Israel's new era: managed hostility

With Ariel Sharon's swearing in today, Israelis switch from negotiating with Palestinians to containing them.

After establishing their state in 1948, Israelis unapologetically - and sometimes brutally - defended their security as they sought to entrench themselves in what they call their "tough neighborhood."

Today, with the swearing in of the coalition government of Ariel Sharon, the uncompromising Israeli attitude of yore is back. As prime minister, Mr. Sharon is expected to concentrate first and foremost on containing and neutralizing militant Palestinians.

It seems too soon to say that Israelis have returned to a bunker mentality - the nightclubs of Tel Aviv and the streets of Jerusalem are too full for that. But Sharon's nearly 2-to-1 election victory over outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Barak suggests that Israelis are willing, for now, to let go of the dream of a comprehensive peace and settle for a possibly protacted period of managed hostility with the Palestinians.

A hostile environment is familiar territory for Israelis, and it has brought them together. "Palestinian violence has succeeded in pushing Israeli society back towards the unity and sense of purpose that characterized the first two or three decades of the state," says Gerald Steinberg, director of the program on conflict management and negotiation at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv. "That's quite an accomplishment."

"In terms of relations with the Palestinians, we are very much back to Square 1" he says.

Sharon, a retired general who has fought against all of Israel's immediate neighbors, may be somewhat constrained by a "unity" government that includes nearly every group in Israeli politics. But his emphasis on security already recalls the priorities of Israel's first governments.

Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the UN who advises Sharon on foreign policy, declines to forecast just what Sharon can do to protect Israelis. But he says the new government will seek to improve the economic conditions of ordinary Palestinians and attempt to stem the discontent that leads to violence.

Israel will continue to refrain from transferring to the Palestinian Authority the tax revenues it collects on the PA's behalf, Mr. Gold says, since Israeli officials say that members of security forces on the PA payroll are responsible for attacks against Israelis. But the government will find ways to boost the Palestinian economy by circumventing the PA, he says.

Rather than reach out for a comprehensive peace with the Palestinians - which Mr. Barak sought and failed to achieve - Sharon and his advisers speak of returning to a "step by step" approach, such as the partial transfers of land to Palestinian control that took place as part of the peace process.

That strategy may not suit the Palestinians, who say they have gained little from incremental agreements and who blame the Israelis for imposing an occupation of their lands that is itself a form of violence.

"Back to Square 1" also means an insistence on protecting Israelis from attack. A suicide bomber in the coastal city of Netanya on Sunday killed three Israelis, wounded dozens of others, and prompted angry residents to attack and nearly kill a Palestinian bystander.

The attack capped a weekend in which six Palestinians were killed by Israeli security forces, including a 9-year-old boy who was shot in his home.

The violence of the past five months, in which 423 people have died - 80 percent of them Palestinian - has brought Israelis back to the attitudes of the past.

The current Palestinian intifada, or uprising, has in the view of many Israelis underscored the failure of the peace process. At the same time, the key proponent of that process, the US, is reassessing its role in the Middle East and the emphasis it has placed on attempts to solve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

US officials say they want to move away from viewing their relations with Middle Eastern countries through the "prism" of the peace process and instead handle each bilateral relationship on its own merits as much as possible.

Gold seems to welcome a revised US approach. "The period of maximum American involvement [in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute] didn't deliver anything - so why should replicating that involvement deliver anything?"

From his perspective, the window of opportunity for peace negotiations that opened after the Gulf War - a period that featured a beaten Iraq, a weakened Iran, and a Russian willingness to take a backseat to US diplomacy - has closed: "Unfortunately those fundamental conditions have been entirely erased by what has transpired in the 1990s and we are in a more difficult position today."

Apart from a peace deal that Israel signed with Jordan in 1994, most of the steps toward a comprehensive regional peace in the 1990s have proven to be a "house of cards," Gold says.

But Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, contends "it's too harsh to say we had a great moment after 1991 and now it's all over." He says Israelis have largely won acceptance from "the elite in the Arab world," peace deals with Egypt and Jordan continue to hold, and the lack of a peace deal with Syria is "not our fault."

Israel has succeeded in partitioning Palestinians into areas under their own control. "The Palestinians," Dr. Inbar argues, "have never had more to lose."

Staff writer Nicole Gaouette contributed to this report.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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