism and tribal mobilization strengthened. Yet this strange war also awakened contrary feelings. With the entire family cooped up in a sealed room, with no front line and no collective concern for our brave soldiers there, individual anxiety increased, and with it the feeling of each man for himself. The anxiety, the shock, and the reactions to "this war, so different from all its previous ones" did not make people wonder if this was really a war, if the definition fit the objective facts. Saddam Hussein made no hostile move that was a real threat to the Israeli collective—yet only such a threat can be called war. The volleys of missiles that hit civilians and their property were more like acts of terrorism—sporadic violence that serves a political purpose. It was a desperate attempt to create a provocation that would unravel the anti-Iraq coalition.
Saddam Hussein had made a political, not military, move, and by any test Israel was not in a state of war. It is doubtful whether the Iraqis were capable of launching, or would have dared to launch, missiles with the potential for mass destruction. Just as the Intifada was not a war, so neither was firing missiles at Tel Aviv worthy of the name. Worrying about precise, objective definitions might have sounded like a semantic exercise had the definition of the situation not had practical implications and important political consequences. The subjective impression that Israel was in a state of war led to a discussion of the options for a military response, since military aggression must be countered by force. Although it engaged only the civilian sector and lacked a front line, the war "must" turn into a real war, it was thought. The lack of military response made its people feel that Israel had lost its "reputation as a country that never forgives the spilling of its citizens' blood."
Some were astonished by "the new American determination to establish a new order, including a new form of Israel's use of its own power." A romantic intellectual was jolted out of his illusions: "We are awakening from a long dream to a reality that diminishes our stature in our own eyes. Israel's self-image as a fortress ready for battle is growing blurred and distant." The dilemma—"to give or not to give a fitting response via a large-scale retaliatory action"—was presented as a dilemma with earth-shattering implications; the responsibility placed on the shoulders of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir was "of almost equal weight with the one that weighed on David Ben-Gurion's shoulders on the eve of the decision to declare independence," wrote one journalist. The Israeli author A. B. Yehoshua discerned "the now clarifying totality of our conflict. . . . the range of the Israeli-Arab conflict has become total, beginning as it does from the smallest and most intimate knifing incident, through bombs, rockets, tanks, and airplanes, through the next missile that comes from above the atmosphere (today from Iraq, tomorrow perhaps from Iran or Libya). And, after all, we love to be distinctive. Here, they've already found us a small distinction in our struggle that, in my humble opinion, does not exist in any other known conflict in history" (Politika, no. 37 [March 1991]).
The knife and the missile combined into an apocalyptic threat that was "a mortal danger to Israel," more serious than just any war. Commentators, politicians, and columnists used war images to analyze "the situation." But, strangely enough, ordinary people understood that this strange war was not their war. Eighty percent of the Jewish residents of Israel preferred "restraint," and this number did not change during the course of the war. "Righteous people's work is done by others," many said, and believers saw God acting in history.
The government, ostensibly facing a world-shaking dilemma, acted the only way open to it—it abstained from any military intervention. Any response to Saddam Hussein's provocation would have played into his hands, and the results would potentially have been catastrophic. The international coalition did not need Israel, and the Americans made every possible military effort to eliminate the missile threat and so preclude any possible motive for—or pressure on Israel to stage—a response that would be embarrassing for the United States and its coalition partners. This "state of war" simply did not fit the script of the interstate war, repeating itself each decade since 1948. "The totality of the knife and the missile"—or to put it simply, the cause-and-effect relationship between the local intercommunal conflict and the total, interstate conflict—existed only in the fertile minds of observers who wanted the Gulf War to reestablish the international dimension of the Israeli-Arab conflict.
This struggle had begun a hundred years before in ethnic strife and expanded in ever-widening circles, from a conflict between neighbors, shepherds, farmers, and watchmen, to local intercommunal riots, and from there to a civil war that engulfed the entire country, and during which neighboring countries joined the circle of violence, making it into a war between regular armies. In the 1980s, after Israel reached a peace agreement with the largest of its enemies, the conflict slowly returned to its original dimensions, but despite the fact that its range was reduced, its force and depth were not. The Intifada and the knifings, the slingshot and the club, the rubber bullet and the prison camp were its manifestations.
