The feeling of deja vu is all pervasive. As in 1967 and 1982, I hesitate to switch on radio and television news bulletins. Once again, Israel is poised to attack an Arab country. This time the victim is Palestine, a state in the making, rather than established states like Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Israel’s aim is to prevent, once and for all, the emergence of Palestine. Leftist Israeli analysts and the outgoing right-wing Zionist US Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk agree: “We’re in the middle of a war process,” Indyk put it in his farewell lament.
Between October and May, Palestinians and Israelis waged “low intensity” warfare. Against lightly armed Palestinian irregulars and bombers, Israel’s regular army has used assassination to remove suspected militants; planes, helicopter gunships, artillery and tanks against Palestinian targets; bulldozers to flatten Palestinian houses and blockades to punish Palestinian civilians. Settler irregulars, trained and armed by the army, have conducted shooting attacks against Palestinian civilians and laid waste to Palestinian plantations.
In June, Israel escalated to “medium intensity warfare.” The situation on the ground grew to resemble that during the war of attrition waged by Hizbollah against the Israeli occupation forces before their withdrawal in May 2000. Tuesday night, Israel escalated by massing troops and armour in the north and central West Bank in preparation for a major offensive. The third stage can be called “on the brink.” Israel has made the shift to the third stage because the politico-military establishment cannot allow “medium intensity” warfare to continue indefinitely. The current coalition is in danger of losing credibility with the increasingly hawkish Israeli electorate while the Israeli army is losing its “deterrent power.”
The fourth stage, outright war, is, as Michael Freund wrote in The Jerusalem Post on July 17, “almost inevitable.” Other Israelis have been saying for some time that war is “inevitable”. For instance, Ze’ev Schiff, the authoritative defence correspondent of Haaretz, wrote as far back as June 29: “Practically anyone who is anyone in Israeli leadership circles – including the president, prime minister and cabinet ministers – has been issuing recurrent threats that Israel is about to launch an imminent military offensive against the Palestinian [National] Authority unless the attacks on Israeli targets come to an absolute halt.” Furthermore, Schiff observed: “The more warnings issued, the greater the expectation in Israel that a drastic move could solve all of our security problems.”
Naomi Chazan, deputy Knesset speaker, observed in The Jerusalem Post (July 13): “The cultivation of a climate of warmongering is too pervasive to ignore.”
According to Uzi Benziman (Haaretz, July 8), “The stage has been set for the outbreak of the next war.” In the view of Gideon Samet (Haaretz, July 12), “… an Israeli majority is in fact giving a silent go-ahead to another version of a no-alternative war.” The very next day, Samet called upon reasonable Israelis to “sound the sirens” to halt the march towards war. Chemi Shalev, writing in Ma’ariv, warned: “An unusual consensus has taken hold (and) all roads are leading to catastrophe.” Such a consensus is not “unusual” at all ahead of an Israeli offensive. Baruch Kimmerling (Haaretz, July 12) said that Sharon is “preparing for the war of his choosing.” Sharon, ostracised for nearly 20 years because of his 1982 Lebanon campaign, is biding his time until he can be seen by Israelis and the international community as having no alternative. The Lebanon war was a “war of choice”; Sharon intends his latest offensive to be a “war of no choice.”
To achieve this objective, Sharon is successfully projecting the illusion that Israel is following a policy of “restraint”. Israeli military sources even leaked the information that a large-scale attack was about to be launched on June 2 to retaliate for the previous day’s bombing of a Tel Aviv disco which killed 21 Israelis. Postponing the campaign was in Israel’s interest. The more “restraint” he shows now, the more leeway he will have when he looses the dogs of war. What is more, Sharon is using the threat of all-out war against the Palestinian National Authority to blackmail the international community into tolerating his carefully calculated escalation of the ongoing conflict.
