By now, a war in the Middle East will not catch anybody by surprise. Predictions have been so persistent, that the actual surprise is that the war has not started yet. Some people, not necessarily optimistic by nature, start wondering whether a war is really imminent. Why should Sharon make war, if he can do whatever he wishes under the cover of “restraint”?
Indeed, Sharon’s claim that “restraint is power” must have made Orwell turn in his grave. Seldom has a term been so successfully abused, especially in the Israeli and American media (the Europeans seem to be more suspicious). Israel’s “restraint” comprises everything from weekly assassinations by death squads, through “sweeping” (another marvelous euphemism) countless acres of Palestinians fields and bulldozing dozens of houses, to using the most advanced US-made helicopters to target Palestinian facilities and persons. What else can Israel wish? Mercilessly oppressing occupied territories while the whole world is warning of worse to come (implying that the present is not that bad) looks like the ultimate dream of any colonial regime. Under such circumstances, why bother to go to war?
Tempting as it may be, this argument misses the wider historical context. We have been reminded of it recently by Ehud Barak, who seems ever more like a key figure behind the moves that have led us to the present situation.
Barak has just given an interview to Newsweek (23.7), the first since his defeat last February. Not much of it is new, but it is useful as a summary. “Oslo was based on a set of assumptions” about Arafat’s conduct, says Barak. “When I took power, there was only one path that I found reasonable ï¿½ either to unmask Arafat or to take calculated risks if we found him a Palestinian Sadat, ready to put an end to the conflict.” Now, President Sadat got back 100% of Egypt’s occupied land, free of settlements. Barak implies that President Clinton (not Israel!) offered Arafat “90 to 91 percent [of the West Bank],” and note than the last words are merely a Newsweek editorial interpolation. But exposing Barak’s demagoguery is not our business here. What we do want to recall is that Barak opposed Oslo from the very beginning, and even abstained in the Knesset vote on Oslo II. So the simple interpretation of what he says here is that when he took power, he decided to blow up Oslo. He may insist that “it was not a conspiracy or a trick to push Arafat into a trap” and that “at the beginning I thought [the chances were] maybe 50-50,” but we cannot expect a politician to say the whole truth. In fact, “50-50” is revealing enough.
Barak’s intentions at Camp David ï¿½ remember he and Clinton forced Arafat to come ï¿½ are now further supported by an evidence of key White House adviser Robert Malley who attended the talks, previewed in the International Herald Tribune and expected soon in the New York Review of Books. Malley says “the Israeli prime minister helped set the stage for failure by refusing to carry out some earlier agreements with the Palestinians, including a commitment to turn over West Bank land, by expanding Jewish settlements in the occupied territories and then by pushing Mr. Arafat to agree on an all-or-nothing peace deal.” We also know that Barak prepared the army for war from his very first day in office.
Barak may have casual embarrassing slips of the tongue (like telling Newsweek that “If they [the Palestinians] were a democratic society they would replace him [Arafat]” ï¿½ says the democratically replaced, yet very reassured Barak). However, the scheme described above was definitely not casual but a well-calculated plan. Barak could not have implemented it alone: he needed, and certainly enjoyed, the support of some active and retired Generals who shared his objection to Oslo: people who believe that Oslo, with Arafat and the Palestinian Authority, may sooner or later jeopardize what they consider Israel’s interest, i.e. the Occupation. Listen to Barak: “I put an end to the process of giving him more and more land just to find out in the end that we gave him everything [and got nothing in return].” Again, note Newsweek‘s amazing editorial interpolation.
Sharon, the opposition leader at the time, was certainly among the initiated. He is at least as hostile to Oslo as Barak, and contrary to a common belief, both men come from the same militaristic milieu and have been close friends for decades. Barak was Sharon’s favorite and admiring general back in the early eighties. The outbreak of the Intifada was their shared operation: Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount that triggered the Intifada was coordinated with Barak.
