The bloodshed of recent weeks confronts Palestinians, Israelis and Westerners with a major choice.
The Palestinians can decide either to end their campaign of violence against Israel or sustain it for months or even years. The historical record shows they might go either way: In August 1929 and September 1996, for example, their violence lasted only days. But from 1936 to 1939 (the "Arab Revolt") and 1987 to 1991 (the "intifada"), they used force for several years, showing a remarkable willingness to sacrifice lives and economic well-being.
What is likely this time--days or years? The mood among Palestinians, as well as their Arab and Muslim supporters, points to a long campaign of violence for many reasons, but primary among them is the Palestinian realization that Israel is no longer the heroic country of old. Rather, it is a weak, demoralized place, easily intimidated by small-scale violence.
Note how the much-vaunted Israeli army fled Lebanon this past May, defeated by a rag-tag group of Hezbollah terrorists. Just over a week ago, Israeli troops abandoned Joseph's Tomb, a Jewish holy site, under pressure from a street mob. Nor did Israel's response to the lynching of two of its soldiers last week impress: It dropped bombs from the air on some empty buildings, making sure not to inflict casualties.
With the Israelis seemingly in retreat, Palestinians have adopted aggressive slogans ("Down with the olive branch, long live the rifle!") and jihad-like calls for violence ("Kill the Jews") that suggest an intent to continue the violence for a long time to come.
Israelis also face a decision: whether to resume negotiations with the Palestinians on the basis of the Oslo assumptions. Translated from diplomatese, this means: Do Israelis go on expecting Yasser Arafat and the Palestinians, once they gain a state, to live in harmony with Israel? Or do they instead look at Palestinian behavior over the past seven years and draw the conclusion that the Palestinian urge to destroy Israel is immutable? Put another way, is the ultimate Palestinian goal the establishment of a state (Palestine) or is it the destruction of a state (Israel)?
In the aftermath of recent violence, Israelis have with a rare near-unanimity concluded that Palestinians will never accept the permanent existence of a sovereign Jewish country in the Middle East.
Oddly, however, this consensus does not translate into the logical policy decision, which would be to give up on Oslo-based diplomacy. A poll published on Friday shows that 63% of Israelis support a return to the table to negotiate with the Palestinians. Hearing them, Prime Minister Ehud Barak says he hopes to restart the diplomacy; toward that end, he has called on world leaders to pressure Arafat in the hope of convincing him to reach a "peace of the brave."
In other words, Israelis are so tired of fighting that even the current spasm of violence does not dissuade them from trying to reach a deal. Even if the negotiations begun in 1993 have not produced the desired results, the country's horror of war leads it to try again and again. Stonings, lynchings and other brutalities do not seem to touch the Israeli conclusion that "there is no alternative" to Oslo.
Finally, Americans, Europeans and the whole outside world face a choice: continue pressing Israel to make concessions to the Arabs, or adopt a very different approach.
Getting Israel to pull back from territory seized in the course of its defensive warfare is a story as old as Israel itself. In the short term, Israeli concessions bring many benefits to the outside world, for they tamp down the Arab-Israeli conflict, tone down Arab and Muslim anger toward the West and ease many government-to-government relations.
But this pattern of Israeli concessions cannot go on forever. At some point, Israel runs out of land to hand over. Buying off the Palestinians is at best a temporary policy, not something that can be indefinitely sustained.
Also, Israel gets precious little in return for its willingness to turn over land and other benefits. And rather than win goodwill from enemies, it prompts them to despise Israel and find it weak. Magnanimity leads not to friendship but to a dangerous mood of exhilaration and ambition.
Events like the retreat from Lebanon led the Arabs to see Israel as vulnerable. The smell of blood is in the air; from Morocco to Iran and beyond, large crowds have taken to the streets and overtly called for the destruction of the "Zionist entity." The Arab defeat of 1967 had seemingly dispatched this aspiration to the dustbin of history; but Israeli demoralization has revived the sense that just one more exertion is needed to eliminate the Jewish state.
This excitement has ominous implications. It directly challenges the Egyptian and Jordanian peace treaties with Israel. It sends the oil and stock markets into gyrations. Worst of all, it increases the chances of a full-scale Arab-Israeli war. Some Israelis are cognizant of this; a former aide to Yitzhak Rabin explains that "the image, especially in the media, of a weak Israel, has always led to war."
Nothing could be more detrimental to Western interests than such a war. The combination of Israeli demoralization and Arab triumphalism suggests the time has come for the United States and other Western states to stop pressing Israel to make concessions and instead to encourage it to adopt a policy of deterrence, to hang tough and to signal to its enemies that they risk terrible consequences if they use violence against it.
To do this requires the West to adopt a policy quite the reverse of what is now in effect: Rather than urge Israel to comply with the Arabs' wishes, urge it instead to impress them with its resolve to defend its security interests and take steps to show that resolve.
As unlikely as it sounds, such a policy is now necessary if the outside world wishes to take steps to prevent today's low-intensity conflict in the Middle East from turning into full-scale warfare.