Now people wanted to declare a change "from the knife to the missile." The conflict once more acquired regional, interstate dimensions. The "proof" was the way Palestinians behaved during the war. Not only did they support and cheer Saddam Hussein; they even went up to their roofs and applauded at the sight of the missiles landing on Tel Aviv. They and Saddam were one. The transition from the knife, from the violence of one body touching another, to the inhuman missile that comes down "from beyond the atmosphere," brought with it—paradoxically—a sense of relief. After all, when a missile was fired, someone turned on a siren and ordered people to enter their sealed rooms; there was no warning when a demented knifer attacked. The fear of the missile was collective, and there was comfort in mass anxiety. People did not see the murder in the enemy's eyes. He remained there, over the horizon, not at the front gate. The primal shepherds' fistfight that had raged for three years had turned into a "total conflict"; now we were part of "the region."
"In one fell swoop Saddam Hussein's defective, inferior missiles made us part of the region . . . so that our sky is no longer ours alone," a columnist wrote. "Now we are not the only ones who can strike a blow in the Middle East. The Middle East can strike at us also." How convenient it was to exchange the visible enemy, the conflict over a swatch of land and a street corner, for a conflict over the "sky [that] is no longer ours alone" and an impersonal, geographically defined enemy. One perceptive Israeli said: "We are once more tasting collective fear . . . that is a very elementary taste, drawn from primal depths. But to the people of Zion it is sweet, sweeter than the tense routine, than the unending oppression, than the exhausting mechanism of psychological repression."
The "total" experience gave rise to a longing for a total solution. "We must be certain that we leave no clear and unjustified provocation that will feed Satanic thoughts against us," said A. B. Yehoshua. "We must broaden the circle of countries that will do everything they can to prevent war in the region, war that will be catastrophic for them as well. . . . It is within our ability . . . to bring the Palestinians [in] as partners in peace and development."
The speed with which the anxiety and shock dispersed testifies to just how this strange war was in the end not "the cause and catalyst of social processes." Rather, it remained in the memory of the Israeli public only as a bad dream, a somewhat embarrassing attack of neurosis, of which one should be ashamed. What could be more symbolic of the reality than the fact that the morning after the Gulf War cease-fire, a young Jewish man was stabbed to death in the streets of Jerusalem's Old City, and that on the day of U.S. Secretary of State James Baker's arrival in Jerusalem, a young Arab murdered four women at a bus stop? There it was—from the knife to the missile—and back.
The trauma of the Gulf War had real long-range emotional, ideological, and political ramifications only in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian intercommunal conflict. This in and of itself is evidence that the thesis of "totality" is unsound and confirms the thesis that the "internal" conflict model has not changed. It is only natural that fear and hatred of the enemy pushed hawkish right-wing dispositions to the extreme. Such people's sense of hostility to "the Arabs" in general focused on the Palestinians, both because they supported the Iraqis and expressed their joy at Israel's misfortunes under bombardment and because they were there. The level of this hostility may be measured by public opinion surveys, but it may well be that the reactions of liberals, who are sensitive to xenophobia, are the most accurate measurement. One columnist wrote: "It has been years since I have so questioned my political beliefs. . . . I discovered, to my horror, that on many things I am no longer able to give my opinion immediately. . . . I oppose the curfew in the territories, I believe it is inhuman, but I can't say that I long to see 120,000 laborers from the territories walking freely through the streets of our tense city. . . . I always knew that there is a Kahane in the heart of each of us. Racism, hatred of the foreigner, the fear of him, are natural to us—rightists and leftists both, whether we are foolish or intelligent. . . . I admit that this war has put that dark racist in my heart to a severe test. Just a little bit more and he would have emerged."
