Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian chief Yasser Arafat exited the last-chance saloon long ago, but Foreign Minister Shimon Peres is still inside waiting for Mr. Arafat to come back.
Unfortunately for Mr. Peres, his standing is higher among Palestinians than among Israelis. As for Mr. Arafat, he knows that if he returns for serious peace negotiations, Mr. Peres cannot deliver an independent sovereign Palestinian state that would not look like a piece of Swiss cheese, pockmarked by Israeli settlements, with East Jerusalem as its capital. Mr. Arafat, the perennial survivor, also knows he would be gunned down either on the way in to the saloon or on the way out.
Winston Churchill once said that jaw jaw is better than war war. The Palestinians no longer agree. They now feel that a just war is better than an unjust peace. A recast Mr. Arafat sees himself as the leader of a holy war against the Israelis, a war of attrition he believes will end with freedom for the occupied territories and East Jerusalem. He is now competing with Saddam Hussein for the title of the new Saladin who liberated Palestine. Mr. Sharon, understandably, is clearly determined to change the Palestinian perception of Israeli vincibility.
Israeli generals have prepared a contingency plan that has been on Mr. Sharon's desk for several weeks. Under the title "The Destruction of the Palestinian Authority and Disarmament of all Palestinian Armed Forces," the operation would last approximately two weeks. The plan estimates Israeli casualties at 300; Palestinian losses at several thousand. The PA would be dead or once again in exile. Some 40,000 armed Palestinians would be disarmed, either dead or in detention
The generals do not believe Syria, Jordan and Egypt would go to war. Egypt might send troops back into the Sinai in violation of its peace treaty with Israel, but mindful of what happened in the 1967 and 1973 wars, they probably wouldn't stray too far from the Suez Canal.
Israeli military intelligence is less sanguine. They can see a regional war scenario developing rapidly. Iranian-supplied, Hezbollah-manned Katyusha rockets will be fired from southern Lebanon into Israel. Iran has shipped several hundred of these rockets with conventional warheads and a 40-mile range. The first Katyushas to impact in Israel would most probably trigger an all-out Israeli bombing campaign against the infrastructure that supports some 35,000 Syrian occupation troops that have been stationed in Lebanon since 1976. But would this be sufficient to drive Syrian forces back into Syria? This week, Syria's Mustafa Miro became the second Arab prime minister (after Jordan's Ali Abu Ragheb) to visit Baghdad and confer with Saddam Hussein since the 1991 Gulf war. The Iraqi dictator pledged military assistance to Syria in the event of war with Israel.
Such a scenario has many imponderables. For Iraq to send a few divisions with no air cover across the Jordanian desert would be to invite total defeat at the hands of Israel's precision bombing. SCUD missile attacks -- chemical and/or biological warheads? -- would be more plausible.
Not to be outdone, Libya has obtained No-Dong missiles from North Korea -- the first of some 50 such missiles as well as several launchers purchased for some $600 million. Iran has just completed its first military exercise with UAVs -- unmanned air vehicles capable of transporting chemical or biological weapons of mass destruction.
The six oil-producing countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council would at the very least cut production quotas to drive up oil prices. Designed to persuade the U.S. to get off the fence, a sudden steep rise in energy costs could precipitate a recession in the U.S. -- and a global economic crisis. So the stakes are enormous.
For the U.S. to say, as it does daily, that there is nothing to be done until both sides cease and desist behaving violently is a useless -- and dangerous -- diplomatic hand-wringing exercise. Using its considerable clout to arm-twist and wrestle the parties to the ground is the only way to head off a war that could spread to the entire region, with the very real possibility that Gulf oil supplies could become part of the combustible mix.
Unconditional aid to Israel to the tune of $3 billion a year as payment for the peace treaty with Egypt now has to be made conditional on the creation of a genuine Palestinian state that will be viable and the recipient of U.S. assistance, much the way Egypt has been taken care of with about $2.5 billion a year for the past two decades.
Can't be done, say the conventional Washington soothsayers. Why not? The power of the Israeli lobby in Congress and in the media, comes the answer. If that truly is the case, then war in the Mideast is well nigh inevitable.
To blame Palestinian terrorism as the fount of all evil reflects a failure to understand what terrorism is all about. It is the weapon of the weak against the powerful. It has been used as a weapon of war from time immemorial. In today's geopolitical jargon, it is asymmetrical warfare. A classic example was the way two "Holy Warriors" disabled the USS Cole in Aden last October, a $1 billion warship that is now in drydock in California with a $250 million repair bill.
What Israel and the U.S. regard as cowardly acts of terrorism, Arab public opinion sees as supreme acts of heroism. Suicide bombers are heroes to countless millions of Muslims, venerated just as much as kamikaze suicide bomber pilots were in Japan in World War II. In Arab eyes, martyred Palestinians are no more cowards than German or Allied pilots who bombed London and Berlin, killings tens of thousands of innocent civilians.
The Palestinians are at war against Israeli occupation just as much as European underground fighters were at war against German occupation. Militant Muslims who raise funds from wealthy Palestinians in the U.S. and Europe for the Jihad war chest see no difference between what they are doing and the Jewish organizations that raise funds for Israel.
CIA Director George Tenet has made nine mediating trips to the region, all to no avail. Both Israelis and Palestinians promptly ignored Secretary of State Colin Powell's single trip to the Mideast. The Tenet-Mitchell process that calls for a reduction of violence followed by confidence-building measures and the resumption of political negotiations now looks like the antique car parade that precedes a Formula I auto race.
The U.S. has been digging a foxhole so deep it is now being accused of desertion. The time to come out and charge up the hill of a major diplomatic offensive is now. President Bush's fear of antagonizing Israel and putting America's prestige on the line is a recipe for a regional war, not for a durable peace between Israel and an independent Palestinian state.
Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large for The Washington Times, a position he also holds with United Press International.