Palestinians menace with gaming tables, cheap flights

With the opening of the Gaza International Airport, the outlines of a new Palestinian strategy to defeat Israel are coming into focus.

The Oasis Casino in Jericho, in which the Palestinian Authority has a major stake, was obviously built with Israeli gamblers in mind. It would have been a commercial success, even if the casinos in Turkey had not closed down only a short while before.

Since its opening, the casino has become such an irresistible lure to Israelis that the Israel Defense Force has prohibited soldiers, even those off duty and out of uniform, from patronizing its tables. But other Israelis, who normally wouldn't consider donating one thin dime to the Palestinians, are pouring so much money into the casino — and hence into the coffers of the Palestinian Authority — that they have turned it into Israel's largest foreign-aid program.

And now there are rumors that the Gaza airport will offer attractive deals to Israeli travelers, thereby skimming off the ticket taxes and other revenues from airport operations that have hitherto gone to Israel's treasury. The profits from duty-free sales alone might finance another Orient House.

The Palestinians are exploiting the inability of Israelis to resist betting on a long shot or passing up the best deal around, lest their neighbors find a cheaper one and prove what suckers they are. This is war by other means. It threatens to undermine our economy and destroy our morale. It reflects a cynical attitude toward peace that cannot be tolerated.

Israel must therefore respond with a comprehensive, multi-layered strategy that includes elements of both passive and active defense and deterrence.

The defensive measures are fairly straightforward — gambling in Jericho and flying through Gaza should be illegal. Israelis trying to do so should be intercepted, tried, and sentenced to long prison terms.

This will require a major investment of resources (stationary observation posts, mobile patrols, bypass roads, sensor systems, satellites, etc). But a determined effort will ensure that a high proportion of perpetrators are caught before they can inflict serious damage on national security.

Even with the best effort, however, a significant degree of leakage will be inevitable, and it will be necessary to back up these measures with a credible threat of massive retaliation.

Critics of realpolitik may object on the grounds that this is unethical. But if the Palestinians want to undermine Israel by indulging its weaknesses, they should not be surprised if Israel responds in kind.

The immediate problem is that similar Palestinian vulnerabilities are not that obvious — a cheap drink is not in the same category as cheap flights to Antalya — so one immediate task is establishing a national security review team to make an inventory of Palestinian weaknesses that could be exploited in the same manner.

Still, there is one Achilles' heel that already presents itself: the insatiable Palestinian appetite for divisive politics based on competitive victimization.

Unfortunately, most of the really good Palestinian politicians who could have been used to feed this appetite have remained outside, in Tunis, Damascus or Amman. That situation has left the playing field relatively clear for Yasser Arafat.

Fortunately, there are ways to remedy this situation. One is to insist that all those politicians be brought to the meeting in Gaza this month to hear President Clinton, and then not be allowed to leave.

And if that doesn't work, it is always possible to take advantage of our comparative advantage in producing politicians.

After all, we have a whole army of surplus has-beens and wannabes, at both the national and municipal levels. The former group refuses to get off stage, and the latter refuses to stop trying to get on.

Since there is little for them to do here, dumping them on a captive Palestinian market (perhaps as a condition of any further redeployments) would serve a dual purpose.

Recent developments strongly suggest that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is about to escalate to a deadly new stage of competitive pandering to the self-indulgence of the other side.

Unless the Americans step in again and pander to both sides, this could turn out to be a fight to the finish, a fight that we cannot afford to lose.