The government could not do a thing against the external enemy, but it could act against the internal enemy. When Operation Desert Storm began, a general curfew was imposed on the territories, which lasted for forty-five days. The West Bank and Gaza Strip were put under siege, and two million people were shut up in their homes. Economic activity came to a total halt, thousands of people were detained, and many went hungry. The human suffering was unbearable; even security considerations in wartime did not justify the steps taken. No one had any doubt that the government was imposing a collective punishment in reaction to the Palestinians' support for Saddam Hussein.
The draconian measures taken elicited almost no protest from the liberal side of the Jewish community. The liberals considered these necessary wartime measures, and a fitting response to the Palestinians' elation at the bombardment of Jewish areas. "They danced on the rooftops" was the often-repeated justification for an additional fudging of universal values. The Jewish consensus was prepared to grant legitimacy to harsh repression, and there was no outcry at the trampling of human rights. The government's measures stifled the violence. In fact, during the war, almost no violent incidents were recorded in the territories. It was possible to live in the illusion that "there is no way back to the period of the stone and the Intifada." Intellectuals praised Israel's "self-restraint" (using a Hebrew term employed for the Yishuv's policy of self-restraint in the face of Arab attacks during the 1936 Arab uprising). "It may well be that it is part of our process of maturation . . . It seems to me that had it not been for the war in Lebanon, we would not have seen the reserve we see in this war. The aggregate experience of this government pointed it toward restraint," said one Israeli intellectual. Another hoped that "the children who lived through this restrained war will see, perhaps, that it is possible to prepare—not to react immediately, to shoot from the hip . . . if they absorb this, that self-restraint is not weakness, then the war will have one welcome result."
Of course, the "welcome outcome" referred to the lack of a military response to the missile bombardment. This "commendable restraint" did not apply to the drastic repressive measures in the territories, where it was permissible to react "immediately, to shoot from the hip," without considering the results or the "complexity of the situation." Only a few warned that "the real test of society is preserving its fundamental values of justice precisely at a time of crisis and distress." It is easy to ascribe moral and historical meanings to "self-restraint" when it is dictated by objective constraints. But the moral test of the use of force, as with every moral test, comes when a country is free to choose whether or not to use it.
A new wave of brutal murders punctured the illusion of "the end of the Intifada." Return to the routine intercommunal conflict was unbearable; the public was fed up with knifings, with terrorist infiltration, and with Molotov cocktails; it was ready for drastic measures. Accordingly, it was tempting to endorse plans boasting that they could cure the internal conflict by drastic surgery (these plans and their implementation will be discussed below). The major hope for deliverance focused, however, on the peace process. Those who believed that the Middle East would no longer be what it had been, and that the regional and internal status quo had been shattered by the thunder of the missiles, waited breathlessly for the Americans to act. The reinstatement of the interstate dimension of the conflict and the alliance of the United States with the moderate Arab states created, so they wanted to believe, a golden opportunity for a comprehensive peace process to succeed, and a solution to "the Palestinian problem" would be a "by-product" of that process.
The Americans did, in fact, launch a new and much-trumpeted peace process. Secretary of State James Baker began a shuttle tour, and the chefs at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem learned to prepare his favorite dishes. At first it seemed as if the American peace initiative was merely routine, and that its fate would be no different from those other of American peace initiatives, which seemed to come along two or three times a decade. But it slowly became clear that this initiative was different from its predecessors. In the past, the Americans had begun the diplomatic process after some outbreak of violence between Israel and its neighbors. This time the initiative sprang from the United States's own needs. The link between the present peace process and the Gulf War was the plight of President Bush, who had sown a storm and reaped only wind.
Desert Storm was exactly what its code name implies—a sudden, mighty blast of wind, clouds of dust swirling in a vast expanse, billows of dust and blinding sand—and silence. The wilderness, which had suddenly come to life, returned to its eternal silence as if nothing had happened. Its inhabitants emerged from their hiding-places, shook off the sand, and returned to their daily routines: the struggle over wells and grazing, brutal fistfights between shepherds, tribal alliances made and broken, a longing for the unachievable tranquility of the desert oasis—and endless palavers around the campfire.
