Israelis have long since learned to head for cover whenever a high level envoy American envoy visits the region. In March 2002, for instance, Prime Minister Sharon relented on his previous demand for seven days of quiet before negotiating with the Palestinians and ordered Israeli troops withdrawn from Palestinian cities in the West Bank in anticipation of the visit of American special envoy General Anthony Zinni to the region. Within a few days of the announcement of those moves, 47 Jewish lost their lives and hundreds more were left shattered for life in terrorist attacks.
Secretary of State Condaleeza Rice's recent visit to the region proved no exception to the general pattern of American visits being followed by Israeli deaths. To show Rice that Israel is doing everything possible to shore up Mahmoud Abbas' tottering regime, Israel announced an easing of checkpoints during Rice's visit. And as has happened so many times in the past, the easing of restrictions on Palestinian travel were quickly followed by a fatal terrorist attack in which two Jewish teenagers were shot and killed near Beit Haggai as they stood by the side of the road waiting for a ride.
The Hebron area battalion commander Lt.-Col. Moti Baruch said that he had no doubt that the easing of travel restrictions had allowed Palestinian terrorists to reach the by-pass road where they shot and killed Avichai Levi, 17, and Aviad Mantzur, 16.
Unlike the Europeans, American policymakers are under no illusions that the time is ripe for some kind of final settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. They know that the Palestinians are no closer psychologically to giving up the long-cherished right of return than they were at Camp David, and that absent such an awakening no final settlement is possible.
Nor are the Palestinians anywhere near creating a viable polity. Anarchy reins in Palestinian cities, with terrorist groups and armed gangs running riot. Gunmen from the mainstream Fatah movement recently shot at a house in which Palestinian Authority PM Ahmed Qurei was holding talks without being punished. And when one radical Palestinian group threatened to break the "ceasefire" with Israel, Abbas's response was to free nine terrorists from jail.
The Americans will not push again for a Camp David-like solution, out of fear of triggering open warfare as happened in September 2000. But, as Middle East expert Barry Rubin points out, America does have an interest in preserving the illusion of an ongoing peace process. By appearing to push the "peace process" forward, America hopes to reduce tensions with Europe and the Arab world so that it can concentrate on major policy objectives elsewhere.
THE CURRENCY OF PRESERVING THAT ILLUSION will always be some form of Israeli concessions designed to "strengthen" Mahmoud Abbas, whom the Americans need to portray as the last best hope for the Palestinians.
America has repeatedly pressured Israel to take risks that America would never take with lives of its own citizens. Only after more than 130 Israelis were killed in terrorist attacks in March 2002 did Israel finally go on the offensive against Palestinian terror. Less than a week into Operation Defensive Shield, however, President Bush was demanding that Israel withdraw from Palestinian cities. At that time, the United States was already in the seventh month of its campaign against the Taliban and Al Qaeda terrorists in Afghanistan. In short, the United States set one standard for itself in fighting terrorists half-way around the world from its shores, and another for Israel fighting terrorists on its doorsteps.
The United States has now requested Israel to provide more arms to Palestinian security forces, despite the bitter experience since Oslo of having arms provided by Israel to the Palestinian security services repeatedly turned on Israeli soldiers and civilians. The second intifida commenced with the murder of an Israeli soldier by a member of the Palestinian security services with whom he was on joint patrol.
Yet Abbas has made clear that the Palestinian security forces will never move forcefully to destroy the terrorist infrastructure. Rather he seeks to co-opt terrorists by giving them day jobs in the Palestinian security forces. At night, they will be free to pursue their former activities. Typical of the new recruits is Zakariya Zubeidi, senior commander of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade in Jenin, who has orchestrated numerous attacks on Israeli targets in the past. Zubeidi cheerfully admits, "I'm not going to stop any Palestinian activist. It's obvious for Palestinians there are no arrests on political backgrounds."
The most commonly traded form of Israeli concessions is the release of Palestinian prisoners. The Palestinians demand the return of all prisoners from convicted murderer Marwan Barghouti on down, and Israel responds by combing through its lists for superannuated prisoners or those without blood on their hands – i.e., who never succeeded in killing Jews.
Nowhere is the contrast between the American position with respect to its own security and what it pressures Israel to do sharper than with respect to prisoners. The Bush administration has come under a great deal of criticism both internationally and internally for its detention at Guantanamo Bay of approximately 540 prisoners captured in military actions against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Critics call upon the United States to either try the detainees or release them.
That demand is ridiculous. The detainees are no more entitled to a criminal trial than any enemy soldier captured in war. What they have received instead is a military hearing at which they are entitled to contest that they were, in fact, enemy combatants.
True, the Guantanamo detainees are in a worse position than uniformed soldiers, operating in the context of an organized command structure, and who observe the rules of war. The latter are protected by the Geneva Conventions and can look forward to being exchanged upon the termination of hostilities. By contrast, those allied with murky terrorist networks can anticipate being held indefinitely. It is hard to imagine anything roughly approximating a termination of hostilities with those terrorist networks.
But if the Guantanamo Bay detainees face de facto life sentences, they have only themselves to blame for their choice of company. As David Rivkin Jr. and Lee Casey note, not knowing when the war on terror will end, or when Al Qaeda in particular will be destroyed, doubtless imposes psychological stress on the Guantanamo detainees, just as it poses psychological distress on the rest of us as well.
The United States will not release captured terrorists for the simple reason that they represent an ongoing threat. Once released, they might well re-enlist with their former sponsors or another one of the proliferating, and loosely federated, Islamic terrorist organizations around the world.
And the same is true of Palestinian terrorists held by Israel. The issue should not be how lethal their activities have been in the past, but their affiliation with Palestinian groups caring out terrorist acts and their likelihood of again joining such groups upon release. Those groups have not blanched at sending young children, the mentally defective, women, and, most recently, hospital out-patients on suicide missions.
Bitter experience has taught Israel that security prisoners released in response to American pressure rarely show much gratitude, and frequently return quickly to their terrorist ways. Just last month, Israeli forces arrested a recently released Islamic Jihad member in the midst of planning a suicide bombing attack.
Instead of pressuring Israel to place her citizens' lives at risk for the sake of an illusion, the time has come for Secretary of State Rice to employ some of the same bluntness with which she recently spoke in Cairo on the Palestinians. As Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute puts it, it is time to let Abbas know that he either imposes, through force if necessary, the principle of "one authority, one law, one gun," or he can forget about a Palestinian state.
Related Topics: Peace Process
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