Hope for the Middle East

How a Palestinian defeat makes compromise possible.

“The more destruction I see, the stronger I get,” announced Yasser Arafat after viewing the effects of the just-ended Israeli incursion into Ramallah. In the same defiant spirit, a Hamas leader, Khaled Meshaal, insisted that the damage wrought by Israeli troops in Jenin constituted “a Palestinian victory that lifted the morale of our people.”

Palestinian spokesmen in the United States repeat this same point. Hussein Ibish of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee contends that recent setbacks “will only increase, not break, the will of the Palestinians to resist Israeli rule.” Journalists too have picked up this theme and made it a mainstay of their reporting. The New York Times informed its readers that “the Palestinians feel they are winning,” even after suffering what it termed the Israeli army’s “most aggressive, lethal campaign in decades into Palestinian areas.” Likewise, the Christian Science Monitor discerns a growing conviction among Palestinians “that they have gained the upper hand over Israel.”

If it is true that the more the Palestinians get battered, the fiercer their resolve, then Kofi Annan and Colin Powell are correct in concluding that “there is no military solution”—and that Israel must accommodate Palestinian demands. The seemingly endless supply of suicide bombers seems to confirm this line of analysis, as does the readiness of the Palestinians to absorb no end of economic decline, immobilization, and other punishments. More impressive yet is the fury of militant Islamic hotheads at Yasser Arafat for his renouncing terrorism at the Americans’ behest and for his other (minimal) concessions to the United States. So angry are they, they prevented Arafat from touring Jenin and beat up one of his top aides. Hamas has also launched a propaganda campaign against Arafat, accusing him of having “shed tears for the Zionist dead”—code words for treason to the Palestinian cause.

But are Palestinians really supermen? Can it be true that they respond to the destruction of their society by redoubling their efforts? More exactly, is it correct to extrapolate from the recent past that the more battering they take, the more determined they become? Merely to ask this question is to answer it. Of course not—Palestinians have the same responses to suffering as the rest of us. Their endurance until now results from a combination of factors, of which three stand out.

The first is acute anger at the very existence of Israel and a belief that the Palestinian identity can be reclaimed only when the Jewish state is vanquished and replaced by a Palestine extending from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. The second factor is the fear that comes from living in the near-totalitarian atmosphere of the Palestinian Authority, where a lack of ardor for the long fight opens one to accusations of being a “collaborator,” with all the dangers that implies, including being murdered.

The third and perhaps most powerful factor is the belief that the Palestinians are on a roll, on their way to weakening Israel and readying it for destruction—and the concurrent belief that sacrifice brings victory closer. Judging by all accounts, Palestinians as a whole really do believe these days that they are battering Israel into submission. By conjuring statistics out of thin air, they seem to have convinced themselves that Israel is reeling and divided. Hamas spokesman Abd-al-Aziz al-Rantisi declared on Egyptian television that “around 1 million Israelis fled the Jewish state” lately as a result of the suicide bombings. He also pointed to a supposed flight of capital from the country and concluded that “life in the Jewish state has been paralyzed.”

This is unadulterated nonsense. Israelis are not leaving; they’re streaming back from abroad to be home at a time of crisis. The economy is holding up, and life goes on. The continued violence is not fracturing Israeli society but rather bringing it together with a rare determination and purposefulness. One indicator of the resolve in Israel is the response to the call-up of reserve soldiers, who have turned out at an unheard-of rate. The excuses of yesteryear aren’t being heard this time around. Gerald M. Steinberg, a political scientist at Bar Ilan University, concurs: “The escalating terror attack that killed hundreds of Israelis and hospitalized many more failed to demoralize Israelis, but rather had the opposite impact. The massacres … united and galvanized the Israeli public.”

In reality, sending out more suicide bombers and other killers is doing more harm to the Palestinian cause than to Israel. Violence effectively destroyed the Palestinian Authority, not the Israeli government. The campaign of murder has led to three times more Palestinian deaths than Israeli ones. The effort to impoverish and demoralize Israelis has precisely backfired.

If the hotheads remain oblivious to this reality, it is dawning on more sober Palestinians that they are losing the war they began in September 2000. “Was all this misery really necessary?” comes the question from a people who have lost any realistic hope of economic self-improvement, political enfranchisement, or a normal life. In typical Palestinian style, however, even concessionary statements are made in the language of vituperation and accusation. Thus Arafat’s Fatah movement accuses Hamas of betraying the Palestinian cause when it carries out suicide attacks within Israel.

The same rethinking is evident among other Arabs. At a meeting of the Saudi, Egyptian, and Syrian leaders at Sharm el-Sheikh some days ago, a previous enthusiasm for Palestinian suicide bombings was replaced by more sober language rejecting “all forms of violence.” The media also reflect this change. A commentary by Ali Hamada in the Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar, for example, noted that it is easy to applaud the suicide operations and much more difficult to view them from a rational and reasoned perspective: “This is where the question must be raised: Is this the road that will lead us to achieving our national aspirations?”

Hussein Ibish predicts that “coming months will see an intensification of the [Palestinian] conflict” against Israel. But I expect otherwise; the current campaign of Palestinian violence will end before long, probably by the end of 2002. Unless Palestinians have a sense of moving toward their goal of eliminating Israel, they will find their predicament intolerable and change course. This will be good news, and not just because it signals a reduction of terror and murder. As Palestinians realize the futility of their violence against Israel, a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict becomes newly possible. That’s what makes this moment of misery and reversals for the Palestinians also, ironically enough, a time of hope for them as well as for Israelis.