The Americans did a good job of camouflaging the movements of their army, and the goals of the war as well. But the day the cease-fire was declared, the truth was exposed in all its cunning. The declarations of "a crusade to depose the Iraqi dictator" and "a new world order" were nothing but rhetoric to raise the morale of the troops and to convince them that the cause was just. American's real goal in the war was the reimposition of the status quo ante—including leaving Saddam Hussein in place. According to explicit instructions from Washington, the commanders of Desert Storm allowed the major part of Saddam's army to escape the American encirclement and return to Baghdad, so ensuring that the Iraqi regime would retain its power base.
The Shiites in southern Iraq and the Kurds in the north paid a heavy and bloody price for having believed the American declarations, and for having deluded themselves into thinking that a new era that would include their independence had really begun in the Middle East. Only when it became clear how great the Kurdish tragedy was, when the United States could no longer take the international criticism of its hypocrisy, did the Americans intervene, take minimal steps to ease the plight of hundreds of thousands of refugees, and create safe havens for Kurds in northern Iraq.
A new norm had been established—that the international community could force a sovereign state to dismantle destructive and strategic weapons under close supervision. A precedent was also set—that an aggressive state may be disciplined for an attempt to eliminate another country. Yet another new norm had also made its appearance—the international community can intervene in the internal affairs of sovereign states if the UN Security Council determines that serious violations of human rights therein constitute a threat to world peace. The precedent established in Iraq would soon be followed up in Somalia, and later in Haiti, where even human suffering and usurpation of power constituted reasons for international intervention.
But in the Middle East everything reverted too quickly to the way it had been before, and people began to wonder if there had really been a war, and where the new world order was. President Bush and his aides could not bear the derision and the disappointment. They had to prove that the war had produced something lasting. What could be more convincing than a declaration that they had succeeded in resolving the most famous of all disputes—the Israeli-Arab conflict? It was of utterly no consequence that this old struggle had absolutely no connection with the frustration of Iraqi aggression, and that during the war, Bush had himself denied any link between it and Desert Storm. (Quite the opposite—it had been Saddam Hussein who had tried to link the two, much to the indignation of other Arab leaders.)
The average American is naturally not an expert on the political intricacies and geography of the Middle East. Because of the Israeli-Arab conflict's constant press exposure and the missile attacks on Tel Aviv, it was thus very easy to create a fictitious but persuasive circumstantial connection between the Gulf War and the Israeli-Arab struggle. Historians and experts might raise their eyebrows and point out how arbitrary the links were, but when the president of the United States—and especially a president of the only remaining superpower who has just won a war—wants to create an arbitrary linkage, it's hard to argue with him. His will turns into a hard political fact, which must be confronted—not only by the experts, but also, and especially, by the heads of the client states that live in America's shadow.
The end of the competition between the superpowers left the United States as the only global power and created a new world order with new political constraints—and everyone had to adjust to them. The new situation was not the outcome of the Gulf War, but rather the opposite—it facilitated the consolidation of an international coalition that provided an umbrella of legitimacy without which President Bush could not have defeated the Iraqis. The Arab countries that joined the coalition were a vital element, inasmuch as they legitimized Desert Storm, winning points with the Americans in the process. But in addition to this, each country had its own specific goal. Egypt wanted to return to the Persian Gulf and to the center of the Arab arena. It also wanted to ensure that America would continue to throw money into the bottomless pit of Egyptian needs. The Syrians saw an opportunity to rid themselves of Iraq, their traditional enemy, and also to exploit the opportunity to make a grab in Lebanon. The moment had finally come when they could officially establish without censure that Lebanon had become a Syrian protectorate. Even Jordan, which had supported Iraq and suffered the consequences during the war, emerged unscathed. No Arab country wanted to see Jordan destroyed or to replace the Hashemites in their traditional role as neighbors and partners of the Jewish state. Neither did the Israelis want a different neighbor on their border. Jordan survived, in other words, because it was there, and the status quo continued by default; no one was eager to change it. All the actors took their shares of the spoils. The Israelis had demonstrated self-restraint, and their work was done for them by others. The Egyptians had half of their huge foreign debt eliminated. Kuwait's Amir al-Sabah and his numerous relatives returned to their palaces and their old ways, as did the Saudis. The Turks got their quid pro quo too.
