Magazine article The New Yorker

The Talk of the Town: One Way Out

Magazine article The New Yorker

The Talk of the Town: One Way Out

Article excerpt

On the less desperate days of the first Palestinian uprising, fifteen years ago, the rules of theatrical engagement were well understood. Foreign journalists would be notified of, say, an afternoon rock-throwing in Ramallah. The Palestinian stones, followed by the Israeli rubber bullets, would be loosed promptly upon the arrival of the press corps. Intifada I had its days of lethal violence, but, by today's standards, a Middle Eastern Marquis of Queensberry propriety obtained. The Palestinians hoped to broadcast the slingshot bravado of their young demonstrators; the Israelis, after their disastrous military campaign in Lebanon, in 1982, under Ariel Sharon, were at pains to show their (relative) restraint. Tragedy--or, at least, tragedy on the scale to which we have become accustomed--was usually avoided.

Now it is as if every violent reflex, every bitter impulse, had been unleashed, as if there were no limits. If diplomacy is, in part, the adoption of a decorous language to defuse historical resentments for political ends, then diplomacy was abandoned long ago. "We hate you," one of Yasir Arafat's senior aides, Ahmed Abdel Rahman, said last week, addressing the Israelis on the Al-Jazeera network. "The air hates you, the land hates you, the trees hate you--there is no purpose in your staying on this land." Sharon, now Israel's Prime Minister, has, at times, let on that he is sorry he did not kill Arafat when he had the chance in Lebanon. As a result, his handlers have advised him to speak only to interlocutors deemed reliable (Lally Weymouth, of Newsweek; William Safire, of the Times), lest he reveal himself too much.

Even at this time of war, there is little doubt among the majority of Israelis that the occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip must be ended and the settlements dismantled. But who can make that happen, and how? Hardly anyone (apart from the parlor statesmen of Europe) still believes that Yasir Arafat is capable of seeking a compromise agreement or of fostering a stable polity next to his Israeli neighbor. What Arafat has fostered instead, since rejecting peace at Camp David, is a politics of ecstatic violence. When he saw that the Palestinian Authority was losing support to jihadist groups like Hamas, he set up a militia of his own, the Al Aqsa Brigades. Last week, Israeli officials said that they had discovered in his Ramallah offices a cache of documents that included an invoice from Al Aqsa to pay for, among other things, a "month's supply" of bombs. The Brigades have competed well with Hamas; they have succeeded in blowing up Israelis in such large numbers--and provoking clumsy military retaliation on such a scale--that Arafat's approval rating has soared. Such approval is a trophy to place beside his Nobel Peace Prize.

Sharon, for his part, is evoking his march to Lebanon with scant attention to how the operation will end and what comes next. Will the reoccupation of Ramallah and Nablus, Bethlehem and Tulkarm stifle terror or lead to more of it? That is a question not of appeasement but of strategic necessity. "All wars need a political objective," Yoel Marcus, a columnist for the Israeli daily newspaper Ha'aretz, wrote last week. "But that is precisely what Operation 'Protective Wall' lacks. Sharon has no policy or strategy for the 'day after. …

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