The Magazine

War Through Weakness

Barak's policies have increased the chances of conflict in the Middle East

Jan 15, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 17 • By TOM ROSE
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WITH HIS reelection prospects faltering, Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak is employing a political tactic familiar in the annals of doomed campaigns. By charging that his conservative opponent, Ariel Sharon, will "lead the country into war," Barak is trying to scare an increasingly disgusted Israeli public.

Unlike Jimmy Carter, who tried this against Ronald Reagan in 1980, Barak isn't necessarily wrong in predicting that war will accompany a Sharon victory. He's just blaming the wrong person. After all, it isn't Sharon who has accelerated the most dangerous deterioration of regional security in a generation. It is Barak himself.

But to admit as much, even at this late hour, would be to concede what even many committed peaceniks in Israel now understand: The Oslo peace process not only failed to bring peace, it has hurtled the region into escalating danger.

Almost all strategic analysts here agree that the risk of war is greater now than it has been since 1973. Just last week, the Israeli Defense Force was instructed to prepare for action. Reservists are being put on notice, and field equipment is being readied for use. Attacks on Israel's northern border by Syrian and Iranian backed Hezbollah guerrillas are testing Israel's resolve. Iran has threatened to attack Israel with ballistic missiles containing non-conventional war-heads if Israel responds. Iraq has likewise threatened ballistic missile strikes in addition to moving two mechanized divisions toward the Jordanian border.

What happened? How did a process that was supposed to bring peace, cooperation, and development to the region instead lay the groundwork for war? Oslo lulled Israelis into believing that their neighbors had changed and that a series of one-sided concessions would consolidate the change. Instead, concessions only increased Arab appetites.

From the earliest days of Zionist settlement through that famous handshake on the White House lawn, Israel had followed a strategy whose guiding principle was deterrence. By continually asserting its right to defend itself with whatever means it deemed necessary, Israel had earned grudging respect, if not acceptance, from its neighbors, and life in the region had settled into a recognized pattern. While Arab rhetoric changed little, the actions of Arab leaders changed a great deal. By the early 1990s, most Arab states had given up conspiring to destroy Israel by force. They knew that attempts to harm the Jewish state would be mightily repelled. At the time the Oslo accords were signed, in 1993, the Middle East seemed further from war than it had since Israel's founding.

Oslo started to change that. By conceding territory to Yasser Arafat, Israel seemed to concede the premise that the source of conflict in the Middle East was its military victory in 1967. The Israelis were largely delighted at the prospect of ceasing to occupy a hostile population, but their withdrawal from territories they had captured in defensive wars gave the Arabs their first taste of victory since 1948.

An increasing number of Israelis believed that the Arabs' rising expectations could be kept in check so long as no concessions made went unreciprocated. In fact, in one of Oslo's many ironies, the three-year tenure of Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister brought enough equilibrium to the process that even right-wing skeptics began to believe the process could work. The accord's most articulate critic was starting to make it work.

But Netanyahu's defeat in 1999 allowed his successor, former Army general Ehud Barak, to turn Netanyahu's hard-headed concessions into a flood of unprecedented offers. By proclaiming his intention to reach a comprehensive settlement with the Palestinians within 15 months of taking office, Barak shifted all the pressure from Arafat onto himself. He also conveyed a sense of Israeli desperation to an increasingly confident Arab public. Up to that point, Israel's policy had been to wait the Arabs out. While not terribly satisfying, this had worked well.

In May 2000, Barak unilaterally withdrew Israel's troops from its security zone in southern Lebanon. This telegraphed to the Arab world that Israel could be forced to retreat. At the very time he was trying to increase pressure on the Palestinians to settle the conflict completely and permanently, Barak fatally undermined his own effort by showing them that they really didn't need to make any concessions. All Arafat had to do was do what he has always done best: kill Jews.