During Yasser Arafat’s war against the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in the early 1970s, the PLO was known to have reached 22 cease-fire agreements, each of which it subsequently broke.
The understandings reached two nights ago between Regional Cooperation Minister Shimon Peres and Arafat were not even a formal cease-fire, but only an agreement for the reduction of violence. Yet it should not have come as a surprise that even this less ambitious agreement would fail. With a car bomb in Mahaneh Yehuda and intensive gunfire continuing in Gilo, the credibility of these cease-fire announcements is rapidly declining on the Israeli side.
Arafat is dealing with Israel in the same manner that he dealt with the Jordanians and then his Lebanese rivals a decade later. He has succeeded in implementing a strategy that almost coins the title of Thomas Friedman’s best-selling book, From Beirut to Jerusalem: He has brought his techniques of warfare from the Lebanese capital to Israel’s.
Part of that strategy involves incessant cease-fire agreements that never really stick. That Arafat himself did not appear on Palestinian television with his cease-fire announcement, as the Barak government expected, only reinforces the view that unfulfilled truce agreements are part of his intended strategy.
To make matters worse, Barak’s government has fallen into the trap laid by Arafat of a negotiating process accompanied by ongoing violence.
Since it views a final-status agreement as the only possible way to end the current crisis, Israel is busy trying to reach an understanding with the Palestinians over the role of the Russians, the European Union, and the UN in future negotiations. There is talk about getting the Clinton administration to disclose its Camp David bridging proposals in the near future. And finally, work is under way over an agreed formula for an international commission of inquiry.
Thus, Israel is still negotiating before the shooting has ended, and Arafat senses that he might yet be rewarded despite his use of violence.
Cease-fire agreements only work if they are achieved in the context of deterrence. During the War of Independence in 1948, cease-fire agreements were reached and fell apart regularly, until the cumulative impact of Israel’s military victories led to an armistice that all the parties signed. But today, the Barak government is trying to obtain a cease-fire while Israeli deterrence is in decline.
For some of Israel’s neighbors, the absence of a firm Israeli response to repeated attacks on its capital is most certainly seen as a sign of weakness. Democratic debate is rarely understood in non-democratic political systems; it indicates that a society does not have a central sense of purpose, from their view.
It takes an enormous amount of violence to actually push a democracy into action, but when provoked, democracies are powerful fighting forces. Israel’s democracy is very close to that point.
Arafat might think he is fighting the Phalangist militias in Lebanon, but he is dealing with a society which is now convinced more than ever that it has done everything it could for peace and is hence justified in doing everything it must for its defense.
(The writer served as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations (1997-1999) and currently heads the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.)