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BIBI'S TUNNEL, YASSER'S WAR

12:00 AM, Oct 14, 1996 • By CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER
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Netanyahu opened a tunnel. Arafat started a war. It is hard to find a publication or a government on the planet that has not denounced the opening of the tunnel. About the starting of the war, silence.


The starting of the war is the single most important event in the Middle East since the signing of the Oslo peace accords in September 1993. It not only signals an ominous escalation of the violence. It constitutes a fundamental breach of the Oslo bargain, which was founded on the unequivocal renunciation of violence.


One would think that an event this momentous -- and bloody: it has left, as of this writing, 70 people dead -- would come in for some serious criticism around the world. It didn't. The tunnel did. The Arab League issued an incendiary libel that the tunnel was "part of an Israeli Zionist plot to destroy the Aqsa Mosque [and] set up the Temple of Solomon." Arafat echoed the lie, inviting Palestinian mobs into the street "to express their anger" over this "desecration of the holy places." Express they did, storming Israeli checkpoints and installations. The war was on.


Within a few days, even Palestinian spokesmen were admitting that the tunnel was a pretext. It does not, in fact, go under, on, or even touch the Muslim holy sites on the Temple Mount. But as soon as the West began to catch up with this reality, there was no rethinking of the justification for Palestinian violence. There was a mere shifting of the ground.


Well, yes. The tunnel was a trumped-up charge. But the Palestinian violence could be understood -- read: justified -- as an expression of pent-up anger over accumulated offenses by the "intransigent" (a perennial Likud-linked adjective once again hauled out for easy use) government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.


What are these violations, these casi belli? In decreasing order of seriousness, if not frequency of citation, they are:


1) Hebron: Israel is now six months behind its promised schedule of withdrawal from this last occupied Palestinian city.


Yes, but the reason that the redeployment was postponed beyond the March 28 deadline is that in February and March Palestinian terrorists set off four terror bombs in Israel, killing 59. Shimon Peres, the archetypal dove who fell over himself to accommodate Yasser Arafat, was prime minister at the time. (What was the provocation for that violence, then?) It was Peres who halted the Hebron withdrawal.


Since taking office, Netanyahu has raised questions about the safety of those 400 Jews left living near the ancient Jewish shrine in Hebron. He demanded changes to security arrangements that might leave these Jews vulnerable to attack by the local Arab population and perhaps even by the armed Palestinian police in the hills above. Netanyahu's concerns were deemed disingenuous, an excuse for indefinite delay. After last month's sacking and murder at Joseph's Tomb, an even smaller Jewish enclave in the Palestinian town of Nablus, one would think that Netanyahu's concerns would be accorded a little more respect. They haven't been.


2) Closure of the West Bank: By not allowing Palestinian workers to come to work in Israel, Netanyahu has caused severe economic misery and hardship.


In fact, the closure, like the Hebron delay, was instituted by the sainted Shimon Peres, also in response to the suicide bombings of February and March. Peres did it as a security measure to make it more difficult for terrorists to infiltrate into Israel. Netanyahu, in his 100 days in office, had already eased these restrictions considerably, more than doubling the number of Palestinians allowed in daily from 22,000 to 50,000. He was negotiating with Arafat for further increases when Arafat called his little war.


3) Settlements: Netanyahu is accused of building new and expanding old Jewish settlements in the territories.


In fact, under the rule of Labor prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Peres, Israeli settlements grew in population by 25,000 over the life of the Oslo agreements. Netanyahu has indicated absolutely clearly that he intends to do precisely what Labor did: allow the thickening of existing settlements. Yes, he reserves the right to establish new settlements. But he has made it equally clear that he has no intention of doing so.


4) Dignity: We are down to the bottom of the barrel. Netanyahu, it seems, was not sufficiently solicitous of the dignity of the Palestinians and, in particular, did not accord proper respect to Arafat, their president. Anthony Lewis, for example, finds it significant that Arafat was once denied the "ability to make a helicopter trip by the Israelis."


When Newt Gingrich shuts down the U.S. government in part because Bill Clinton made him exit by the back door of Air Force One, he is called a cry- baby. He has yet to live down his resulting reputation for pettiness and petulance. And Gingrich, mind you, did not order the Capitol Police to fire on the White House to avenge his dignity. Arafat is allegedly slighted -- and Palestinian apologists find in this a justification for war. First, the War of Jenkins's Ear. Now the War of Arafat's Pride.


