The Power of a Radical Few

THE deplorable suicide bombings in Israel demonstrate once again the power of a few determined individuals to derail foreign policies. So, also, did the recent IRA terrorist acts in London. And although clearly not like terrorists' bombings, the provocative flights of Brothers to the Rescue, while not a threat to innocent lives, forced the US to toughen its policy toward Cuba.

Despite differences, these acts have elements in common.

Size: The militant wing of Hamas is believed to number less than 100 in the Israeli-occupied territories. Recent estimates put the IRA activists at 400. Brothers to the Rescue boasts a few dozen members at most.

Willingness to risk: In each case, members undertake dramatic actions with the risk of death. For the suicide bombers of Hamas, death is foreordained. IRA members have died along with the innocent victims. The Brothers did not seek death, but their provocation of the Castro regime had that potential.

Dual objectives: Such groups have both short- and long-term objectives. Hamas wishes to get its prisoners released but is not unwilling to kill the Middle East peace process; beyond that, it hopes either to force the total withdrawal of Israelis from the occupied territories or to destroy Israel. The IRA seeks a seat at negotiations but has not abandoned its goal of pushing the British out of Northern Ireland. The Brothers claim humanitarian objectives, but their basic hope is for the destruction of the Castro regime.

Wider support: Although the publics out of which these groups emerge may not condone terrorism or risks, they support the longer-range objectives. Islamic militants echo Palestinian resentments toward Israel, limiting the extent to which Yasser Arafat can crack down on extremists without eroding his own political base. Moderate leaders in Northern Ireland face similar inhibitions in opposing the IRA. And the Brothers symbolize strong pressures among Cuban-Americans for changes in their homeland. Hopes are raised, despite the unreality of the objectives. Israel will not be destroyed. Britain will not leave Northern Ireland without some security for the Protestant majority. Changes in Cuba will come ultimately from within.

Vulnerable democracies: All three groups wield power through exploiting democratic political processes. Hamas terrorism has changed the electoral landscape in Israel; Shimon Peres's popularity has markedly declined since the first Jerusalem bus incident. Northern Irish Unionists can effectively resist concessions because they hold key votes in John Major's fragile government. Gerry Adams can insist on a US visa, despite the collapse of the IRA cease-fire, because of the Clinton administration's concern over votes in Massachusetts. Similarly, the Brothers' actions would have less force were it not for the political power of Cuban-Americans.

Impact on policy: In each case, factors of sacrifice, emotion, constituent support, and pressure have had an impact on policy. Hamas, by eroding the confidence and security essential to peace, has forced Peres to postpone Israeli withdrawals and negotiation and perhaps, even the May elections. The British government has had to withdraw its insistence on IRA disarming before its representatives can sit at the negotiating table. The Clinton administration has had no choice but to accept a tightening of the embargo on Cuba.

Encouragement to extremes: The hard-liners of the Likud Party in Israel gain from terrorism against the peace process. The Unionists in Northern Ireland share with the IRA suspicions about negotiations. And Castro in Cuba finds themes to rally nationalist support with each external provocation.

Compromise postponed: The power of such groups represents a quadruple tragedy: Lives are lost. Careful diplomatic and political initiatives are frustrated. Unrealistic expectations are created. And the negotiations essential to any more-permanent solutions are seriously compromised.

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