It happened 55 years ago. Israel had declared its independence on May 14th, 1948 and was immediately invaded by Arab armies intent on strangling the infant nation in its cradle.
This first Arab-Israeli war would last more than a year but even while it raged, Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, faced a separate challenge: how to take control over the many different groups of Palestinian Jews, each with its own power base and ideological leanings.
As the scholar Eliot Cohen recounts in Supreme Command, his insightful history of civilian leadership during times of war, Ben-Gurion was determined to create a single Israeli military organization “responsive to the duly constituted political authority alone and possessing an unquestioned monopoly on the use of force.”
To accomplish this, Cohen writes, required the incorporation of “the pre-independence guerrilla and terrorist movements” into the new Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
In June, one such movement, the Irgun Zvai Leumi (IZL), arranged for the ship Altalena to sail from Europe to Israel loaded with arms. Valuable as the weapons would be in the midst of a war for survival, Ben-Gurion decided that that the IZL had to submit to his authority, that Israelis must fight under a single banner and under a single set of rules. When negotiations with the IZL faltered, Ben-Gurion ordered units “under the command of a 26-year-old Yitzhak Rabin to open fire upon the Altalena.” Eighteen Irgun fighters were killed and 10 were wounded.
“It was a heart-rending and horrifying scene,” Cohen continues. “Barely containing his fury, Menachem Begin, leader of the IZL, ordered his men not to retaliate, however, and the absorption of the IZL into the IDF was completed shortly thereafter.”
Today, Mahmoud Abbas, better known by his nom de guerre, Abu Mazen, is the new prime minister of the Palestinian Authority. His challenge, like Ben-Gurian's more than half a century ago, is to establish “a monopoly on the use of force” in the territories under his control.
If there is to be progress toward a “two-state solution,” Abbas will have to comply with the demands called for in the so-called Road Map he received from the Bush administration last week. That plan instructs Abbas, in this first phase, to “arrest, disrupt and restrain individuals and groups conducting and planning violent attacks on Israelis anywhere,” to stop such terrorist groups as Hamas and the Al-Aqsa Martyr's Brigades from continuing to use the West Bank and Gaza as bases from which to launch terrorist attacks against Israeli men, women and children.
If Abbas does take that step, the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is to respond by easing restrictions on the movement of Palestinian Arabs, by dismantling new Israeli settlements and by freezing other settlement activity in the territories. The second and third phases of the Road Map would then lead toward Palestinian statehood within three years.
But does Abbas have the courage to order the armed forces of the Palestinian Authority to confront Hamas and Al-Aqsa terrorists? And will his forces obey the orders if he gives them?
No one knows and no one will know until Abbas tries – assuming he actually does try. He will, of course, be tempted to aim lower, to call only for a ceasefire between the terrorists and Israel.
While that might have public relations value, it would leave the Road Map on the roadside of history. Over the past year, Sharon has given Hamas and other terrorist groups a pounding. He is wily enough to know that they would benefit from a ceasefire right now, that they could use a pause to recruit a fresh batch of suicide terrorists, to train them and to re-arm.
Abbas has a tough decision to make. The success of the Road Map, this latest attempt to settle the generations-old Arab-Israeli conflict, now rests largely on his shoulders. In the wake of 9/11, in the aftermath of the fall of Saddam Hussein, and in light of the Bush Doctrine, no new state in the Middle East – or anywhere else – can be a terrorist-sponsoring state.
“A Palestinian state will never be created by terror,” President Bush declared in his landmark speech of June 24th, 2002. “The United States will not support the establishment of a Palestinian state until its leaders engage in a sustained fight against the terrorists and dismantle their infrastructure.”
Which leads to this ironic but perhaps fitting conclusion: If Abbas wants to become the first leader of a Palestinian nation, he'll need to follow the example of the first leader of the Jewish nation that will be his neighbor.