Hard Questions, Tough Answers: End of March 2002, End of March 2022: days that changed the Middle East (March 28, 2022)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q: What happened in late March 2002 that merits our attention? What’s the link to March 2022?

A: What transpired in Netanya, Beirut and the West Bank on March 27-28-29, 2002, has ever since then influenced the course of events between Israelis and Palestinians and in the region in general. An appreciation of those three days is key to understanding what is happening in Israel in late March 2022, exactly 20 years later.

I have written about the events of those three days and their aftermath in my latest book, Death Tango: Ariel Sharon, Yasser Arafat and Three Fateful Days in March, published last month by Roman & Littlefield. You can read reviews at my website, yossialpher.com.

March 27, 2002, was the eve of Pesach (Passover), the Jewish people’s celebration of national liberation through flight from ancient Egypt. That evening, the traditional Seder meal at Netanya’s Park Hotel was the scene of Israel’s worst suicide bombing ever, perpetrated by Palestinian Islamist Hamas. Thirty Israelis were killed and nearly 200 wounded. Israelis and Jews everywhere were deeply traumatized.

The next day, March 28, in Beirut, up the Mediterranean coast from Netanya, an Arab League summit meeting approved the Arab Peace Initiative (API), which aspired to be the definitive Arab formula for Arab-Israel peace. If Israel would agree to a Palestinian state based on the 1967 lines and conclude parallel territories-for-peace agreements with Syria and Lebanon, the entire Arab world would reward it with peace, normal relations and security.

A day later, March 29, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon responded to the Pesach suicide bombing and the many lesser bombings that had preceded it in the course of the Second Intifada (Palestinian uprising), by sending the Israel Defense Forces to reoccupy the West Bank in Operation Defensive Shield.


Q: Heady events indeed. But how did they change the Middle East?

A: The cumulative effect of Palestinian suicide bombings against Israeli civilians, culminating in the Park Hotel bombing, was to help persuade the Israeli public that the Palestine Liberation Organization/Palestinian Authority under Yasser Arafat was no longer a viable candidate for a two-state solution. To this day, long past Arafat’s departure from the scene, that is the Israeli mainstream view of the Palestinians as peace partners. Sadly, many Israelis who crave a two-state solution, if only to maintain Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, simply no longer believe Israel has a viable partner.

The Arab Peace Initiative was born in Beirut in an atmosphere of intrigue, backstabbing and duplicity. Two decades later, it is clear that the API inadvertently signaled the end of Arab-Israel inter-state wars and the beginning of regional reconciliation--regardless of the absence of a two-state solution. The API became a foundational document to which Arab leaders feel obliged to swear fealty, even when they are hypocritically (but pragmatically from their standpoint) violating its principles in normalizing relations with Israel while doing little or nothing for the Palestinians.

Operation Defensive Shield in effect put an end to Palestinian security autonomy under the 1993-94 Oslo Accords. In so doing it set back the Accords and generated the current status quo in the West Bank: elements of autonomy, elements of Apartheid, nightly visits and arrests by Israeli army units, a cooperative PA security force, and the occasional two-state solution initiative that goes nowhere due to intransigence, territorial greed and religious extremism on both sides.


Q: Did your research for the book discover dimensions of these events that were never previously publicized?

A: Those who know something about Ariel Sharon and his highly aggressive attitude toward the Arab world (inDeath Tango, one Egyptian strategic scholar compares him in Arab eyes to Genghis Khan) will be surprised to discover that Sharon actually asked the Arab League for an invitation to its Beirut summit. It turns out that he took the Arab Peace Initiative seriously and hoped to suggest a few revisions.

A chapter-long interview with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman describes in detail the Saudi intrigues behind the API. They had little to do with peace and lots to do with a power-struggle in Riyadh.

President George W. Bush comes across in the testimony of his advisers and diplomatic envoys back in 2002 as heavily influenced by the administration’s neo-conservatives. They saw little problem in Israel’s West Bank settlement policy and were more interested in invading Iraq than in resolving Israeli-Palestinian differences. One US diplomat, then-ambassador in Israel Daniel Kurtzer (who was by no means a neo-con), describes the course of those fateful three days, along with what preceded and followed them, in the language of a Shakespearean tragedy.

The Sharon-Arafat relationship in 2002 was one of deep, deep enmity. It was the State Department’s Aaron Miller, who with General Anthony Zinni tried in vain to negotiate a Palestinian-Israeli ceasefire, who termed it a ‘death tango’.