II


Missing among all this talk of grievance is any mention of Israeli complaints about Palestinian violations of Oslo. Violations are always understood to mean Israeli violations. Yet in return for the myriad of compromises and concessions, territorial and political, granted by the Israelis, the Palestinians committed themselves to only two: changing their national charter that calls for the destruction of Israel and renouncing violence.


What is the status of these two commitments?


The tortuous saga of the PLO charter is by now almost comical. Arafat first pledged to change it immediately after the Oslo 1 accords were signed in 1993. He did nothing of the sort. Two years later, at the Oslo 2 accords -- which gave him (1) control of Kalkilya, Jenin, Nablus, Ramallah, Bethlehem, Tulkharm (all the West Bank cities save Hebron), (2) broad new powers, and (3) a gradual turning over to him of the vast uninhabited "state" lands of the West Bank -- he sold that rug to Peres a second time. He pledged that now he would really change the charter. Indeed, he would do so within two months of the inauguration of the Palestinian legislative council.


On April 24, as the deadline approached, Arafat convened the Palestinian National Council and claimed that it had changed the charter. The world press, the American government, and indeed Shimon Peres nodded and applauded. Peres, eager to show some tangible Palestinian gesture before the Israeli election, fatuously hailed this as the greatest ideological change in the Middle East in 100 years.


What really happened? The PNC resolution said that the charter was amended, but changed not a single word, promising instead that a committee would return with new wording within six months. It is due two weeks from now. You have not heard from this committee in six months. You will not hear from it in two weeks.


What makes this latest Arafat maneuver so farcical is that Arafat thereby managed to sell Peres the rug for a third time -- again without delivery. In his letter to Rabin of September 9, 1993, Arafat declared that "the PLO affirms that those articles of the Palestinian covenant which deny Israel's right to exist . . . are now inoperative and no longer valid. Consequently, the PLO undertakes to submit to the Palestinian National Council for formal approval the necessary changes in regard to the Palestinian covenant" (my italics).


Thus the declaration of inoperativity already occurred in 1993. Its repetition by the PNC in 1996 was a redundancy. Indeed, it was an evasion of the Palestinians' original commitment to actually change the charter, not just to say they did.


To date, not a single change. Yet even to raise the issue of this fundamental non-compliance appears odd. In the American mind, the charter is considered a solved -- a dead -- issue. So dead that when Hanan Ashrawi makes her daily appearances on American television denouncing Israelis for this or that violation of the Oslo accords, not one American reporter ever asks her to explain why on April 24 in the PNC she voted against revision of the Palestinian charter. She was one of the 54 (vs. 504) voting against this extraordinarily tepid (indeed, essentially meaningless) gesture of compliance with Oslo. First she opposes even the pretense of living up to one of the two major peace commitments the Palestinians undertook. Then she rails about Netanyahu's tardiness on Hebron and some such.


III


But it is the other pledge Arafat made to Rabin in his Sept. 9, 1993, letter that constitutes the gravest breach of Oslo. The change in the charter Arafat merely avoided. The pledge of non-violence, however, he has now brazenly flouted.


Turning the guns of the Palestinian police against Israel was the truly historic event of the "tunnel" riots. In fact, the application of the very word "police" to these people is risible. Where in the United States do police walk the streets carrying AK-47s? This is a Palestinian army. The Israeli Labor government had invited its erstwhile mortal enemy to bring these 40,000 armed men into its midst -- mortgaging everything against the hope of Palestinian adherence to Arafat's public renunciation of violence. The Oslo accords are quite explicit on the issue: "The PLO commits itself to . . . a peaceful resolution of the conflict. . . . Accordingly, the PLO renounces . . . acts of violence and will assume responsibility over all PLO elements and personnel in order to assure their compliance, prevent violations and discipline violators."


Yet ever since Netanyahu came to power, Arafat and his Palestinian Authority leadership have been brandishing the threat of renewed violence. For months they have been warning that they were prepared to restart the intifada, this time with machine guns.


Arafat was indeed frustrated. He was frustrated to encounter an Israeli administration that did not see the peace accords as a one-way street, a process of sequential Israeli concessions in return for which Arafat need do nothing but smile during photo-ops. Arafat was finally facing an Israeli government that was demanding reciprocity. It was demanding, for example, that he honor the Oslo understanding that permitted no PLO offices in Jerusalem.


He chafed at these demands and resented that Israeli concessions were made dependent on them. That -- not the tunnel -- is why he decided on war. He would show Netanyahu that he had the ultimate card to play: his men under arms.


