27 February 2002
Only Buffer Zones Can Protect Israel
JERUSALEM -- It is doubtful that another case can be found in recent history of a nation that has been willing to take greater risks for peace than has Israel. Eight years ago, Israel embarked on a diplomatic experiment by agreeing to grant authority to the Palestine Liberation Organization, an organization whose founding charter called for Israel's annihilation, and to its leader, Yasir Arafat, in the disputed territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It was hoped that the final political status of those lands, to which both Israel and the Palestinians had claims, could be resolved through direct negotiations.
In implementing the Oslo Agreements, Israel terminated its military government over 98 percent of the Palestinian population in those territories, transferring most of its powers to the nascent Palestinian Authority.
Israelis were fully aware that a great struggle was transpiring across the Arab world in the 1990s, from Algeria to Egypt, between the older forces of secular Arab nationalism and the rising forces of militant Islamic fundamentalism. It was hoped that the Palestinian administration would confront and subdue the terrorist challenges of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, enhance Israeli security in that process and agree to a historic compromise leading to peace.
These goals were not achieved. Instead of reining in Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Yasir Arafat allowed them to establish a vast infrastructure of international terrorism in the areas under his jurisdiction. Palestinian officials have admitted that in October 2000 Mr. Arafat intentionally launched the present intifada, which has been a daily campaign of pure terrorism against Israeli civilians.
Worse still, at least half of the attacks against Israelis, including those this week, come from organizations directly loyal to Yasir Arafat himself and on his payroll: the Tanzim militia of his Fatah component of the P.L.O. and his Force-17 presidential bodyguard. It is indisputable that the Palestinian Authority had sought to acquire new weaponry from Iran, from C-4 explosives to Katyusha rockets, found aboard the freighter, the Karine A. These would have increased the firepower, lethality and range of terrorist attacks.
Given its strategic decision to support violence, it is not surprising that the Palestinian leadership has utterly failed to comply with nine separate cease-fire initiatives, most of which were under American auspices. It is extremely doubtful that a 10th or 11th American effort to broker a cease-fire, at this time, would produce more effective results.
This is an extremely hard reality but it must be faced. First, Israel must win the war that has been imposed on it by Palestinian leaders, convincing them that no tangible political gain will be achieved by using violence. Israel should not seek to take back the administration of Palestinian cities, but it must dismantle the terrorist capabilities located in these areas. Israel does not seek to vanquish the Palestinians, but rather to defeat the terrorism that their leadership has adopted as a national policy. After Sept. 11, there is an international consensus that no political grievance or sense of deprivation can possibly justify the mass murder of civilians through suicide bombing attacks.
Second, Israel must learn certain diplomatic lessons from this period of violence and apply them to future negotiations. The real lesson of the failed summit at Camp David in 2000 is that in the very difficult issues of permanent status -- borders, Jerusalem, refugees and security -- the gaps between the most conciliatory Israeli positions advanced by the Barak government and those of the P.L.O. were totally unbridgeable. Those Israeli proposals have essentially been taken off the table by the majority of Israeli voters with the last Israeli elections in 2001.
The only realistic diplomatic option for the future is a long-term interim agreement that leaves Israel with vital security zones in the West Bank. In any case, Israel is entitled to defensible borders according to United Nations Security Council Resolution 242; it is not expected to return to the vulnerable lines of 1967, from which it was attacked more than 30 years ago. That is not just an Israeli position, but has been the policy of American secretaries of state from Henry Kissinger to Warren Christopher.
The western buffer zone recently proposed by Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would place serious obstacles before suicide bombers who regularly attempt to infiltrate Israeli population centers. Immediately adjacent to the West Bank is the densely populated Israeli coastal plain, where 70 percent of Israelis live and 80 percent of Israel's industrial capacity is located. The buffer zone would also protect Israel's capital in Jerusalem. The western zone would allow adequate depth against Palestinian weaponry, from automatic rifle fire and mortars to Qassam-2 rockets.
In his last policy address to the Knesset in 1995, Israel's late prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, emphasized the critical importance of an eastern security zone as well, one that would utilize the steep eastern slopes of the West Bank mountain ridge that faces the Jordan River. A defense line making use of the topography of the Jordan Valley, also a strategic policy of the Sharon government, would be aimed at countering large Iraqi expeditionary armies that have engaged Israel on the ground in three Arab-Israeli wars. Israeli control of this zone would also protect Jordan from Palestinian irredentism, which almost overcame the kingdom in 1970. Thus, strong Israeli security zones can enhance regional stability.
There has been much talk in recent days about the interest of Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah in seeking a broader Arab peace with Israel. That initiative has not been formally presented to Israel or to the Arab world. Most states float new ideas of this sort in discreet channels, like the Israeli-Egyptian contacts in Morocco that preceded Anwar Sadat's visit to Israel in 1977. Any serious change in Saudi hostility to Israel would be welcome, especially if it led, in the first instance, to a cessation of all forms of financial assistance to groups like Hamas.
If the reports of the crown prince's insistence on seeing Israel back on the 1967 lines, with Jerusalem divided, represent only an opening position to serious discussions, then his idea merits exploration. But Israel will not experiment with the lives of its citizens by agreeing to concessions that strip away tangible components of its national security, create vulnerabilities that its adversaries will exploit and ultimately undermine the stability of the entire Middle East.
Dore Gold was Israel's ambassador to the United Nations from 1997 to 1999 and has served as an adviser to the government of Ariel Sharon.