The suicide bombers who play into Sharon's hands


July 26, 2002The Guardian

John Sununu was chief of staff at the White House when Secretary of State James Baker and the first President George Bush came the closest any American administration has ever come to causing an Israeli government real pain. By refusing to guarantee an Israeli loan unless settlement expansion plans were dropped, they threatened damage to the Israeli economy, undid a Likud prime minister and helped the Labour party and Yitzhak Rabin into power. Sununu also happens to be descended from an old Jerusalem family. So, even though his time in government was brief and now well in the past, when Sununu speaks, Arabs tend to listen.

Summing up after much rhetoric celebrating Palestinian suicide bombers as martyrs, Sununu addressed his audience at a recent conference of Arab journalists and academics in steely tones. "Ask yourself what Sharon wants," he said. "Does he want more suicide bombers? Or does he want no suicide bombers?" Again and again he repeated the questions, as speakers from the hall tried in one way or another to evade his logic.

Since it was a given in such a gathering that Ariel Sharon wishes to prevent a Palestinian state worthy of the name ever emerging, it was hard to deny Sununu's point that suicide attacks played into the Israeli leader's hands. But it was also hard to give up the idea of these young men and women as heroic, hard not to at least stress the desperation that drives them to these acts and hard, finally, to be frank, to give up the satisfaction of inflicting suffering on Israelis in return for the suffering Israelis have inflicted on Palestinians.

As Palestinians rage over the attack which killed Salah Shehada and 16 others in Gaza, these contradictory impulses will once again be in play, particularly since suicide bombing is a policy which has worked better, in narrow military terms, than any other the Palestinians have tried. The former Israeli soldier, Gal Luft, calls it the Palestinian H-bomb, with the "H" here standing for human. In a bleak, lucid article in Foreign Affairs, he notes the difference in results between Palestinian efforts in the occupied territories, where thousands of attacks have resulted in only a small number of Israeli casualties, and actions in Israel itself, especially suicide bombings. Some 350 attacks in Israel have killed and wounded more Israelis than 8,000 attacks in the territories.

Beyond the casualty figures, the impact on Israeli society, in terms of economic damage, the collapse of tourism and the morale of citizens, has been far greater than any which action in the territories has produced. The Palestinians, Luft claims, believe they have found "a poor man's 'smart bomb' that can miraculously balance Israel's... conventional military dominance".

Leaders and groups have also been drawn into suicide bombing because of their rivalry with each other for the allegiance of ordinary Palestinians and because of the way in which Palestinian attitudes have changed under the stress of the conflict. As Luft notes, the great majority of Palestinians used to be against any attacks - not just suicide bomb attacks - on civilians in Israel. Now polls suggest a growing readiness to define any Israeli military action as terrorism, coupled with a refusal to characterise any Palestinian actions, however horrific in their results, in the same way.

Unhappily this is the way opinion moves in war, on both sides. Yet, as Sununu insisted, the ultimate effect of suicide bombing is to help Sharon stay in power and to provide him with a constant supply of reasons for his persistent and dedicated refusal to negotiate seriously about the future of the Palestinians. Sharon's acquiescence in the supposed American "vision" of two states living side by side is fraudulent. It is the opposite of what he believes in, and even limited steps in that direction would almost certainly bring down his government.

As for the American vision itself, this also remains dubious. The phrases and formulations of the current Bush administration conceal unresolved divisions between those who think the Palestinians should get their state and those who, like Sharon, believe there is some way of extinguishing Palestinian national aspirations or reducing them to a collaborationist shadow.

Even if the Gaza attack had by some miracle of accuracy and timing only killed Shehada himself, it would still have been an act aimed at perpetuating the war and inflaming the Palestinians. Since Bush's Middle East speech, the Europeans, the moderate Arab states and the UN, with some help from the State Department and perhaps a little from Shimon Peres, have been trying to turn a sow's ear into a silk purse. Where Bush was vague, they have tried to supply some precision. Where he was foolishly firm, as in the demand that Arafat should go, they have introduced some flexibility, to the point where Bush himself has implied that Arafat could stay on in a figurehead capacity.

And they have tried to make of the reforms on which Bush insisted something more than a culling of the Palestinian security apparatus in order to make it a reliable instrument for the suppression of anti-Israeli activities, something beyond a cleaning up of Palestinian finances to cut off funding for military action and something a bit better than a manipulation of democratic procedures to produce results acceptable to Washington.

Finally, they have been trying to inject into the policy what it so glaringly lacked, an element of reciprocity, so that if the Palestinians delivered certain things there would be Israeli concessions in return - withdrawals, the release of funds, limitations on settlements. The foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt were in Washington last week making just these points.

The object is partly just to make the best of a bad job but also, for some of those involved, to create a situation in which Israel is faced with incontrovertible Palestinian improvements and fails to reciprocate. The hope is that the scales will then fall from the Bush administration's eyes, and there will be real American pressure on Israel, as in the days of Bush Sr. But as in the past when the Palestinian Authority tried to be on its best behaviour, Sharon has ways of keeping well away from that trap.

One is to introduce new demands, the more complicated the better, so that whatever the Palestinians have delivered is never enough, there are always new requirements. Another is to agree to make concessions but then simply to fail to deliver, as in the recent announcement that certain settlements had been abandoned, when the reality was that a few structures had been knocked down but not one actual settler moved. Another is to take military action bound to provoke a response whenever thePalestinians attempt a ceasefire.

Such a ceasefire may have been close this week, according to diplomats, but unless the Palestinians show extraordinary discipline, it may now have to wait on another round of bloodletting. Just possibly, some on both sides will think through cause and effect more carefully this time. They could well begin with Sununu's question.