In fact, everyone won except the Palestinians, who had once again bet on the wrong horse. When Secretary of State Baker began his shuttle diplomacy, everyone immediately began presenting promissory notes from the war for redemption—except for the Palestinians, of course, who had run up a heavy debt. There were some encouraging signs: the mere fact that the Arab countries wanted the Americans to redeem their notes; their willingness to discuss "peace"; the agreement that the Palestinian problem should be discussed in the context of the old Camp David formulations. It quickly became clear, however, that each party was agreeing to "peace" on its own terms—that is, provided only the other side would pay for it. The game of musical chairs proceeded according to the rules—when the music stopped, someone would be left on the floor. Each participant continued to circle as the American music played; each player implored the Americans not to stop the music, lest he be declared the loser. The historic "window of opportunity" started looking more and more like the sealed windows of the recent past; some of the players were basing their tactics on the assumption that this peace process would go the way of its predecessors.
It was Syria's president, Hafiz al-Asad, the most seasoned and crafty of them all, who first realized what had happened. This time the peace process arose from President Bush's urgent needs. Whoever aided Bush would be rewarded, whoever interfered would be punished. Al-Asad understood the great opportunity available to him at this critical moment—just as his Russian patrons had walked out and left him naked. Ever resourceful, he grasped that he now had to become an American client; he therefore agreed to the formula offered him. In exchange for his willingness to negotiate directly with Israel (which was termed a "historic step"), he could expect a suitable reward. The Americans would anoint him as a man of peace, would ignore the arsenal of missiles he had acquired and the dictatorial and brutal character of his regime. They would grant him financial aid, and perhaps even force Israel to give him back the Golan Heights.
For a long time the Israeli government stuck with its old tactics—it played for time. The Israelis knew the Americans and how they went about things. The diffuse, pluralist character of American politics and the endless complexity of the American economy made it impossible for a U.S. president to put together anything more lasting than a short-term consensus, one that could do little more than emit brief pulses of energy. These pulses were very potent, but the political power that created them found it hard to generate the chain reactions needed to make them effective in the long term. The Americans, the Israelis knew, would not stay in a losing game. Sooner or later they would grow tired of it and turn to areas in which they were more likely to succeed.
In the meantime, the Israeli government deployed a mixture of deceit and deception, acting as if it had been robbed, or like an unpaid creditor. At the height of the Gulf War, Israel even tried to collect protection money for its noninvolvement, only to be publicly censured for doing so. At the end of the war, it played the injured party at not having been recognized for its decisive contribution to the allied victory. Knowing that without them there could not be even the pretense of a peace process, the Israelis presumed to dictate who could and could not participate in the negotiations and demanded that their preconditions be accepted, while those of the other side were rejected. Only Israelis would have the right to determine what was to be linked to what. For instance, only if Saudi Arabia participated would Israel agree to hold discussions with a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation (so long as it contained no PLO representative and no resident of East Jerusalem) at a one-time "non-binding" regional meeting, on condition that the Americans promise in advance that no decisions contrary to Israel's position be taken, that Europe have only observer status, that the Soviet Union participate in the talks only after it recognized Israel, and that the United Nations not have any official status.
