BIBI'S TUNNEL, YASSER'S WAR
12:00 AM, Oct 14, 1996 • By CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER
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.
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