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Interview'I don't ever remember a pace of events like this'

3 days in March: How the 2nd Intifada’s bloodiest hours seeded today’s Middle East

In ‘Death Tango,’ ex-Mossad man and strategic analyst Yossi Alpher reflects on consecutive events during Second Intifada that he says doomed the peace process, possibly for good

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Clockwise from top left: The Abraham Accords signing ceremony on the White House lawn, September 15, 2020; Yasser Arafat confers with Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa before an Arab Information Ministers meeting in Cairo, August 15, 2001; Palestinian women view destroyed houses at the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank, April 28, 2002; The aftermath of the Park Hotel bombing on March 27, 2002. (AP/Alex Brandon, AP/Enric Marti, AP/Greg Baker, Flash90)
Clockwise from top left: The Abraham Accords signing ceremony on the White House lawn, September 15, 2020; Yasser Arafat confers with Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa before an Arab Information Ministers meeting in Cairo, August 15, 2001; Palestinian women view destroyed houses at the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank, April 28, 2002; The aftermath of the Park Hotel bombing on March 27, 2002. (AP/Alex Brandon, AP/Enric Marti, AP/Greg Baker, Flash90)

Middle East events unfolded strikingly fast in late March 2002. A Hamas suicide bomber blew up a Passover Seder held at the Park Hotel in Netanya on March 27, killing 30 Israeli civilians and injuring 140. It was the deadliest Palestinian terror attack of the bloody Second Intifada.

The next day, March 28, the Arab League met in Beirut and approved the Saudi-proposed Arab Peace Initiative, which outlined principles for normalizing relations between Israel and the Arab world, predicated on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Then on March 29, in response to the Park Hotel bombing and previous attacks on Israeli civilians, Israel launched Operation Defensive Shield. In going after Palestinian terrorist infrastructure, the IDF ended up retaking close control of the West Bank.

The subsequent Israeli presence in areas previously under Palestinian control, expansion of Israeli settlements, and failure of third parties to get the Palestinian Authority and Israel back to productive negotiations have, for all intents and purposes, frozen the peace process put in motion by the Oslo Accords of 1993 and 1995.

“At the time, I was following what was happening, and I said to myself, ‘Wow! Three days and look what’s going on here. This is amazing, I don’t ever remember a pace of events like this,'” said Yossi Alpher, former Mossad official and former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University (now the Institute for National Security Studies).

Alpher made a mental note of this, and moved on. Two decades later, he turned his mind again to those three days in March 2002, and realized that they were a pivotal moment in history, and key to understanding Israel’s current situation: An ongoing, violent stalemate with the Palestinians, and the beginning of normalization with the Arab world through the recent Abraham Accords.

Alpher successfully makes the case for his thesis that these three days were a “grand strategic crossroads” in his new English-language book, “Death Tango: Ariel Sharon, Yasser Arafat, and Three Fateful Days in March,” published on February 15, just ahead of the 20th anniversary of the events analyzed.

Alpher spoke to The Times of Israel from his home in Ramat Hasharon about his book, along with his conclusions and deeply felt concerns about Israel’s future.

In the introduction to the book, the author explains that its title, “Death Tango,” is taken from American Middle East analyst and negotiator Aaron David Miller‘s description of the relationship between Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority president Yasser Arafat during the period covered by the book.

“Seen with the benefit of hindsight, the term also describes the Israeli-Palestinian relationship, then and now,” Alpher writes.

‘Death Tango’ author Yossi Alpher. (Courtesy)

“Death Tango” is complex but accessibly written. It follows the main events of two decades ago, including but not limited to March 2002, in chronological order. Alpher intersects those events with incisive analysis and critical historical background. He goes beyond the regional players to also look at American and Russian interests and policies in the Middle East.

Alpher introduces many of the era’s key personalities, and includes an entire chapter devoted to an interview with New York Times journalist Thomas Friedman, who Alpher claims devised the original blueprint for the Arab Peace Initiative in a February 2002 New York Times column (one of the most surprising parts of the narrative).

Alpher puts major emphasis on Sharon’s and Arafat’s personalities and leadership styles. In his view, Arafat was not the kind of leader who could or would bring his people to the negotiating table with Israel, especially during the Second Intifada. “Bulldozer” Sharon pivoted toward the end of his life and unexpectedly acted unilaterally, dismantling settlements in Gaza and the northern West Bank. But Sharon did not trust the former terrorist Arafat and would not consider bilateral talks with him.

Arafat died in November 2004. Sharon suffered a series of strokes and in January 2006 fell into a coma from which he never woke. He died in 2014. We will never know if he would have relinquished control of significant portions of the West Bank.

Medics attend to those injured after a Palestinian suicide bomber exploded himself in the Park Hotel in Netanya, in the middle of the Passover dinner, March 27 2002. (Flash90)

Alpher went back to interview many of the figures involved in the events of 2002. They have all moved on, but the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains unchanged. If anything, it is more entrenched than ever. He still doesn’t see any Israeli or Palestinian leaders on the horizon with the political clout required to implement a two-state solution.

“I don’t see [a potential leader], but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen. I remember when Sharon became prime minister in February 2001. There were some people who said even then that Sharon would dismantle settlements. I remember going on the record as saying that if Sharon dismantles settlements, I’d eat my laptop. I had to eat my laptop. So Sharon surprised us,” Alpher said.

