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The Suicide of the Palestinians

From the March 25, 2002 issue: Beyond barbarism in the Middle East.

10:00 PM, Mar 15, 2002 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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WE OUGHT TO FACE squarely the origins of the Palestinian descent into barbarism. In July 2000, Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak made a peace offer that stunned Israel and the world: Israel would re-divide Jerusalem--would turn over large pieces of its ancient capital to the same people who had destroyed its synagogues, desecrated its cemeteries, and banned Jews from entering when they last ran the show. Arafat rejected the offer. Then in September 2000 the new wave of murderous violence began, supposedly triggered by Ariel Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount.

In short, the Palestinian response to Israel's generous peace offer was, "Drop dead." How could that possibly have happened? A trick question--because the obvious but wrong answer is so close to the right one that it's hard to tune the right one in. You have to fiddle the dial back and forth. Yet the difference between the two is crucial. The "lesson of appeasement" is not that appeasement is futile. Appeasement is not futile, it is dangerous. Israel's enemies claim that Israel herself provoked the ongoing Palestinian pogrom, and in a sense they might well be right. Outlaws interpret an openhanded offer as weakness, not generosity. They interpret weakness as an incitement to violence. You can goad a dangerous animal to attack by threatening or by shrinking back. Unless you want to fight, the only safe maneuver is to stand still.

Everyone knows about Munich, September 1938: Britain and France generously donate a big slice of Czechoslovakia to Hitler, in exchange for "peace with honor," "peace in our time," and the Brooklyn Bridge. Many people know about the Kristallnacht pogrom, November 1938: Germany's approach to the Jews turns from mere oppression to bloodthirsty violence. Kristallnacht was "triggered" by the murder of a German diplomat by a deranged Jew. But some (not all) historians point out the obvious: A leading cause of Kristallnacht was Munich itself. Hitler read the Munich agreements as a proclamation by England and France stating: "We are weak; you have nothing to fear; do what you like."

The analogy is not close, just close enough. Israel is no Czechoslovakia and was not sold down the river. Barak made his offer freely and in good faith. But to a significant number of Palestinians, the offer obviously said: "We are weak; you have nothing to fear; attack." Appeasement doesn't merely fail to prevent catastrophe, it provokes catastrophe.

Now everything has changed, and we are only gradually coming to grips with the implications. Evidently the whole world is outraged by Israeli settlements on the West Bank. Even before the new violence, the world's outrage was hard to swallow. Some Israelis live among Arabs in settlements on the West Bank, some Arabs live among Jews in "settlements" (otherwise known as towns and cities) in Israel proper. What's the difference? The Israeli settlements are new, the Arab ones old. But if old settlements are legitimate and new ones aren't, what are all those mosques doing on the Temple Mount? Some European journalists refer to the great Temple Mount plaza as the "supposed" site of ancient Israel's holy temple--as in, "that beat-up white shell on the hill in mid-Athens is supposedly the 'Parthenon.'" The plaza was expanded to its current enormous size by King Herod of Judea during the final years of the last century B.C.E. During the peace talks two thousand years later, in July 2000, a Palestinian negotiator helpfully explained why Barak's offer of control but not legal sovereignty over the Mount had been rejected: "We can't sell our Haram to the Jews," even though (he forgot to add) they built it. (Arabs refer to the Temple Mount as the Haram.)

"New" and "old" depend on your point of view. Jews have as much right as anyone to settle on the West Bank. But it long seemed to me (as to many other American Jews) that, leaving right and wrong out of it, the settlements were causing Israel more grief than they were worth and ought to be stopped. But everything has changed. Who in his right mind could still believe today that to stop building new settlements (or even to abandon old ones) would appease the Palestinians? On the contrary: Such a move is likely to be dangerous, as Barak's offer turned out to be.

We now know what Palestinians want, and what they think of Israelis. After all, what exactly is the point of sending killers to massacre children at random? What do you accomplish? You impose hatred. You ask Israel, in effect: What do we need to do to make you all (not some of you; everyone) hate us? To make you unable to look at a Palestinian without revulsion? To force you eventually to take the terrible step of setting up enclaves where Arabs are banned? Palestinians don't want to live peaceably among Israelis; the natural conclusion is that they think about Israelis as they choose for Israelis to think about them.