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The Barak Paradox: The most pro-peace leader in the country's history, and what does he get? War

Charles Krauthammer, Time Magazine
Oct. 23, 2000

A most peculiar paradox hovers over the smoke and blood of the Middle East today. The current Palestinian uprising against Israel is aimed not at the government of Yitzhak Shamir or Benjamin Netanyahu, Likud leaders known for their hard line, but against Ehud Barak, the most dovish Israeli Prime Minister the Middle East has ever known. Indeed, Barak has gone so far that Yitzhak Rabin's widow said he'd be "turning in his grave" if he could see what concessions Barak had offered.

How is it then that the most pro-Palestinian, pro-peace Israeli government in history is the target of the most virulent, most frenzied anti-Israel violence in at least a half-century?

Call it the Barak paradox. Its answer is as painful as it is clear. For 30 years there has been an argument between doves and hawks in Israel. Said the doves: Assuage the other side's grievances--end the occupation; give the Palestinians land, a militia, their own state--and then we will have peace.

Said the hawks: The grievances are not satisfiable. They are existential. They don't just want their state; they want our state. After all, they were offered a state in 1947 (and autonomy in 1979) and turned it down. Why? Because they claim not just Ramallah but Tel Aviv as well. If you make concessions, lower your guard and show weakness, you invite war.

Accommodation or deterrence? Open hand or iron fist? Peace now or peace through strength? Rarely does history settle such debates as decisively and mercilessly as it has this one.

For seven years, the dove theory has been in command. In 1993 Israel brought the P.L.O. out of exile and gave it recognition, international legitimacy, self-government, foreign aid, the first elections in Palestinian history and an end to occupation for 99% of the Palestinian population. This July, Barak went the final mile, offering concessions so sweeping that even the U.S. negotiators at Camp David were astonished: giving up virtually all the West Bank (including the militarily crucial Jordan Valley), offering to divide Jerusalem, ready even to renounce Israeli sovereignty over Judaism's holiest site, the Temple Mount.

What happened? Yasser Arafat refused. He refused even to make a counteroffer. Then, finding no international support for his intransigence, he decided to reshuffle the deck: start a war that might give him the upper hand--a war that would bring enough international pressure on Israel to enable him to dictate terms.

Seizing a pretext, Arafat let loose his forces. Through all the days of stones and bullets and Molotov cocktails, he uttered not a word of restraint. On the contrary, his state-controlled media gave the war cry. Begged by President Bill Clinton and other world leaders to call a halt, he replied contemptuously, "Our people do not hesitate to continue the march to Jerusalem."

Under the doves' theory of accommodation, the transitional period of the "peace process" was supposed to give time to teach reconciliation and trust. The opposite happened. With control of TV, radio, newspapers and textbooks, Arafat has imbued a new generation with the most virulent hatred of Israel, descending often to pure anti-Semitism.

The fruits of that education are now on display: the lynching of two Israeli reservists, a young Palestinian raising his bloodied hands in triumph to the cheering crowd; the destruction of the Jewish shrine at Joseph's Tomb, not just torched and desecrated but dismantled stone by stone.

In the fury, there is an exhilaration. In a dozen Middle East capitals, mass demonstrations call for death to the Jews. This euphoria, points out Middle East scholar Daniel Pipes, has not been seen since 1967. It comes from the feeling that the Jews are on the run.

In May-June 1967, on the eve of the Six-Day War, frenzied crowds in Cairo and Damascus and elsewhere called for the final battle to destroy Israel. Israel's swift and stunning victory deflated that enthusiasm quickly and for decades to come.

Until now. With Israel's myriad concessions, unilateral withdrawals, pleas for peace and general demoralization, the euphoria has returned. Israel's enemies sense weakness. The disorganized withdrawal from Lebanon has become the model. If the Israelis could be driven out of Lebanon, reason the Palestinians, we can drive them out of Palestine. The Palestinians see an Israel with no stomach for losses; an Israel crossing previously sacred redlines without getting anything in return; an Israel prepared to surrender sovereignty over Judaism's holiest shrine; an Israel bending to every U.S. pressure to keep giving with no reciprocity.

And now they see Barak giving empty ultimatums. Why shouldn't Arafat keep fighting? He has the Security Council, the Western media and the Arab world behind him. In front of him lies an Israel in shock, dazed and confused by the Barak paradox. No dove ever wanted or pursued peace more fervently. And what does he get? War. Neville Chamberlain was equally perplexed on Sept. 1, 1939.