The Bastards Have Changed the Rules
He looked like a mummy: face frozen, body averted, no eye contact
with the other person. Shimon Peres meeting Yasser Arafat. Next to him
sat the general who was sent to oversee him, so that he would not talk,
God forbid, about solutions, political progress, a peace process. Sharon
and the Chief-of-Staff allowed him to talk only about a cease-fire. They
know, of course, that no cease-fire will hold without political
progress, and they have no desire for a cease fire.
Yet this was an important event, after all. It proved that September
11, 2001, was a crucial turning point in the annals of the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The rules of the game have changed.
Until then it seemed that the conflict was deadlocked. On the ground,
it has turned into a war of attrition. Neither side could vanquish the
other. The killings were in full swing, with an ongoing escalation.
Washington was indifferent, its official doctrine "Let them bleed!"
Then the atrocity in New York and Washington took place. Sharon jumped
at the chance. He was certain that this was a historical opportunity:
the Americans were busy with Bin Laden, the world was chasing elusive
terrorists, so who would care about the actions of the Israeli army?
Now, at long last, under the slogan "Arafat is our Bin Laden", it could
invade, kill, crush and destroy, in order to liquidate the intifada and
perhaps Arafat, too. As the journalist Gideon Levy put it: the teacher
is sick, the pupils are happy, everyone can do what he wants.
To the utter amazement of Sharon, the exact opposite occurred. Only a
few hours after the outrage, when America was still in a state of shock,
Colin Powell convened his first press conference and there, instead of
speaking exclusively about Bin Laden, as seemed appropriate, he devoted
considerable time to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He demanded that
the Arafat-Peres meeting take place at once.
If Sharon had hoped that this would be a one-time slap in his face, he
was mistaken. Bush and Powell came back to this point almost daily,
until it became an ultimatum. Sharon had no choice. He gave in.
Where had he gone wrong? Over the years, Jerusalem has become used to
the idea that one could always rely on the US Congress. The Congress was
even more loyal to the Israeli government than the Knesset. In the
Knesset, members can curse the Prime Minister. In the US Senate and
House of Representatives, nobody would dare to curse the Israeli Prime
Minister, unless he is as suicidal as the followers of Bin Laden. Most
of them were elected with the help of the votes and money from the
pro-Israel lobby, which consists not only of the Jewish establishment
but also of the powerful Christian fundamentalist pressure groups. If
Israel were to request the repeal the Ten Commandments, 85 Senators
would sign forthwith.
In ordinary times, this would be enough to abort any initiative of the
President that arouses the ire of the Israeli government. But when the
outrage happened, everything changed. The President became a national
hero. When the drums of war are beating, the people want a strong
leader, and the President, who is also the Commander-in-Chief, almost
becomes a dictator. Congress becomes a choir of acolytes, reduced to
singing the national anthem on the steps of the Capitol. Now the
Congress is the sick teacher, and the President can do what he wants.
Sharon could well complain, like the late Spiro Agnew: "The bastards
have changed the rules!"
The President wants to build a world-wide coalition for his war, even
more powerful and more glorious than the one his father built for the
Gulf War. For this he has to secure support from virtually all the Arab
and Muslim governments. They tell him that the Israeli-Palestinian
bloodbath is a major obstacle. The al-Gazira TV station, broadcasting
from Katar, is bringing into the homes of millions of people the daily
pictures of Israeli soldiers killing and oppressing brother-Arabs. If
America wants to enlist the Arab masses for the war, this has to stop.
The President’s advisors understand this well. They tell Israel to
please sit on the sidelines, quietly and well-behaved, to stop shooting
and return to the negotiations with the Palestinians. And when America
wants something, really wants something, nobody can say no. Not even
Sharon, the hero.
The question is whether the Americans will be satisfied with some phony
exhibition, like the Arafat-Peres meeting, or insist, this time, on a
real solution of the conflict that arouses so much fury and hatred
towards America in the Arab world, to the delight of Bin Laden & Co.
After the Gulf War, the Americans convened the Madrid conference. If
they now convene a new international peace conference and send an
international peace force to Palestine, perhaps the tragedy will have at
least some collateral benefit. As Samson said to the Philistines: "Out
of the strong came forth sweetness."