‘Death Tango: Ariel Sharon, Yasser Arafat, and Three Fateful Days in March’ by Yossi Alpher (Rowman & Littlefield)

“If you try to draw some kind of conclusions about who could be the next Sharon, it has to be someone who can bring with them a sizable portion of the right, religious mainstream of Israeli politics today. It’s not going to be someone from the left, with all due respect, because they won’t be able to bring enough people with them to make a political change,” he said.

Alpher doesn’t think that pressure will be forthcoming from the current American administration, either. Even if US President Joe Biden did exert pressure, it wouldn’t work because “we really don’t have a Palestinian partner for this kind of change… I don’t see anybody there. I really don’t. After [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas], they are going to fight it out, and whoever wins is not going to be someone who, at least in the short term, is going to abandon the demand for the [Palestinian] right of return [to locations in Israel for millions of people] and recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel” — nonstarters for the Israeli side.

For many adult residents of the Middle East, the quickly unfolding of events of late March 2002 are likely a hazy memory. Even at the time, many overlooked the significance of the events even as their impact was being felt.

An IDF soldier stands guard in Nablus during Operation Defensive Shield in 2002. (IDF Spokesperson’s Unit/Flickr)

“Israelis were not aware of what was going on with the Arab Peace Initiative. I went back and read the press from then. There was no coverage whatsoever. In parallel, in Beirut, they barely paid note to the Park bombing. It was so peripheral to them — even though Sheikh [Ahmed] Yassin, leader of Hamas, was on record as saying Hamas did this to scuttle the Arab Peace Initiative… It is indicative of the gap between us,” Alpher said.

Alpher demonstrates how marginal the peace initiative itself was to the Arab states over the intervening years (it is merely reconfirmed pro forma at Arab League summits). In his book, the author says the Arab states (at least those that bothered to show up in Beirut in March 2002) devised the initiative more to meet their own internal political needs than to realize the national aspirations of the Palestinians. For example, Crown Prince Abdullah was trying to rebrand Saudi Arabia post-9/11, and to jockey for power against his brothers for succession.

Waiting this long to reflect on the events of March 2002 allowed Alpher to fully grasp the cynicism with which the Arab states acted, while Israel, too, has shown reluctance to engage with the peace initiative in any meaningful way.

US President Donald Trump, center, with from left, Bahrain Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump, and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, during the Abraham Accords signing ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House, September 15, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

“We get to the Abraham Accords and the leaders of the UAE going on the record saying they are normalizing relations with Israel in accordance with the Arab Peace Initiative, which is total bullshit, total fake news,” Alpher said.

The initiative specifically calls for Arab states to act in unison, and stipulates that they will only normalize relations after not just the Palestinian issue is solved, but when Israel’s border with Lebanon and the border with Syria are also settled, Alpher said. Therefore, the UAE and Bahrain normalized with Israel despite the initiative, not as part of it. The Palestinians’ proposal at the 2020 Arab League summit to denounce the normalization was voted down.

Alpher believes the Arab world is abandoning the two-state solution, as it has grown so fed up with the Palestinians that countries have simply moved ahead and begun normalizing ties with Israel. Fear of Iranian regional expansion and respect for Israel’s tech sector and influence in Washington fuel this normalization, he said.

“It has all come together into a situation where there is no Arab pressure on Israel, and therefore no international pressure to make some serious concessions for a two-state solution,” said Alpher. “There is no one to pressure in Ramallah, and certainly no one to pressure in Gaza.”

All this leaves Israel “sliding down a slippery slope” toward becoming a binational entity between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River wracked by violent conflict, according to Alpher.

In speaking with The Times of Israel, he did not venture to predict exactly when Israel could find itself at the bottom of this slope, no longer a democratic and Jewish state. However, he said he sees it as an eventuality if the increasingly “right-wing, religious and messianic” Israeli political mainstream does not perceive the danger ahead.

Israelis carry Torah scrolls out of a synagogue in the central Israeli city of Lod torched the night before by Arab rioters, on May 12, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Historical perspective helps us identify turning points, but one can also venture to perceive these critical junctures in real-time. Alpher points to the May 10-21, 2021, hostilities with Hamas in Gaza and concurrent outbreak of violence between Arabs and Jews within Israel as a possible signpost.

“This was not just another tit-for-tat between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. This began in Jerusalem, with Hamas claiming leadership,” said Alpher, referring to Hamas’s threatening violence to show its displeasure at the Palestinian Authority president’s canceling of scheduled Palestinian elections.

Hamas made good on its threat, setting off a situation that was already potentially explosive. Palestinians had been protesting against looming evictions of Arab families from homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem, with Israeli police taking up positions on the politically and religiously sensitive Temple Mount to counter rioting.

“There were rockets fired [by Hamas and the IDF]…but there was also violent conflict [between Jewish and Arab civilians] in Jaffa, Jerusalem, Ramle, Acre. There were manifestations in the West Bank, and on college campuses in London and Los Angeles. This was Jews and Palestinians fighting everywhere,” Alpher said.

“We haven’t seen this since 1948, this internecine, interethnic warfare. I fear very much this is what we are going to see more of,” he said.

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