Secretary of State Baker needed nerves of steel to cope with these Byzantine intricacies. But what really rankled Baker was when Israel pursued its old negotiating tactic of establishing facts on the ground. The new American peace initiative was, like its predecessors, a catalyst for the establishment of settlements in the territories. Those who followed American peace initiatives could see a correlation between them and the rate at which physical and political faits accomplis have appeared in the occupied territories. When the Rogers Plan was visited upon Israel in 1969, the government reacted by planning and beginning construction of 25,000 apartments in Jerusalem, beyond the Green Line. The separation-of-forces agreements in 1974 accelerated the settlement process that demolished the Allon Plan. The signing of the peace agreement with Egypt and the beginning of the autonomy negotiations in 1979 brought about the expropriation of half of the West Bank's land, the establishment of many scores of settlements, the annexation of the Golan Heights, and the enactment of the "Jerusalem Law." The Reagan initiative of 1982 brought about a doubling of Jewish settlements in the territories.
This tactic (or perhaps this instinctive reaction) was at work again in 1991, but this time at an unprecedented level. The Israelis began an operation to double the Jewish population of the occupied territories within four years. They anticipated a lukewarm reaction from the Americans of the "settlements are an obstacle to peace" type; when the Americans complained that the continuation of settlement activity was a provocation sabotaging the peace process, the Israelis rolled their eyes and wondered why the settlement of their homeland was being linked to the peace process. They still did not discern the fundamental difference between this peace process and its predecessors. This time the provocation was directed, not at the Arabs, but at the president of the United States himself. This misunderstanding would cost them dearly, but the actual price tag would become clear only at the beginning of autumn. In the meantime the Syrian president's consent forced the Israelis to overcome their hesitations and declare their willingness to participate in a "regional conference" and negotiate unconditionally with the Syrians. Of course, they continued to trust the Palestinians to save them by presenting inflexible positions.
At the end of 1991, the curtain fell on the Gulf War act, but not on its epilogue. Saddam Hussein, the deus ex machina, son of Satan, appeared, did what he did, and dissolved into thin air (for the present). Behind the scenes, the next act was already being concocted, one that would console the multitudes and bring them hopes of a bright future. Those most in need of consolation were the Palestinians.
The spring and summer of 1991 were among the harshest and most bitter in the chronicle of the Palestinian people's tragedy. At a single blow, two of their greatest hopes of redeeming their fortunes were shattered. The first, Saddam Hussein, exploded in thunder; the second, the Intifada, seemed to have petered out with a whimper. The pathetic end of the "mother of all wars" was a shock for the Palestinians; the humiliation hurt them more than anything else. "For me, as a patriotic Arab, the hardest thing to take was the picture of the Iraqi prisoners kissing the hands of their captors while an American officer threw them bread as if they were his dogs," said one Palestinian. He added: "The Iraqis' empty shoes in the sand reinforced the stereotype of the cowardly Arab. Every realistic person was aware that the forces were skewed, but we hoped that at least there would be a battle that would prove that the Arab fighter is worth something, that would show that the Arab has something to say." In a society guided by concepts of honor and shame, the disgrace was unbearable.
The humiliation, confusion, and puzzlement were as great as the expectations had been. "What about Arafat's declaration that Abu Oudai [Saddam Hussein] would soon be praying at al-Aqsa? . . . Leaders must not deceive nations," said an Israeli Arab member of the Knesset. Many were unwilling to accept defeat. A mechanism of denial and repression was in action, just as it had been after every Arab defeat. Many believed that Saddam had not been defeated, but had rather held his own against the entire world—after all, he was still in power. There were those who considered the cease-fire only one stage in an engagement that would end in an Arab victory. Only a handful tried to learn from the experience. "The defeat is, when it comes down to it, the defeat of the Arab man, who has always been his own most dangerous enemy. Were we to teach the Arab individual to fight against blind obedience, not to pass silently over iniquity and to protest injustice, maybe things would be different." But the majority searched for "objective" excuses: "It was not a war of Islam against Christianity, but more of a war of the industrialized, northern world against the southern, poor world." In other words, once again the West was the aggressor and the East the victim.
