Ira Chernus  


"The statement said the Israeli military '`will do everything in its power to ensure the safety of Israeli civilians and its forces.''' (New York Times, August 25). Since I have close relatives among the Israeli civilians and forces, I wish I could believe these official words from the government of Israel. But I fear Israel's response to Palestinian violence will continue to make my loved ones less, not more, safe.

When Palestinians carry out suicide bombings or high-profile killings, the Israeli authorities do not prosecute the criminals. Instead, they assassinate "suspected guerilla leaders." They blame the Palestinian Authority and its leader, Yassir Arafat. They try to convince the world that all Palestinians are guilty of every act of violence.

In Palestinian eyes, this is simply more of the same: arbitrary Israeli violence outside the bounds of any legal structure, unsubstantiated accusations, collective punishments, and skillful Israeli PR gestures to mold public opinion. Understandably, this enrages Palestinians, the vast majority of whom refrain from violence while they suffer the daily humiliations of military occupation. Israel's policies almost guarantee that a tiny handful will spin violently out of control, and more Israelis will suffer.

To explain the roots of Palestinian violence is not in any way to excuse the violence. Nothing can excuse it. But it is bound to continue as long as Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon and his government continue retaliating against people not proven to be criminals.

It is hard to resist the conclusion that Sharon and his Likud colleagues in the government may not really want peace and security. Suppose, just hypothetically, that they want, instead, to keep Israeli power over the Palestinians, avoid dismantling settlements, and thereby keep their own political power. Then their strategy makes perfect sense.

The Palestinians are split between supporters and opponents of Arafat. Most of the high-profile violence comes from the opponents. Israel systematically assassinates opposition leaders, hoping to weaken their organizations. At the same time, they attack Arafat and his forces, even though he routinely condemns his political opponents when they murder Israelis. The Israelis say Arafat is to blame for not controlling every single Palestinian.

If Arafat accepts the blame, his only option is to crack down on violence-prone elements among his own people. In the past, he has shown himself quite willing to do that. He hopes to stay in power by jailing his opponents.

But those opponents have plenty of popular support. If Arafat knuckles under to Sharon's demands, he looks like a collaborator in Israel's effort to destroy the opposition groups. Yet if he won't bow, Israel will never let him be the great man who brought the Palestinians their independence. So Arafat is damned if he does what the Israelis want, and damned if he doesn't. It's a perfect recipe for weakening a leader.

Could that be just what Israeli leaders want? Their greatest fear is having to deal with the whole Palestinian populace, unified behind a single leader and a single government. As long as Palestinians are pitted against each other, they have less political power to mobilize against Israel. As long as Arafat's allies and his opponents are both weakened, there is no foundation for an effective Palestinian government. That means no one with whom to make a lasting peace.

Meanwhile, Sharon and his Likud party protect their political power. They avoid taking any responsibility for the conflict. They avoid having to look like compromisers. They avoid a public debate among Jewish Israelis, which could tear Israel apart.

Instead, by pinning all the trouble on a few demonized individual, they unite the public behind whatever policies they choose to pursue. The simplicity and emotional gratification of fighting the latest Hitler is nearly irresistible. But simplistic feel-good solutions do not resolve conflicts. They only perpetuate them.

Fortunately, in Israel as elsewhere, there are people who resist such oversimplifying. They recognize that wrongs have been done on both sides and both sides must make compromises. They recognize that Israelis will not be secure unless they stop the assassinations and travel the road to peace together with a strong, stable Palestinian government. The first step on that road is to stop retaliating against the wrong people.