A provocative escalation: this is the only way to describe the policy of the Israeli leaders faced with the revolt of the Palestinian people. Their sole response to suicide attacks and demonstrations is increased repression. After the blowing up of homes, the targeted assassination of Palestinian leaders and the military siege of Palestinian territories, came measures aimed against the Palestinian Authority itself. First there was the shelling of official buildings which house this Authority, then the destruction of Gaza airport and Yasser Arafat's personal helicopters which confined him to the town of Ramallah, within a few hundred yards of the Israeli tanks, leaving him no means of travelling.
At the same time, prime minister Sharon and his government continue to hold Yasser Arafat responsible for the terrorism of Islamic organisations, demanding that he puts a stop to their terrorist attacks. They know full well that it is the policy of their government which drives the Palestinian people further and further into despair, thus providing these organisations with a continuous flow of new recruits - recruits who are ready to die in suicide attacks and in the process take as many casualties from the Israeli population with them. They also know that it is this self-same policy which discredits Arafat in the eyes of the Palestinian population and which each day further deepens the gulf between Palestinians and Israelis making any prospect of a resolution of this conflict ever more distant.
As a result of this deadlock, many commentators are now wondering whether the aim of the Israeli government is not simply to eliminate the Palestinian Authority, Yasser Arafat and even the whole so-called "peace process". But that is to forget that from the point of view of the Israeli leadership, the content of this "peace process" was never meant to do more than use the Palestinian leaders to get their population to accept the diktats of Israel, even if this discredited them completely.
And from this point of view, the policy of Sharon today is just a continuation of that followed by all previous Israeli leaders. But beyond his use of force against the Palestinians, Sharon wants to demonstrate his willingness to act a regional strong man against the populations, in the service of the interests of imperialism.
The interlude of the Oslo Accords
With hindsight, the 1993 Oslo Accords appear as a very temporary conciliatory interlude in the long continuum of the Israeli leadership's policy of forceful repression against the Palestinian people. At the time the first Intifada - the uprising of the Palestinian population and particularly its youth - was six years old. The Israeli leaders were beginning to despair of putting an end to this revolt by military means. The Israeli population was tired of its sons and daughters having to spend years in military service, in order to police Gaza and the West Bank. Top army officials were beginning to question the usefulness of devoting so much of the military's resources to this task. It was against this backdrop that the Israeli Labour Party politicians made openings to the Palestinian leaders, paving the way to what was to become the Oslo process.
At the time this policy amounted to making a concession to the Palestinian leaders, since it involved recognising the possibility of the Palestinians running a territory which was then occupied by Israel - although this was only to happen some time in the future, after a long and tortuous process of verification, eventually involving a phased withdrawal by the Israelis from these areas. And while the Israeli leaders demanded that the Palestinian Authority, which was to be put in place under the leadership of Yasser Arafat, should immediately put an end to the Intifada as well as any actions by the Palestinians against the Israeli occupation, they, in return, did not commit themselves to stopping the development of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories.
In fact once again, the Israeli leaders were only playing for more time. The Palestinian state promised to Arafat was still merely a virtual one, but in return, the Palestinian leaders had to keep the lid on their people's impatience. Meanwhile, however, on the Israeli side, past policies remained, unchanged.
The Israeli far-right nationalist and religious extremists continued to create colonies in the middle of designated Palestinian areas. And then, under the pretext of "protecting" these settlers, the Israeli army was mobilised to provide defence units for these colonies and to protect their "rights of way". This was nothing but the continuation of the old "fait accompli" which had always been a mainstay for all Israeli leaders, whether from left or right, consisting of legitimising new settlements after the event, once they had been fully developed.
Thus, among the three governments which came to power after the murder of Rabin by a far-right Israeli extremist in 1995 - two right wing, under Netanyahu and Sharon and one Labour, under Ehud Barak - it was the Labour government which allowed the largest number of new Israeli settlements in Palestinian areas.
It should be easy to understand why, under such conditions, the credibility of the "peace process" as defended by Arafat should have continued to slide in the eyes of the Palestinian population, while the popularity of the Islamic groups, like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, who replied to Israel's incursions by suicide attacks, increased.
Are the Israeli leaders now ready to go so far as to eliminate Arafat? It is evident that they are prepared to take the risk of Arafat losing any real authority in the Palestinian camp. For them the Palestinian leader is only valuable in so far as he is prepared to forfeit as much as is required to Israel, without receiving anything real in return from the Israeli state. And if in the end, as a result of bowing to the diktats of Israel, Arafat becomes completely discredited in front of his people, the Israeli leaders obviously think that there will be time enough to find another Palestinian "partner". But if and when this is necessary, Sharon without doubt thinks it will be possible to find a Palestinian leader, Islamic or otherwise, who will be willing to engage in the same game as Arafat did - until such time as he also loses all political credit.
On the part of Sharon, this is probably a conscious policy. On the part of the Labour leadership it is probably partly an expression of cowardice in the face of the overbidding of the right and the fa-right. In either case, the result is there for all to see: with one Israeli government after another providing one concession after another to extremist settlers and to the far-right, the Israeli leaders have prolonged the so-called "peace process" indefinitely, thereby taking the risk of discrediting the existing Palestinian leaders. And if they end up being of no use as a result, they will be left to their own fate.