The defeat brought on a great ideological disorientation. The political-ideological factions united in the Palestine Liberation Organization emerged from the Gulf War beaten and battered. Their leader, Yassir Arafat, who had promised them that the way to Jerusalem passed through Kuwait, was after the war ostracized and vanquished, perhaps even more so than his patron, Saddam. The nationalists' bitter opponents, the Islamic fundamentalists, also found their prophets proven false. Their clergy had promised them the victory of the true faith and great miracles, but instead it was the American infidel who had won. The ideological distress in both camps created severe internal tensions, but the sense of humiliation strengthened the fundamentalists, who were a refuge for the frustrated.
The political struggle between the nationalist Palestinian factions and the Islamicists had begun even before the Intifada. As early as the late 1970s, and especially at the beginning of the 1980s, there was a strong movement back to religion, expressed in a dramatic rise in the number of worshipers in mosques and in the public observance of religious precepts (the prohibition against eating and smoking in public during the holy month of Ramadan, modest dress for women, beards for men). Islamic leagues, which had existed throughout the occupied territories, but had been especially active in the Gaza Strip, grew and expanded. Together with working to develop religious and social services, these associations began voicing a political message that was a sharp challenge to the Palestinians' national movement, the PLO. The attack was not only ideological; battle was joined for the hearts of the Palestinian masses.
The Israeli authorities saw the fight brewing, and being concerned with suppressing PLO activity and pursuing al-Fatah's terrorist cells, they believed that support for political Islam would serve their purposes. Yet this "divide and rule" strategy was not fruitful; in fact, it boomeranged. The Islamic movement's religious and social activity built up a strong political movement, which had terrorist cells of its own from its very inception. The militant Islamic movement Hamas offered the Palestinians a political message according to which nationalism had failed and only religion could succeed. It preached violent resistance to the occupation and rejected any peace that would leave any holy Islamic land in the hands of the Jews. But more than anything else, it painted a new picture of the world, spoke in a new political language, and advocated a different national culture and a different way of life.
In this sense, Hamas resembled the burgeoning Islamic fundamentalist movements in the rest of the region. Islamic fundamentalism moved into the vacuum left by the bankruptcy of etatist-socialist pan-Arabism. Its militant character derived from its being an expression of the deep frustration of the underprivileged. It therefore necessarily rejected the entire established order. Large groups, especially among the unemployed and impoverished urban proletariat and the frustrated lower middle class, were willing to listen to the arguments of religious zealots from outside the official religious establishment. They told the masses that Islam was a solution for their personal troubles, for society's ills, for the economic and moral bankruptcy of the regime, and for their own sense of helplessness when faced with the inability of the Arab world to compete with the West.
Hamas's rise was directly linked to the worsening economic situation and to the accumulated frustration and degradation of the ongoing occupation. The reservoir of human misery concentrated in the Gaza Strip produced most of the Hamas terrorist cells responsible for the murder of Israelis, as well as the self-motivated lone knifers who attack Israelis on the streets. "The typical knifer is an indigent laborer, unmarried, living in an extremist Muslim atmosphere, sometimes even exploited by Muslim zealot organizations, and he is a daily participant in the gauntlet of humiliation on the way to the [Israeli] labor market" (Ilan Pappe, Profil shel sakinay [Profile of a Stabber] [Givat Haviva, 1993]; in Hebrew).
The Israelis, who quickly recovered from the delusion that they could play Hamas against the PLO, began to identify fundamentalism as their most dangerous enemy. They naturally tried to understand the fundamentalist enemy in his general context. For them, the rise of Hamas is the inevitable outcome of the rising power of fundamentalism throughout the region. Therefore, Israelis reason, their enemy is also the enemy of the Arab regimes and the West. But the background is, of course, entirely different. The Islamic groups fighting Israel are joined in a battle against the occupation and against the Jewish people; Islam is, at least in the short run, a means and not an end. The parallel Israelis draw between Egypt's and Algeria's war against their fundamentalists and Israel's struggle against Hamas is ludicrous. In Arab countries, militant Islam is calling for a change of regime and a new social order for its own people, whereas in Israel it is fighting for the expulsion of a detested foreign conqueror.
