Yuval Steinetz is a member of Israel's parliament and professor of philosophy at the University of Haifa. He holds bachelor's and master's degrees from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and received a doctorate from Tel Aviv University in 1993. A former supporter of the peace process and member of the Peace Now movement, the signing of the Oslo accords caused him to change views. His parliamentary career began in 1999. In addition to his four books on philosophy, Steinetz is known for his pathbreaking article in Commentary concerning the security implications of the Palestinian armed forces. Mr. Steinetz also serves as the head of Israel Media Watch. He spoke to the Middle East Forum in New York on May 29, 2001.
A Shift in Israeli Thinking
The violence of the past eight months has made many Israelis face reality. They increasingly realize that Israel is in fact not heading toward peace. The question now is no longer whether or not the Palestinians pose a threat to Israel but how to respond to that threat.
This amounts to a dramatic change in Israeli public opinion. To understand it requires looking not only at the February election results but also at opinion polls before the elections. They show that Sharon had the support of 52 to 53 percent of all Jewish voters. More surprising was that Ehud Barak had support of only 25-30 percent. In other words, nearly 50 percent of Labor supporters voted for Sharon or abstained.
As one famous Israeli writer I spoke to, a supporter of the left-wing Meretz party, told me, he had been ready to make major concessions to the Palestinians but he was not willing to take the risk of a second Jewish Holocaust. He was particularly upset about the Palestinian claim to a "right of return," which would flood the country with Palestinians and effectively end the Jewish State. Therefore, he was not voting.
The Intifada in Perspective
Looking at the recent violence, analysts and politicians tend to miss the main strategic issue. They focus on the violence itself - the terror, the mortars, and the gunfire. That misses the even larger developments.
Until recently, the Palestinian violations of the Oslo accords were quantitative: the Palestinian Authority (PA) allowed between 70,000 to 150,000 guns in the territories, rather than the agreed upon 24,000. Of late, the PA in addition has violated the agreements qualitatively. It is now in possession of mortars and light artillery. And when the Israeli navy a few weeks ago captured a boat destined for the PA, it found the ship loaded with Katyusha rockets, Strella anti-aircraft weapons, and anti-tank missile. The PA plans to use these weapons on Israel's coastal plains against airports, military installations, and civilians.
Israel's concept of defense has never allowed movement of significant Arab forces near the borders. Arab states that tried to do this quickly understood it is a casus belli; that was especially clear in the case of Egypt in 1967 in the Sinai Peninsula.
The proliferation of the PA's arms is going unpunished, and this constitutes a distinct weakening in the Israeli defense doctrine, with serious implications.
Egypt is the second biggest power in the Middle East. The leadership there appears preoccupied with the need to maintain hostile relations between Israel and the region, perhaps so it can maintain its own supremacy. This explains why the Egyptians pressured Arafat so heavily not to sign at Camp David. It took the form of denying Israeli sovereignty over Muslim holy sites (President Husni Mubarak made it abundantly clear that Arafat would be viewed as a traitor if he accepted the Camp David proposals) but it went much further. Over the years, Cairo has also had significant influence over relations with Israel by Qatar, Morocco, Jordan, and other Arab countries.
There is also a military angle here, as the Egyptians have used American armaments and other forms of assistance to build up a powerful armed force. Ehud Barak protested the military aid Egypt received from the United States, raising this matter with Secretary of Defense William Cohen. The U.S. government, however, paid him no attention. Sharon is also worried about the Egyptian buildup.
The immediate danger is that the Egyptians will move a small number of forces into the Sinai desert, an area formally and permanently demilitarized according to the 1979 treaty with Israel. This will confront Israel with an acute problem---whether to insist the soldiers be withdrawn, further heating the temperature of the Arab-Israeli conflict, or whether to allow them to remain, which would effectively end the demilitarization of the Sinai. In the event of more Palestinian violence and Israeli responses, Israel must find ways to ensure that the Egyptians do not react in this fashion.
The Public Relations War
The Palestinians have been successful in making their "legitimate rights" heard around the world; in contrast, Israel has done a lamentable job of establishing its legitimate rights (i.e., to be recognized as a state and left in peace).
Here is an example of the sort of creativity Israelis can use: A Belgium parliament member recently asked me why Israel doesn't recognize the Palestinian "right of return." Before replying, I asked on what basis Palestinians can demand that Jews stop settling in the territories. Because, he replied, those territories are earmarked to become a Palestinian state. Okay, I said, if you accept the Palestinians' right to reject a Jewish presence in their putative state, you must accept the Israeli demand that Palestinians not settle in Israel---territory that already comprises the Jewish state. He said that he had never thought of the matter from this perspective. Israel's government should be providing such new perspectives to make its case.
Summary account by Asaf Romirowsky and Jonathan Schanzer, researchers at the Middle East Forum.