He used the tunnel to incite the crowds to restart the intifada. Mobs then descended on Israeli checkpoints and settlements. When Israeli soldiers responded, predictably, with tear gas, rubber bullets, and warning shots, Arafat played his trump. His soldiers opened fire.


The claim that he lost control of his army is simply false. By Saturday, when he realized that the toll was mounting and that he could not sustain the war any longer, he finally called for his men to cease fire. The violence stopped.


During the intifada, the stone-throwing disorders of 1987-93, the West Bank was Belfast Arafat has just demonstrated that he could turn it into Beirut, his old home turf, a killing ground of armed militias


Such are the bitter fruits of Oslo. And perhaps its death. Arafat's playing the war card fundamentally undermines the very premise of the Oslo accords. If the Palestinians may declare war whenever they deem themselves "frustrated" with the pace of negotiations, then "peace process" become just a euphemism for step-by-step Israeli surrender.


And yet Arafat emerged from the Washington summit with no condemnation of his little war and no commitment on his part not to start it again.


IV


A terrible realization is emerging from the smoke of the "tunnel" riots: Oslo has become untenable, yet irreversible. Untenable because Arafat has shown this "peace process" has achieved no peace. Peace cannot just mean no violence today; it means the promise of no violence tomorrow. Those who believed there really was such a promise have had their illusions shattered And irreversible not because, as naively believed by many, of a true change of heart of the Palestinians. But because, having now planted a 40,000-man armed force in its midst, Israel has no other recourse but to continue. Israel has rendered itself hostage.


What to do? The immediate agenda for the peace process is obvious. Netanyahu, who before the tunnel riots had every intention of withdrawing from Hebron with appropriate security arrangements, will find a way to do so within a few weeks or perhaps months. An airport in Gaza, too, will be granted to Arafat. Closures will be eased and, if there is no violence, Israeli forces will withdraw their armor from the West Bank.


These are concessions easily granted. In return for what? Netanyahu has the intelligence to see the forest from the trees. And the forest here, the main objective, has to do with the renewal of the renunciation of violence.


Yes, Arafat once again gets to sell a rug twice. He promised non-violence in Oslo. And he broke it wantonly last month with impunity. He needs to formally promise to do it again. But that is not the real prize for Israel in the coming negotiations. Netanyahu's key task is not simply to get Arafat to recommit himself to non-violence. After all, Arafat can just as easily break a new pledge as his old one. Netanyahu's key objective is to get the United States, as the arbiter of the peace process, to declare non-violence a norm it will hold Arafat to.


Netanyahu did not get that at the Washington summit. Which is why it was a failure for Israel. Sure, Netanyahu did not give away the store under world and Clinton administration pressure. But holding on makes for deliverance, not success. Dunkirk, Churchill noted, was a miracle and a disaster.


Israel cannot afford that Arafat's next deployment of violence and war go unremarked, uncondemned, unpunished by the United States. What Israel needs now, in return for all it is about to concede, is but one thing: a firm American commitment to back Israel to the hilt next time Arafat plays the war card.


That is the only possible deterrent to Arafat's playing it again. The next Mideast milestone should be an Oslo 3: an ostentatious hand-shaking ceremony on the White House lawn in which (1) Israel gives a grab bag of Oslo 2 goodies to the Palestinians, (2) Arafat smiles -- he'll promise, too, but his promises are not worth the paper they are written on -- and (3) the United States solemnly declares that from now on it will monitor war-making.


Arafat may not fear the Israeli response to another round of war. Yes, he has many dead, but they serve as martyrs, fuel for the cause. And, as seen in the last few weeks, war-making is a source of great public support for Arafat. In Gaza and the West Bank, he has never been as popular as today, now that he has turned his guns on the Jews. (That swelling of support for Arafat for just that reason should make peace dreamers question their cherished assumption about a fundamental Palestinian change of heart. But peace dreamers never question their assumptions.)


What Arafat may really fear, however, is the wrath of the United States. He cannot afford to alienate the one true arbiter in the region. If playing the war card doesn't draw fire just from the Israelis -- Arafat has shown that he can survive, indeed thrive on, that -- but from the United States, he might think twice. The prospect of losing the leverage and patronage that come from the American connection may stay his hand.


That is why the next round of negotiations must end with a tripartite reaffirmation of the renunciation of violence -- and an American commitment to, this time, enforce it. Anything less, and the peace process will not survive.




By Charles Krauthammer