Antagonism between the nationalists and the Islamicists was not sharp at the beginning of the Intifada, but it grew stronger as the Intifada went on and hopes dwindled. The debate over Palestinian participation in the peace talks has increased their mutual hostility.
It may well be that the power struggles between Hamas and al-Fatah were unconnected to the Iraqi defeat in the Gulf War, but the bloody confrontations between the two groups in the summer of 1991 were evidence that the national solidarity that characterized the Intifada is weakening. Palestinian violence was directed inward. The number of Palestinians killed by their own people in the summer of 1991 was almost three times the number killed by the Israeli army.
Such infighting was not new; what was new was the public airing the Palestinians gave it. This internal terror was the object of open, pointed criticism from Palestinian leaders, as was the uncontrolled behavior of the "masked killers" who perpetrated it. The Palestinians embarked on a public discussion of whether the Intifada should change its tactics. They searched their souls under the guise of a "reexamination." One of them said: "If there is not a significant change in the pursuit of the struggle and there is not a new strategy for the Intifada, Palestinian society will turn fascist." Another said: "The Intifada should be a constructive force. We must work every day from sunrise to sunset in order to construct the foundations for the state to be."
Most speakers and writers praised the beginning of the Intifada—the general mobilization, the mass demonstrations, the impact on world public opinion—while lamenting its later manifestations—internal terror, the rule of the street by boys, and total anarchy. Hundreds of dead, thousands of wounded, and tens of thousands of prisoners, the devastation of the economy and the drop in the standard of living, the destruction of education, the horrible human suffering—none of these brought lasting political gains. The PLO's support of Saddam Hussein brought the status of the Palestinian nation and its leadership to its lowest ebb. The Israeli occupation remained in place, and it became clear that disengagement from Israel was untenable.
Israel could manage without the Palestinians, but the Palestinians could not survive without Israel. The high-sounding declarations that the Palestinians had erected a physical infrastructure for the state-to-be was nothing but a hollow boast. In the summer of 1991, the number of residents of the occupied territories employed in Israel was almost the same as the number before the Gulf War. Workers continued to go to Israel even on days when there was a general strike—a phenomenon unheard of during the Intifada. At the same time, violent acts against Israelis, sometimes involving the use of firearms, continued.
The despair was reflected in the Palestinians' pessimism about the peace process. This public, which in 1988 had forced the PLO to adopt realistic positions and showed willingness to make political and symbolic concessions, now took a tough stand. Public opinion polls and public statements showed that a majority of the Palestinians did not believe that a peace conference would succeed, and even opposed Palestinian participation in one under the humiliating conditions dictated by Israel. The Palestine National Council made a series of decisions in September 1991 that authorized Palestinian participation in the diplomatic process, but as during the Intifada, this process was out of touch with the mood in the territories.
There were Israelis who rushed to declare that the Intifada had ended. Others claimed that it had metamorphosed, not died. Everyone agreed, however, that its root causes had not changed and that the violence would continue, even if it were expressed in other ways. "The Intifada has become a way of life," maintained observers who had not long before diagnosed it as a "third front" and "war in a new form." In doing so, they concurred, after the fact, in the conclusion that the Intifada was the outbreak of an intercommunal struggle—a chronic, endemic condition. They also agreed that this struggle would continue, because the Palestinians had crossed the threshold of community mobilization, and having consolidated their community, there was no way back.
In the summer of 1991, it became clear that the self-serving predictions of the collapse of the status quo had not come true. No one had the strength, however, to deal with an endemic conflict such as the Israeli-Palestinian shepherds' war. Israeli officials censured the American secretary of state for "always coming to Israel on the eve of holidays." If he would only tone down his peace efforts and leave them alone a bit. But James Baker did not let them rest. He was prodded by his friend and president, George Bush, who needed the title of peacemaker to add to that of the victorious commander in a war whose glory had quickly faded.