Sharon is biding his time until he has convinced the international community he is justified in waging his “war of no choice”. Communications Minister Reuven Rivlin, a hardliner and advocate of war, says that further Palestinian attacks on Israelis “will not leave Israel any alternatives … if Arafat forces us to go to war, we will go to war”. The magic moment will come when a Palestinian bomb or mortar attack leaves a score or more Israelis dead and dozens wounded.
The well connected Israeli analyst, Akiva Eldar (Haaretz, July 10) predicts the campaign will be a second “Big Pines” operation, the code name for the plan for Sharon’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. His reference to “Big Pines” is highly significant. In July 1981, Sharon, then Israel’s defence minister, ordered the army staff to prepare contingency plans for the invasion of Lebanon. Two plans were produced: “Little Pines,” involving the expulsion of Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) fighters from a strip of territory 40 kilometres deep, and “Big Pines,” a thrust northwards to Beirut which would compel the PLO to pull out of Lebanon. These two plans were ready by January 1982. Sharon waited for his pretext. In May 1982, he received a “green light” from Washington for an offensive and cabinet approval for “Little Pines”. On June 2, an operative from the anti-PLO Abu Nidal faction attempted to assassinate the Israeli ambassador in London. Sharon had his pretext. He sent his army into Lebanon on the 6th and implemented “Big Pines”. As Lee Hockstader remarked in The Washington Post (July 13), Sharon is “famous for escalation in almost every battle he joined in a long army career.”
Now, as in 1982, Sharon is likely to proclaim he is following a “Little Pines II” plan while he orders the army to carry out “Big Pines II”. Events on the field of battle will enable him to escalate a limited campaign into all-out war against the Palestinian National Authority. According to the weekly Foreign Report issued by Britain’s authoritative defence publisher Jane’s, one plan is for a campaign lasting for a maximum of 30 days in which 30,000 Israeli troops would be sent into the Palestinian enclaves to corral the 40,000 members of the PNA’s security services and, presumably, “suspected terrorists.” Ahead of the assault, Israeli war planes and artillery would soften up targets. “By the end of the operation, the generals reckon that the president of the Palestinian [National] Authority, Yasser Arafat, would have been forced to leave the West Bank and Gaza Strip.” His “armed forces would be disarmed and either dead or held in detention camps”. While Israel has denied this report, it is likely that “Big Pines II” is along these lines. If Sharon carries out a campaign short of “Big Pines II”, he will claim credit for acting with “restraint.”
The war aim, asserted Baruch Kimmerling (Haaretz, July 12), is to “bury, once and for all, any chance of reconciliation with the Palestinians [and coexistence with the Arabs], and to continue the acquisition of Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] for the Jews.” In his view, this war will “not only be a war of our choosing, but also an evil colonial one.”
Sharon has been encouraged to opt for war by current circumstances. The Intifada has turned ordinary Israelis against the peace option and driven Israeli electorate into the hardline camp. The right has successfully demonised Arafat, the Palestinian National Authority and ordinary Palestinians. The Labour Party is imprisoned in Sharon’s right-dominated coalition. The peace camp is marginalised. Israel is the pre-eminent military power in the region and does not have to concern itself with a counterattack from any combination of Arab armies. The Bush administration has shown itself incapable of managing the current crisis and has distanced itself from the rising tempest. Nevertheless, once Israel commences its campaign, Sharon can count on uncritical US support in the UN Security Council. Europe is powerless.
Finally, Sharon, a proponent of “Greater Israel,” believes he can achieve this long-term goal through warfare and is prepared to act on this belief. Since recent polls show he enjoys a 60 per cent approval rating, he feels he has the Israeli public behind his coming “adventure.” This is nothing new: ordinary Israelis have always supported Israel’s wars. The 1982 campaign was dubbed, for propaganda purposes, “Peace for Galilee”; Sharon could call his next offensive, in the Orwellian language commonly used by aggressors, “Peace for Israel.”
Mr. Michael Jansen contributed this article to the Jordan Times.