The fact that former general Sharon, sitting in the opposition, may have known what no minister (particularly Peres) knew is quite a common practice in Israel’s junta. For example, on the eve of the 1982 Lebanon War the young general Barak submitted a plan to Defence Minister Sharon on how to make war with Syria behind the government’s back, by relying on a small number of initiated officers. (See Amir Oren in Ha’aretz, 8.1.1999.)
So Barak went to Camp David in order to blow up Oslo. He did it very successfully, so he can now proudly take the credit for what he calls “the precondition for the Israeli unity which Sharon enjoys” ï¿½ the belligerent unity which I termed “Barak’s Legacy.”
It would be very naive to believe that Barak and his initiated helpers carried out all this elaborate and sophisticated project just to return to a constellation all too similar to what they had opposed all along, with Arafat, the Palestinian Authority and the old agreements that have to be kept. They would not have gone into so much trouble just to “unmask Afarat” and then return to business as usual with him. Their goal is definitely much more ambitious. It seems to include ï¿½ as many sources now report ï¿½ an invasion into the Palestinian Authority, causing its collapse, deporting the highest Palestinian leadership and killing the rest. This is Phase One, the basics. Phase Two is optional. It is often referred to as “Chapter Two of 1948” and implies a mass-deportation to Jordan, the ultimate Palestinian state in Sharon’s vision for the Middle East. If, however, President Bush successfully vetoes dragging Jordan into war (after all, the Saudi oil wells are just around the corner), Israel may skip this phase and move directly to Phase Three: use the already forced division of the Territories into numerous separate enclaves to crumble the Palestinians politically. After all, once we get rid of President Arafat, it will be much more convenient to negotiate separately with the Prince of Nablus, the King of Bethlehem and the Emperor of Ramallah, all imposed and disposed of at Israel’s will. At that stage, the employment of an international (or rather American) observers’ force might become inevitable; Israel will try to confine the observers’ mandate to delivering rice and water to the smashed Palestinians, or to policing them, thus saving Israel money and casualties.
This historical context may shed light on an unsolved mystery: Barak’s resignation. Let us recall that by his resignation Barak imposed general elections for the Prime Minister’s office only, but not for Parliament. This was a very strange thing to do. Not only because Barak’s defeat was unanimously predicted all along, but because even if he had won the elections, he would have remained with the very same Knesset that had caused his resignation, a Knesset in which he had no stable majority. It therefore seems that Barak actually wanted to be defeated, to leave office without Knesset elections that might put the political map in vibration and jeopardize his “achievements” in terms of preparing the ground for war. He led the people out of the Oslo desert, but didn’t live to enter the promised war.
Did Barak outwit comrade Sharon by a sting, putting the old horse before the cart at the crucial moment, letting him finish the dirty job? Or, more likely, was it actually a gentlemen’s agreement within the junta, with comrade Sharon, too old to have any future to risk, getting the ambivalent honor of doing the war, while young Barak is allowed to cultivate his image as “peacemaker” (Newsweek!), to be sold to us in the aftermath of war as the junta’s “peaceful alternative”? (Newsweek: “Are you going to come back to politics soon?” Barak: “It’s not on the table right now.”)
The future, however, is never deterministic. Asked whether Israel should enter Palestinian territories, eliminate the Palestinian Authority and get rid of Arafat, Barak answered: “It should be a last resort, an option we are willing to contemplate only if all other options have not worked and we have gathered international support.” So there is a will, there is a way, and there are plans. They are waiting to be implemented like a ticking bomb. But heavy international pressure could still stop the march to an even greater bloodshed.
Ran HaCohen was born in the Netherlands in 1964 and has grown up in Israel. He has B.A. in Computer Science, M.A. in Comparative Literature and he presently works on his PhD thesis. He lives in Tel-Aviv, teaches in the Department of Comparative Literature in Tel-Aviv University. He also works as literary translator (from German, English and Dutch), and as a literary critic for the Israeli daily Yedioth Achronoth. His work has been published widely in Israel. His column appears monthly at Antiwar.com.