WASHINGTON -- While no one was looking, something historic has happened in the Middle East. The Palestinian intifada is over, and the Palestinians have lost.
For Israel, the victory is bitter. The last four years of terrorism have killed almost 1,000 Israelis and maimed thousands of others. But Israel has won strategically. The intent of the intifada was to demoralize Israel, destroy its economy, bring it to its knees and thus force it to withdraw and surrender to Palestinian demands, just as Israel withdrew in defeat from southern Lebanon in May 2000.
That did not happen. Israel's economy was certainly wounded, but it is growing again. Tourism had dwindled to almost nothing at the height of the intifada, but tourists are returning. And the Israelis were never demoralized. They kept living their lives, the young people in particular returning to cafes and discos and buses just hours after a horrific bombing. Israelis turned out to be a lot tougher and braver than the Palestinians had imagined.
The end of the intifada does not mean the end of terrorism. There was terrorism before the intifada and there will be terrorism to come. What has happened, however, is an end to systematic, regular, debilitating, unstoppable terror -- terror as a reliable weapon. At the height of the intifada, there were 9 suicide attacks in Israel killing 85 Israelis in just one month (March 2002). In the last three months, there have been none.
The overall level of violence has been reduced by more than 70 percent. How did Israel do it? By ignoring its critics and launching a two-pronged campaign of self-defense.
First, Israel targeted terrorist leaders -- attacks so hypocritically denounced by Westerners who, at the same time, cheer the hunt for, and demand the head of, Osama bin Laden. The top echelon of Hamas and other terror groups has been either arrested, killed, or driven underground. The others are now so afraid of Israeli precision and intelligence -- the last Hamas operative to be killed by missile was riding a motorcycle -- that they are forced to devote much of their time and energy to self-protection and concealment.
Second, the fence. Only about a quarter of the separation fence has been built, but its effect is unmistakable. The northern part is already complete, and attacks into northern Israel have dwindled to almost nothing.
This success does not just save innocent lives. It changes the strategic equation of the whole conflict.
Yasser Arafat started the intifada in September 2000, just weeks after he had rejected at Camp David Israel's offer of withdrawal, settlement evacuation, sharing of Jerusalem and establishment of a Palestinian state. Arafat wanted all that, of course, but without having to make peace and recognize a Jewish state. Hence the terror campaign -- to force Israel to give it all up unilaterally.
Arafat failed, spectacularly. The violence did not bring Israel to its knees. Instead, it created chaos, lawlessness and economic disaster in the Palestinian areas. The Palestinians know the ruin that Arafat has brought and they are beginning to protest it. He promised them blood and victory; he delivered on the blood.
Even more important, they have lost their place at the table. Israel is now defining a new equilibrium that will reign for years to come -- the separation fence is unilaterally drawing the line that separates Israelis and Palestinians. The Palestinians were offered the chance to negotiate that frontier at Camp David, and chose war instead. Now they are paying the price.
It stands to reason. It is the height of absurdity to launch a terror war against Israel, then demand the right to determine the nature and route of the barrier built to prevent that very terror.
These new strategic realities are not just creating a new equilibrium, they are creating the first hope for peace since Arafat officially tore up the Oslo accords four years ago. Once Israel has withdrawn from Gaza and has completed the fence, terror as a strategic option will be effectively dead.
The only way for the Palestinians to achieve statehood and dignity, and to determine the contours of their own state, will be to negotiate a final peace based on genuine coexistence with a Jewish state.
It could be a year, five years or a generation until the Palestinians come to that realization. The pity is that so many, Arab and Israeli, will have had to die before then.