Israelis voted Ehud Barak into office as prime minister because he promised to bring them peace. He failed, in large part because his negotiating partner Yasser Arafat was unwilling to make the difficult choices peace demands. Israelis then voted Ariel Sharon into the prime minister's office hoping that, if Barak couldn't bring peace, at least Sharon could bring security. He failed, too. In a Gallup poll published in Ma'ariv newspaper this month, only 21 percent of the Israelis said they believed Sharon could end the violence. A month earlier, the number of believers was twice as high.
Most observers believe Sharon has done a good job of managing the violence on a day-to-day basis. Targeting terrorist leaders for assassination, though it has earned international condemnation, has saved innocent Israeli and Palestinian lives. The incursions into Palestinian-controlled territory have sent a clear message with a minimum of bloodshed. Those who believed that Sharon's rule would unleash a fury of blood and war were mistaken. They were confusing him with Arafat.
But despite Sharon's short-term strategic success, he has not achieved the promised security. In fact, as journalist and author Yossi Klein Halevi told an audience here last week, Arafat has succeeded in moving the front lines of this conflict to the front yards of most Israelis. Routine trips require life-and-death calculations. Malls and main streets have become potential deathtraps.
Speaking to the Jewish Community Relations Committee, Halevi recounted a particularly telling -- and chilling -- story widely reported in Israel: A father, worried that his daughter not take a public bus back from the movie theater, told her he would come pick her up. On their way home, Palestinian terrorists ambushed their car, and both were shot dead. "Nowhere is safe anymore," Halevi said.
One of the points Foreign Minister Shimon Peres used to make during the Oslo negotiations was that as life improved for the average Palestinian, he or she would have more vested in peace with Israel than in conflict. Unfortunately, the Palestinian's own leader saw to it that Peres' theory has gone untested.
But the opposite theory is indisputable: the worse the Palestinians' daily life becomes, the more unending the intifada. There's no question the average Palestinian is suffering -- imagine trying to carve out a life amid road blocks, security checks, curfews, retaliatory strikes and an economy that makes Israel's presently sluggish one look like the '99 NASDAQ. Add to this the fact that Palestinian leaders, sheikhs and educators are feeding their people a stream of vicious anti-Semitic propaganda. (For a sample, click on www.jewishjournal.com/memri.) No wonder Sharon's justifiable show of force hasn't convinced the Palestinians to call off the violence.
So what to do when neither the carrot nor the stick suffices? That is the question Israel now faces, and the options aren't great. It can invade and occupy the Palestinian territories, but only the fantasists of Greater Israel see that as a long-term solution. It can separate itself unilaterally from the Palestinians, but the diplomatc, military and moral implications of that are staggering enough to suggest that if Israel could have done so, it already would have. It can head back to the negotiating table, as Peres is set to do -- talk about bad summer reruns. And then there's war.
Israeli sources say a war on "one-and-a-half fronts," meaning with Lebanon/Syria/Iraq and the Palestinians, is inevitable. It should have broken out last week, they say, but the prospect of talks delayed it.
And what happens after the war, I asked one of those Israelis. He shrugged. "We're back where we started."