TCS Daily


Arafat, Sharon and the War of Attrition

By Uriah Kriegel - October 9, 2003 12:00 AM

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict divides the world roughly into two camps. On the one side are the handful of nations who consistently sympathize with Israel; these include, first and foremost, the United States, but also Denmark, the Netherlands, and India. On the other side are the nations whose sympathies lie with the Palestinians; those constitute most of the rest of the world. The two camps are consistent in their actions and proclamations vis-à-vis Middle-East events, and they often seem completely hardened in their respective positions.

 

But the Israeli cabinet's recent decision to remove Arafat "in principle" has drawn nothing but condemnation. Even Israel's few friends roundly objected to the idea of expelling Arafat from the Palestinian territories.

 

Cons...

 

The arguments against expelling Arafat are straightforward. Doing so will only have a symbolic effect and will not bring about a decrease in terrorist activity. If anything, such belligerence on Israel's side will only galvanize the terrorist organizations.

 

Expelling Arafat is almost sure to bring about an unprecedented cycle of violence. It will also deepen the resentment among all Arabs to any non-Arab presence in the Middle East, a resentment that could spill over to America's careful occupation of Iraq.

 

An expulsion of Arafat from the territories is also sure to isolate Israel diplomatically. Many leading countries around the world, especially France and Britain, will be outraged by such a move -- as will be the occidental media outlet. Such diplomatic isolation will only weaken Israel's hand in future negotiations.

 

... and Pros

 

However, little attention has been given to the positive case for expelling Arafat. To appreciate it, we must consider it from the perspective of Ariel Sharon's long-term strategy in his own war on terrorism. Sharon's strategy is based on a very specific understanding of the big picture -- the deep nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

 

Always the General, Sharon sees the current conflict primarily in military terms. Israel has fought for its survival five "normal" wars against Arab coalitions, and won each and every one of them. For Sharon, Israel now confronts a new and unusual kind of war -- a war of attrition.

 

The Palestinians' second Intifada is not supposed to lead to the direct physical destruction of Israel. Rather, it is supposed to break Israelis' spirit -- to undermine their resolve and eventually erode their confidence. (In this regard, the second Intifada is not dissimilar to al Qaeda's war on America, which is also primarily a war of attrition.)

 

Sharon's big-picture strategy, little understood even among Israel's friends, consists in taking the Palestinians on and showing them that even in this war they will eventually lose. For a peaceful Palestinian state to emerge, it is imperative that Israel win this war of attrition.

 

Operationally, this means that every terrorist attack invites without exception a proportionally tormenting retaliation; that no genuine concessions are offered in return for mere promises; that Israel is entitled to take the initiative in this war of attrition, e.g., by hunting down the leaders of terrorist organizations with ruthless consistency; and that no negotiations, hence no signs of hope for the Palestinian people, are ever to be considered until terrorism come to a full stop and the war of attrition is fully won.

 

The ultimate goal of Sharon's strategy is indeed to break the Palestinians' spirit and bring them to heel. This sounds harsh and uncivilized to many leaders of Western nations. But that's unsurprising since they have little concept of the meaning and reality of a war of attrition.

 

The simple fact is that Sharon's strategy is working. Recent polls show that more Palestinians favor moving away from the "armed resistance to the occupation." While Sharon is not given credit for such results, the polls are loud confirmations that his is a winning strategy.

 

If Sharon's diagnosis of the nature of the conflict is on the right tracks, it then becomes clear why expelling Arafat may not be such a bad idea. It may turn out to be the tipping point in the war of attrition. To be sure, in the short run it will increase the violence. But its symbolic force may in the long run be very effective in breaking the Palestinians' spirit.

 

After the initial rage subsides, the Palestinians will ask themselves even more poignantly "Where is all this leading us?" and come closer to realizing that honest and non-violent negotiations are the only way to a better future. Perhaps then will there be popular support for forcibly dismantling the terrorist organizations.

 

It is the lack of such support that led to the demise of the Road Map. And the reason the popular support was wanting is that, somewhere and in some way, the Palestinians still believe that they can win the war of attrition they have declared on Israel. Expelling Arafat may once and for all expunge this notion -- not in the immediate aftermath, but over the next couple of years.

 

The thought of years of more violence is certainly disheartening. But such is the nature of a war of attrition.

 

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