Despite Censure, Israel Is Still Politically Unscathed

Richard B. Straus is editor of the Middle East Policy Survey

Israel so often seems to lead a charmed existence. Take the recent Gaza riots. Unprecedented in scope and duration, when they ended last week more than 20 Palestinians lay dead and scores more wounded. Press coverage was uniformly critical. Outrage was international. Yet as even the Israelis admit privately, the reaction of the U.S. government was relatively mild--confined to some oblique criticisms of Israel's "riot-control methods." The U.N. Security Council resolution that expressed international condemnation was bowdlerized to gain U.S. acquiescence.

Congressional friends of Israel were even better able to duck the issue. They were busily winding up affairs in Washington--including provision of hundreds of millions of dollars of extra assistance to Israel--before escaping for the Christmas holidays.

Israel's Arab neighbors were also preoccupied. Jordan's King Hussein, fresh from hosting an Arab summit, was in Moscow lobbying Soviet support for an arms embargo against Iran. In fact, as the Arab summit demonstrated, Iran's war with Iraq dominates the Arab agenda, totally eclipsing concern for the Palestinians.

Egypt, the one Arab country that has signed a formal peace treaty with Israel, was also in a poor position to comment on the Gaza troubles. As custodians of the Gaza Strip from 1948 to 1967, the Egyptians have made clear for more than 20 years that they want no responsibility for Gaza's teeming hotbed of refugees. Moreover, the Egyptians are currently engaged in fence-mending with their Arab brethren. One tangible result of the Arab summit was the re-establishment of formal ties to Egypt by a number of Arab states--ties broken because of the Israeli-Egyptian treaty, ties now being restored because of the need for Egypt as a counterweight to Iran.

Even when the Arabs talked tough, they often unwittingly assisted Israel. Saudi Arabia's King Fahd, for example, called on Iran to stop fighting Iraq and join forces with the Arabs to liberate Jerusalem. This call, which Saudi watchers say was designed to embarrass the Iranians, had no impact on them, but in Washington it served to displace the Gaza riots, at least for a day, as the lead news story.

The words and actions that concerned most Israelis came from Washington alone. Here too, luck played a role. To begin with, the budget--in the aftermath of the Soviet-American summit--preoccupied senior U.S. officials.

Secretary of State George P. Shultz was in Europe briefing North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies on the results of the summit when the Gaza riots started. He never returned to Washington. Instead he went directly to a Southern California vacation where, from time to time, he issued somewhat vague instructions. "The secretary passed the message to deal positively with the Israelis," said one State Department official.

Other Administration officials, however, were clearly upset with Israel, particularly over the use of lethal force. The White House, reportedly under the prodding of Chief of Staff Howard H. Baker Jr., issued the most stinging criticisms.

Yet at the State Department, at least privately, there was outrage. One official at State contrasted Israel's handling of the riots with South Korea's experience: "The Koreans," he said, "have dealt with protests of much greater magnitude and intensity--with no deaths," later adding, "But then the Koreans were handling their own kids." Another State Department analyst cited reports of Israeli snipers shooting to maim riot leaders, complaining, "The Israelis want to impose unacceptable costs."

After some grumbling, the Israelis now appear to be coming around. Rubber bullets will replace live ammunition. Water cannons manufactured for export in Israel will be used increasingly at home. Deportations will be kept to a minimum. (In deference to U.S. wishes, probably fewer than 10 persons will be deported, according to informed sources. Those who are not accepted by Jordan will be unceremoniously dumped in southern Lebanon.) "We have learned our lesson" said one Israeli official.

But what exactly is that lesson? Some State Department analysts say the Israelis should now understand what they do in the short term will affect the long-term picture--that the excessive use of force is counterproductive. As one State Department analyst explained, "A full-scale massive civil insurrection was never a threat. And now that the Israelis have broken the back of the opposition, they should think carefully about where they go next."

For the moment, most Israelis are only looking to maintain control in Gaza and the West Bank. One Israeli official said, "We need to make certain that the present situation isn't a lull between two storms. We must restore law and order." A few Israelis, like one long-time analyst, acknowledge, "We are living on the edge of a volcano."

More important, given the overall environment, it is unlikely that Israel--or the United States--will see the need to undertake any corrective long-term measures. U.S. analysts believe the Israeli-Egyptian treaty, which effectively prevents the Arabs from making war on Israel, is here to stay. So, too, is the Iran-Iraq conflict, which so preoccupies Arab attention and drains Arab resources.

Given this climate and the widely held judgment, as one State Department official put it, that "Israeli force will always prevail," there is little incentive for Washington or Jerusalem to address the future. One longtime U.S. analyst concluded, "Neither Israel nor the U.S. has dealt seriously with the Palestinian issue for years. Neither has the will or the capacity to deal with it." After all, neither has to.

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