Was the Park Hotel suicide bombing, on the eve of the Arab League summit in Beirut, an attempt by Hamas to torpedo the summit and prevent ratification of the Arab Peace Initiative? Gaza-based Hamas leader Ahmad Yassin openly said so in his statement claiming credit for the Pesach atrocity. But in Beirut no one was paying attention. One Arab summit observer described the reaction there to the Park attack as a casual “oh shit”. In Beirut they were not aware that it was Passover in Israel.


Q: Where do these events of 20 years ago leave us today?

A: Twenty years ago, the events of late March effectively ended Oslo-based progress toward a two-state solution. Yet they did so while leveraging the two-state solution idea to lay the foundations for Israel-Arab normalization. And that normalization basically ignores the two-state solution.

As I write, the foreign ministers of Israel, the United States, Egypt, the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco have just concluded an historic meeting in the Negev. American Secretary of State Antony Blinken is also visiting the Palestinian Authority and, bilaterally, admonishing Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid about West Bank and East Jerusalem home demolitions. But the Palestinian issue was marginal to the Negev summit agenda and PA leader Mahmoud Abbas was not invited.

Nor was Palestine mentioned in public statements following the Sharm a-Shaykh summit among the leaders of Egypt, the UAE and Israel last week. And it was probably barely touched on in discussions in Ankara between presidents Erdogan and Herzog a couple of weeks ago. All these high-level regional meetings have been talking about Iran and militant Islam; Erdogan talked with Herzog about buying Israeli natural gas.

The Arab foreign ministers at the Negev summit represented regimes that survived the Arab Spring revolutions that erupted in 2011. Those revolutions had no connection to the Palestinian issue; indeed, they seemed to put an end to the contention that the Palestinian issue is the cause of all the Middle East’s ills. The Arab foreign ministers meeting in the Negev, near the tomb of David Ben-Gurion, indeed paid ritual lip-service to the Arab Peace Initiative and to a two-state solution. But they did so only to ensure hypocritical ‘cover’ for their open dealings with Israel regarding strategic military and high-tech cooperation against Iran. They are in effect saying to Israel that at the external level their need for her services overrides everything else.


Q: And at Israel’s domestic level?

A: By their presence in the Negev, Israel’s new Arab partners in regional strategic planning acknowledged that the Palestinian issue is now an internal Israeli problem, one that only Israelis and Palestinians have to deal with. The rest of the Arab world is fed up with the Palestinian conflict and has more important matters to discuss with Israel.

If four Israelis were murdered last week in Beersheva, not far from the Negev summit, by an Israeli Bedouin Arab armed with a car and a knife, and if two more Arab citizens of Israel from the center of the country went on a shooting rampage Sunday night killing two, and if the looming month of Ramadan promises yet more attacks, that is Israel’s internal problem. Note that both murderous attacks were launched in the name of the Islamic State, which it seems is alive and kicking in Israel in open defiance of Shin Bet efforts. Note, too, that Sunday night’s attack was declared by an approving Hamas and Islamic Jihad, both proxies of Iran, to be directed “against the summit of abasements” and the “summit of evil” in the Negev.

Meanwhile, Israel’s Bennett-Lapid government can celebrate the Negev summit as a triumphant demonstration that Israel is now a regional leader, particularly in terms of coordinating the response to Iran and its proxies in Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and Yemen. Blinken’s presence at this summit signals Washington’s blessing for this unusual enterprise, albeit the blessing of a superpower that is preoccupied not with the Middle East but with China and Russia.

Indeed, Blinken, in the Negev, was hard put to justify Washington’s impending renewed Iran-nuclear deal to very skeptical diplomats from the Middle East, including Israel. Nor was he likely to succeed at persuading Israel and the Arabs to abandon their relative neutrality regarding the Ukraine conflict.

(In a side show to the Negev summit, one that is characteristic of the extremely diverse and often conflicted Bennett-Lapid coalition, Defense Minister Benny Gantz was left out of the summit and forbidden by Bennett to participate in Blinken’s Palestinian summit in Ramallah. This, despite Gantz’s responsibility within Bennett’s government for the Palestinian file discussed in Ramallah. It seems fairly likely that Israel’s burgeoning strategic cooperation with its growing coterie of Arab partners will outlast the life of the current government in Jerusalem.)


Q: Bottom line?

A: The legacy of those three days in March 2002 is that Israel can have peace and genuine normalization with most of its Arab neighbors. But not with itself: not with the millions of Palestinians it is swallowing up. Not while the two peoples, Israelis and Palestinians, slide down a slippery slope toward a violent binational reality.