The Israeli population, hostage to their own leaders
From the point of view of the stated political objectives of the Israeli leadership, which pretend to place the security of the Israeli population above all else, this policy is pure hypocrisy. It does not reduce the risk of suicide attacks but aggravates such risk by producing more volunteers amongst young Palestinians to carry out such attacks. And there is no security measure, no matter how draconian, which can totally prevent such attacks by perpetrators who are prepared to be blown up by the bombs they carry.
The policies of the Israeli leaders are condemning the Israeli population to live in perpetual fear, under the constant threat of terrorism. The only viable perspective for the Israeli population would be the pursuit of a means to coexist with the Palestinians and the Arab peoples in general. But instead, the Israeli leaders are condemning their own population to a permanent war with the Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and elsewhere. Such is precisely the choice that has been made by the Israeli leadership and in particular, by Sharon.
From this point of view, the Israeli leaders are totally contemptuous of the security of the Israeli people in whose name they pretend to fight and to whom they also pretend to offer a political choice. Indeed, ever since the creation of the state of Israel, at every stage, with only brief interludes, they have always pursued a policy of force with regard to the Palestinians and the neighbouring Arab peoples in general.
This policy of force always had a short-term dimension for the Israeli leaders: it allowed them to generate an atmosphere of national unity among the Israeli population and to create a sense of a state under siege, surrounded by enemies, where there was no other choice but to fight - and they silenced all criticism. It was also a means to ensure the support of the imperialist powers - in the first place, the USA, where a powerful pro-Israel lobby was able to convince the US leaders to support Israel against the "Arab threat".
But the policy of the Israeli leadership also reflects a more long- term choice - that of assuring the continued existence of Israel by ensuring that it is seen by imperialism as its most reliable ally in the region.
Israel and imperialism
The Middle East has a strategic importance for the imperialist leaders if only due to its huge oil resources which are so vital to Western economies. This is why both British and French imperialism, and then US imperialism, which took over from them in the 1950s, did what was necessary to secure enough regional support, from the Emirates of the Gulf to Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Eventually, the region's states did comply with the interests of imperialism, but not without a number of crises and token attempts to contest its domination. By now, however, all the big countries of the region - Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria and Iran, are under-developed countries, dominated by imperialism. And even when their regimes show obedience to the US this cannot be taken as a true reflection of the sentiments of their populations. Imperialism is well aware that these are unstable regimes, continually under threat of a coup d'etat, or other political changes, which could bring to power new leaders who may show some degree of opposition to the imperialist order of things. This was the case, under various forms and in different periods, in Egypt and in Iran, in Iraq and Syria, and also, even though this was a long time ago, in Turkey, under Mustafa Kemal. If similar phenomena have not been a feature in the Emirates, it is only because these small states were created around oil fields - purely for the enrichment of a few princely families and big oil companies. But then, for imperialism, political and military support from such small populations is of little importance anyway.
It is not the same for Israel - which is a sort of mini-imperialist state in the heart of the Middle East, guaranteeing its population a Western way of life in the middle of an under-developed region. Appearing in this respect as a kind of outgrowth of the developed West, Israel is the only state in the region where the imperialist leaders can be sure that a pro-American policy finds deep support within the population, convinced as it is that the only guarantee it has for its survival is its alliance with Washington, and its readiness to fight its neighbours for as long as is necessary.
For the United States, this is what makes Israel an ally which is irreplaceable. But this is also what makes the Israeli leader feel confident enough to try and impose their policy on the US, even when it risks causing some tension between the US and its Arab allies.
When the coalition against Afghanistan was being assembled, the provocations of Sharon in the occupied territories and the damage this could have done to the relations of the US with Arab leaders led Bush to take some distance from Sharon's policy - though this was purely verbal. But it did not take long before the American leaders were again totally justifying Sharon's policy - and the European leaders were too, with only a little more hypocrisy.
Sharon knows that if tomorrow, once the offensive against Bin Laden and the bombing of Afghanistan are over, Washington chooses to launch new military operations in Somalia or Iraq, that an ally like Israel will be indispensable to US imperialism. His speeches which liken Arafat to Bin Laden, which he obviously does not even believe himself, reveal a precise calculation. While driving back Arafat, and rejecting any perspective of negotiations with the Palestinians, Sharon is reinforcing his own political position. He is also preparing the Israeli population for war, if necessary.
The policy of the Israeli leaders has always been to get their population to consider that living with weapons in their hands is the only way to ensure security. But in fact this policy is also aimed at ensuring that the Israeli population would always be available to be used as cannon fodder in a war to defend the interests of imperialism. With his already notorious record of military adventurism, Sharon represents this same policy in its most provocative form, up to and including the risk of burying a "peace process" which was already rather more phantom than flesh, and regardless of the cost to the Palestinians and the cost to the Israelis themselves.
But as in the past, most notably during the war in the Lebanon in 1982, Sharon may well be overestimating his real possibilities - those of the state which he rules and of imperialism which cannot subject populations to state terror indefinitely. This is in any case what one must hope.
1 January 2002