WASHINGTON — Fighting has broken out in the Middle East, we read. This use of passive phrasing, almost universal in media reports of the violence in Israel, is a way of deliberately expressing agnosticism about the cause of the fighting. It is a scandal. It is akin to writing that on Sept. 1, 1939, war "broke out" on the German-Polish frontier.
Few wars break out spontaneously. And certainly not this one. Does anyone believe that Ehud Barak, who went to Camp David and offered the Palestinians peace terms of breathtaking generosity, would be starting a war? Does anyone believe that the most dovish government in Israeli history, feeling itself just inches away from concluding a permanent peace, would initiate gun battles?
The plain fact is that Yasser Arafat, thrown on the diplomatic defensive by rejecting Barak’s offer (to the astonishment and dismay of the American mediators), has done what he has always done: Resort to violence to regain the initiative and, most important, mint new underage martyrs — on world television — to regain the international sympathy he had forfeited by turning down peace at Camp David.
His pretext was that the Sept. 28 visit to the Temple Mount by Israel’s leader of the opposition so offended Islam that the faithful erupted in violence. The audacity of this claim is astonishing. Yes, the Temple Mount is the third-holiest place in Islam. But it happens to be the single most holy place for Jews. Why does the Muslim claim so trump all others that Jews may not set foot on their most sacred site, their Mecca?
The war that followed was as spontaneous as a Havana demonstration. The preacher at the al-Aqsa mosque called at Friday prayers to "eradicate the Jews from Palestine." Official Palestinian television began playing over and over archival footage of the Palestinian intifada of 1987-1993 showing young people out in the streets throwing stones.
In case one still didn’t get the message, Voice of Palestine radio began playing patriotic war songs. Arafat then closed the schools and declared a general strike, causing everyone to go out into the street. With Arafat’s chief political lieutenant on the West Bank orchestrating the militias, war then "broke out."
The doves are stunned. Avraham Burg, speaker of the Israeli parliament and one of the architects of the Labour government’s bend-over-backwards peace proposals, writes perplexedly, pathetically: "Do we really understand what is going on? After everything was given, there are still demands on the other side."
"Suddenly we discovered," he continues plaintively, "that what we mean by peace — which is mutual reconciliation — is not being met by the other side."
Suddenly? Where has he been for seven years? Seven years during which Arafat built his "police force" into a 40,000-man army now unleashed on Israel. Seven years during which Arafat repeatedly said that the peace process was one option, and that if he did not get everything he wanted, there was another. Seven years during which his state-controlled television, radio, newspapers and now children’s textbooks inculcated in his people an anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism so virulent that it has succeeded in producing a new generation bred on reflexive hostility to Israel.
Seven years during which he repeatedly called for "jihad" for Jerusalem. Well, it has now arrived. That is the meaning of the current fighting.
This is, as the Palestinians openly call it, a war for Jerusalem. Not, as the world press has reported endlessly and fatuously, an expression of Palestinian "frustration." Frustration with what? Israeli occupation? It ended years ago; 99 percent of Palestinians live under the rule of Yasser Arafat. Over territory? Barak has conceded virtually the entire West Bank. Over political subordination? Barak offered full recognition of the first independent Palestinian state in history.
The Palestinians are less frustrated than emboldened. Emboldened by an Israeli government so desperate for peace it has given up "everything," as Burg admitted. Emboldened by the fecklessness of Burg and his colleagues, so impervious for so long to empirical evidence of Palestinian implacability that in this moment of supreme crisis they admit openly to disorientation.
Emboldened by an American administration so craven that it refuses to condemn Arafat for cynically starting this war, indeed for repeatedly violating his single obligation under Oslo: the renunciation of violence.
"After everything was given," laments Burg. Yes everything, except one last thing: the Temple Mount. Why, Barak went wobbly even on that. He offered to relinquish sovereignty over Judaism’s holiest site and internationalize it under the U.N. Security Council.
Arafat refused. He demands ownership — the audacity is breathtaking — of Judaism’s holy of holies. Hence this war.
It is not spontaneous. And it is not without direction. Arafat knows what he wants and he is prepared to sacrifice as many of his own people as it takes to get it. Preferably on television.