Mounting Pressure Leaves Barak Few Choices

By George Friedman

Israeli-Palestinian relations have entered uncharted waters. Palestinians are now engaged in low- to mid-intensity combat with Israeli forces. Israel is uncertain whether this is a super- intifada, another Lebanon, or simply an episode that will pass. Israel's confusion is illustrated by its combination of recent responses.

Both sides are acutely aware that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's goal is getting the Arab world - especially Egypt - into a united anti-Israel front, both for its own sake and on the theory that it would force the United States to restrain Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, internally isolated and politically weakened by the crisis, is trying to resist that outcome by restoring legitimacy to the peace process.

The first signs emerged Nov. 22 when Barak announced Israel would not retaliate for a vehicle bombing on the coastal road north of Tel Aviv at Hadera. This response was striking in two ways. First, Israel has a policy of direct and immediate retaliation for attacks. Second, the attack was carried out deep inside Jewish territory, an area where Islamic Jihad and other extreme Palestinian groups normally find it difficult to operate.

The bombing caught Barak in a riptide. On one hand, the attack was serious enough to warrant a heavy response. On the other hand, the bombing was a sobering warning of some Palestinian groups' capabilities, as well as an indication of Israeli security services' failure to penetrate Islamic Jihad to the extent that the group could mount undetected operations along the coast. Palestinian commanders are aware their infrastructure is not yet broken. At the same time, given the effectiveness of Israeli security forces, they must anticipate that Israel will soon identify, attack and destroy that infrastructure. This places the Palestinians in a classic "use it or lose it" situation. It is in their interest to launch a spasmodic wave of attacks rather than to husband their resources.

In an attempt to create a government of national security, Barak has courted Likud leader Ariel Sharon for weeks. Sharon refuses to participate; he wants an all-out assault against the Palestinian infrastructure. Sharon also knows the intelligence community's weaknesses and does not want to share responsibility for failure to contain Palestinian attacks, content instead to allow the failure to be Barak's. In fact, a "use it or lose it" burst by the Palestinians would play into Sharon's strategy.

This leaves Barak with only two choices. One involves an escalating cycle of violence in which he relies on security and intelligence assets to achieve a steep learning curve providing the needed intelligence to contain and crush the Palestinians. But Barak faces a simple question: if Israeli security and intelligence don't have enough knowledge of Islamic Jihad and others to prevent attacks right now, what confidence can Barak have they will attain that intelligence in short order?

The second option is another desperate attempt to deal with Arafat, the only one who can possibly control the situation. What remains unclear is whether Arafat wants or is capable of imposing an agreement.

Barak is doing whatever he can with his available assets to prevent an even greater escalation of violence that would certainly sweep away his government and possibly irrevocably transform both the landscape of the region's geopolitics and the internal structure of Israeli politics. For this to work, he needs Arafat. For Arafat to cooperate, he needs to believe Barak can weather attacks both from forces within Islamic Jihad and from Sharon-led opposition. At this point, Arafat is not likely to bet on Barak.

Arafat spent last week in Russia and Egypt flexing his diplomatic muscles. While in Moscow and Cairo, the Palestinian leader lobbied for a United Nations peacekeeping force to be deployed to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the first step in stripping Israel of control of these territories. Arafat does not expect Israel to agree to this force, but rejection of an international coalition would only further isolate the Barak government.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is pivotal to the unfolding events. Shifting his policy towards Israel would redefine the geopolitical structure of the region. Thus far, he has only withdrawn his ambassador pending a cessation of fighting, rejecting calls for a new oil embargo against the United States and resisting any escalation in the Egyptian position. The Palestinians hope to see a break in diplomatic relations, an announcement the Egyptian- Israeli peace treaty is frozen - a purely symbolic but psychologically important event - or an outright repudiation of the treaty.

The Israelis are increasingly trapped. While they must crush the Palestinian rising, their response increases pressure on Mubarak and other Arab leaders. As pressure on Mubarak mounts, so does that on the United States, further isolating Israel. This gives the Palestinians every motivation to rapidly escalate violence to force a military confrontation. If Israel does not respond, they cede control to the Palestinians. Barak's current middle ground achieves the worst of both worlds, violence coupled with increasing isolation.

Ariel Sharon is the odd hope for the situation. He is allowing Barak to carry the burden alone for now. However, should Barak lose control, Sharon is ready to step in. If Barak permits an erratic military repression, Sharon can intercede as peacemaker.

Though it is too early to tell how the political situation will play out, watch Mubarak and Sharon closely for clues to the next phase of events.

(c) 2000 Stratfor, Inc.