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The intifada changed everything. Will the next administration care?

Two decades later, Arafat’s decision to answer a peace offer with war exploded hopes for peace. Yet the foreign-policy establishment still hasn’t understood what happened.

Paramedics and police at the scene of a suicide bombing that killed 19 and wounded 74 on a bus in Jerusalem. Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack, June 18, 2002. Photo by Flash90.
Paramedics and police at the scene of a suicide bombing that killed 19 and wounded 74 on a bus in Jerusalem. Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack, June 18, 2002. Photo by Flash90.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

The world of fall 2000 seems like more than 20 years ago. It was before COVID-19, the idea of a president Donald Trump or Barack Obama, Facebook, Twitter, a great recession, 9/11, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The eventful first two decades of the 21st century have been filled with more than a lifetime or two of events that seemed to have changed everything.

Among the most consequential—at least as far as the Middle East and international diplomacy go—of this time period was the one that began in September 2000. The second intifada started in the last days of the month and continued until early 2005. Yet while it transformed the way most Israelis thought about the peace process, its lessons have never seemed to make much of an impression on most American Jews or the American foreign-policy establishment, as well as the international press corps that still largely clings to the pre-intifada mindset. These sectors have largely forgotten it, if they ever actually acknowledged what happened or its meaning.

This failure of both memory and comprehension is important not just because it abets the falsification of history. Rather, it matters because if the presidential polls are correct, the people running U.S. foreign policy for the next four years as part of a Biden administration will be those to whom the second intifada was sent down the Orwellian memory hole.

The intifada—a terrorist war of attrition launched by the Palestinian Authority and its former leader Yasser Arafat—cost the lives of more than 1,000 Israelis and many times that number of Palestinians. The campaign of terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians, as well as soldiers, was carried out by P.A. personnel and groups run by Arafat’s ruling Fatah Party and the terror group Hamas, in which the two factions competed to see which of them could spill the most Jewish blood.

The trouble with discussing the intifada is that despite the facts surrounding its outbreak, which aren’t really in question, many of the accounts of these events found in major media outlets are unreliable and often totally falsified. As a study published by the CAMERA media monitoring group shows, major outlets like AP continue to spread disinformation about what happened.

There are two main flaws in most accounts of the beginnings of the intifada.

One is that most omit or distort the events that immediately preceded it. Two months beforehand, then Prime Minister Ehud Barak met with Arafat and President Bill Clinton at Camp David, and offered the Palestinians an independent state in Gaza, almost all of the West Bank and a share of Jerusalem. To the shock of Barak and Clinton (who envisioned receiving a Nobel Peace Prize for hosting the negotiations), Arafat said “no.”

Yet this is forgotten or perversely twisted into somehow justifying Palestinian anger. Arafat’s apologists, including some Americans like Clinton and Obama foreign-policy hand Robert Malley, insisted that the Palestinians were right to refuse an offer that gave them what they had said they wanted with only a few modifications. Clinton never forgave Arafat for spoiling his chance at glory.

The other lie about the intifada is that it was somehow a reaction to former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon going for a walk on the Temple Mount, which, after the fact, was treated as a terrible provocation. This is wrong for a number of reasons.

Far from a spontaneous reaction to either an offensive peace offer or an Israeli gesture, Arafat planned the intifada. The AP reported in March 2001 that a Palestinian cabinet officer admitted that the Palestinian leader started plotting a terrorist offensive in July 2000 after repudiating the Israeli and American peace initiative.

Arafat had been fomenting, planning and paying for terrorism all through the previous seven years after the signing of the Oslo Accords, which had obligated the Palestinians to foreswear violence and end their long war against Israel’s existence. Indeed, the Palestinian deceived the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin who, up until his tragic assassination in 1995, believed that the P.A. would be fighting terrorists—not aiding and commanding them—and thereby secure the peace.

What followed Arafat’s decision was a campaign of suicide bombings and shootings that would shock Israeli society to its core. The most famous instances of horror, such as the bombing of the Dolphinarium discothèque on the Tel Aviv beachfront in June 2001, the Sbarro pizzeria attack in Jerusalem in August 2001 and the March 2002 Passover massacre at the Park Hotel in Netanya, are seared into the memories of Israelis.  Equally as important was the constant sense of fear of a bus bombing, which made the daily tasks of life extremely difficult for a population that relies on public transportation.

The important thing to remember about the intifada 20 years later is not so much the trauma Israelis experienced, but that Arafat’s answering peace overtures with war showed that there was no partner to peace. This realization destroyed the Israeli left with adherents of Oslo-style policies reduced to only a few outliers in the Knesset and with the opposition to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not materially disagreeing with him on Palestinian issues.

Had the Palestinians wanted a two-state solution that gave them independence alongside Israel, they could have had it in the summer of 2000 or in early 2001, when Barak repeated his offer, or in 2008, when Ehud Olmert delivered an even sweeter proposal for the Palestinians to Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas.

To foreign observers, these memories are just ancient history or inconvenient facts that need to be forgotten in the name of the search for peace. But Israelis, most of whom greeted Oslo as a chance to end the conflict even if it meant painful territorial concessions, understood why it mattered. They were forced to the inescapable conclusion that Arafat had never intended peace. They saw the bloodshed and the necessary construction of a security fence that largely ended the threat of suicide bombings as proving conclusively that the Palestinians—both the so-called moderates of Fatah and the radicals of Hamas—were still committed to Israel’s destruction.

One would hope that the events of the last four years—during which Trump administration initiatives about Jerusalem, and brokering peace between Israel and two important Gulf states—would have debunked the pre-intifada mindset. But that may not be the case.

During its eight years in power, the Obama administration sought to convince Israelis to ignore the lessons of the intifada, in spite of the fact that Abbas continued to reject peace or serious negotiations. A Biden administration will likely resume a policy of more “daylight” between the United States and Israel, as well as the notion that more pressure on the Jewish state, rather than the Palestinians, is the only path to peace.

Twenty years later, many Americans are still struggling to understand what the intifada taught Israelis about Palestinian intentions and goals. It would be an outrage if that willful ignorance leads to policy changes that will encourage Palestinians once again to seek to use violence to advance their fantasy of a world without Israel.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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