Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Will the End of the Peace Process Be Followed by "A Nice Little War"?

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Will the End of the Peace Process Be Followed by "A Nice Little War"?

Article excerpt

Will the End of the Peace Process Be Followed by "A Nice Little War"?

Whenever the Middle East became too quiet, which was rare, my first boss in the Department of State used to remark, "Time for some saber rattling by Israel." And sure enough, there would be an outbreak of cross-border violence, sometimes brazenly inspired by Israeli provocations. The response from the Arabs, whether from Syria, the Egyptian front, or with Jordan along the Green Line would never be long in coming.

Is this a moment in the 50-year history of Israel when a new Middle East war will break out? There are plenty of signs, particularly from the Israeli side, that this could occur. But the peace process team at the Department of State does not yet seem concerned enough to even consider direct involvement of the new secretary by scheduling her first visit to the Middle East since her appointment.

A Last Option

Back in 1955-56 as the war clouds gathered, that same boss, Donald C. Bergus, later a key figure in promoting the 1970 Rogers Plan shot down by Henry Kissinger, also had a ritual when he returned to our office from presenting the latest Near East Bureau proposals to then-Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. He would throw onto my desk the latest carefully drafted plan to stop the drift toward war and say, "Well, I guess there's nothing left but to have a nice little war."

Israeli columnists in the past two months have speculated on whether or not a low-level "encounter" is about to take place. Speculation has focused particularly on Syria, and on the possibility of a second intifada breaking out. By early June, speculation was replaced with hard news about how the saber rattling on the issue had begun. The Israeli press revealed that orders had been issued by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to consider all options in the present situation, including the demise of the Palestinian National Authority as a result of open "confrontation," a polite word for using Israeli tanks and heavy weapons if necessary on the civilian population of the liberated Palestinian cities.

Is this a "nice little war" moment in the Middle East? Jeremy Salt's description of the ran-up to the 1967 war in a publication by the Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine looks remarkably like 1997: Low-level but increasing violence, frayed tempers showing in the exchanges between Egypt and Israel and even between Jordan and Israel, frustrating stalemate on the Palestinian front, and almost daily incidents in south Lebanon.

If this war should occur, it might well center on armed "confrontation" with the Palestinians for the first time since 1948. The intifada raged for five years, but it was limited to stones on the Palestinian side. None of the other wars after 1948 featured significant Palestinian armed action with the exception of brief resistance by a few hundred outnumbered armed Palestinians in Gaza during the 1967 war.

Outgunned, the estimated 45,000 lightly armed Palestinian National Authority police would be quickly overran. This would give rise to the question, "With whom do the U.S. and Israel negotiate in a post-Palestinian National Authority period?" This is the question Tom Friedman of The New York Times posed at the National Press Club in April. There is no answer, of course, and that apparently is exactly what Netanyahu, torch-bearer of the "Greater Israel" ideology, has in mind.

An Increasingly Irrelevant State Department

The Department of State seems increasingly irrelevant in persuading Israelis that their long-range interests lie in implementing the land-for-peace resolution and in keeping to the schedule laid down in Oslo I and II.

This U.S. unwillingness to require Israeli compliance with even the two accords signed in President Clinton's presence at the White House in 1993 and 1995 on redeployment and on West Bank settlements is what makes the American role ambiguous and ineffective. …

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