ATbar Israel and the Arab-Israeli Conflict - A Brief Guide for the Perplexed
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Israel and the Arab-Israeli Conflict - A Brief Guide for the Perplexed

11/10/2001 | by Harris, David A.  

This article is reprinted here by permission of the author.

As the magnitude of the horrific events of September 11 sinks in and our nation implements its multifaceted military, diplomatic, and economic response, greater public attention is once again being paid to the Middle East—in the media, on college campuses, and elsewhere. Unfortunately, much of this discussion is misinformed and lacks historical context.

This paper provides some perspectives and talking points, both historical and contemporary. It is not intended as an exhaustive examination of the subject. 

The case to be made on behalf of Israel is as strong today as ever.

When presented with the facts, sensible people should understand:

    1. Israel’s fifty-three-year-long quest for peace and security;
    2. the real dangers faced by Israel, a tiny country no larger than New Jersey, in a tumultuous, heavily armed neighborhood;
    3. Israel’s unshakable commitment to democracy and democratic values;
    4. the common enemies of extremism and fanaticism faced by Israel and the United States; and
    5. Israel’s impressive contributions to world civilization in such fields as science, medicine, technology, agriculture, and culture—contributions that are even more remarkable given the country’s relative youth and its heavy defense burden.

No country’s historical record is perfect, and Israel, like other democratic nations, has made its share of mistakes. But acknowledging fallibility is a national strength, not a weakness. And I’ll gladly match Israel’s record with that of any other country in the region, indeed well beyond the region, when it comes to the values the West holds dear.

Israel has a proud record and the country’s friends shouldn’t hesitate to shout it from the rooftops. That record actually begins long before the establishment of the modern state in 1948. 

The Jewish people’s link to the land of Israel is incontrovertible and unbroken.

It spans nearly four thousand years. Exhibit A for this connection is the Hebrew Bible. The Book of Genesis, the first of the five books of the Bible, recounts the story of Abraham, the covenantal relationship with the one God, and the move from Ur (in present-day Iraq) to Canaan, the region corresponding roughly to Israel. Exhibit B is any Jewish prayer book in use anywhere in the world. The references in the liturgy to Zion, the land of Israel, are endless. 

The same is true of the connection between the Jewish people and Jerusalem.

It dates back to the period of King David, who lived approximately three thousand years ago, and who established Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Ever since, Jerusalem has represented not only the geographical center of the Jewish people, but also the spiritual and metaphysical heart of our faith and identity. Indeed, the relationship between Jerusalem and the Jewish people is entirely unique in the annals of history.

Jerusalem was the site of the two Temples—the first built by King Solomon during the tenth century B.C.E. and destroyed in 586 B.C.E. during the Babylonian conquest, and the second built less than a century later, refurbished by King Herod, and destroyed in 70 C.E. by Roman forces.

As the psalmist wrote, “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither; let my tongue stick to my palate if I cease to think of thee, if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory even at my happiest hour.” 

Though in forced dispersion for nearly nineteen hundred years, Jews never stopped yearning for Zion and Jerusalem.

In addition to expressing this through prayer, there were always Jews who lived in the land of Israel, and especially Jerusalem. Indeed, since the nineteenth century, Jews have constituted a majority of the city’s population. For example, according to the Political Dictionary of the State of Israel, Jews were 61.9 percent of Jerusalem’s population in 1892.

The historical and religious link to Jerusalem is especially important because some Arabs seek to rewrite history and assert that Jews are “foreign occupiers” or “colonialists” with no actual tie to the land. Such attempts to deny Israel’s legitimacy are demonstrably false and need to be exposed for the lies they are. They also entirely ignore the “inconvenient” fact that when Jerusalem was under Muslim (i.e., Ottoman and, later, Jordanian) rule, it was always a backwater. 

Zionism is the quest for national self-determination of the Jewish people.

Although the yearning for a Jewish homeland derives from a longing that dates back thousands of years and is given expression in classic Jewish texts, it also stems from a more contemporary reality.

Theodor Herzl, considered the father of modern Zionism, was a secular Jew and Viennese journalist who became appalled at the blatant anti-Semitism fueling the infamous Dreyfus case in France, the first European country to extend full rights to the Jews. He came to the conclusion that Jews could never enjoy full equality as a minority in European societies, since the sad legacy of centuries of anti-Semitism was too deeply embedded. Therefore, he called for the establishment of a Jewish state, which he set out to describe in his landmark book Altneuland (“Old-New Land”), published in 1902.

Herzl’s vision was endorsed by the British foreign secretary, Lord Balfour, who issued a statement on November 2, 1917:

His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.

In 1922, the League of Nations, entrusting Britain with a mandate for Palestine, recognized “the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine.”

The rise of Hitler and the Nazi “Final Solution,” spearheaded by Germany and its allies—and facilitated by widespread complicity as well as indifference to the fate of the Jews—revealed in tragic dimensions the desperate need for a Jewish state. (Apropos, Haj Amin el-Husseini, the mufti of Jerusalem, was among the enthusiastic supporters of the Nazi genocide of the Jewish people.)

Only in such a state, the Zionist movement believed, would Jews not have to rely on the “goodwill” of others to determine their destiny. All Jews would be welcome to settle in the Jewish state as a refuge from persecution or as a fulfillment of a “yearning for Zion.” Indeed, this latter point fired the imagination of many Jews who settled in what was then a generally desolate Palestine, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, out of idealistic convictions, and who laid the foundation for the modern State of Israel.

Israel’s adversaries to this day twist the meaning of Zionism and try to present it as a demonic force, with the goal of undermining Israel’s raison d'etre and isolating the state from the community of nations.

This happened in 1975, when the UN, over the strenuous objections of the democratic countries, adopted a resolution labeling Zionism as “racism.” The resolution was repealed by the UN in 1991, but the canard resurfaced earlier this year (of all places) at the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa. The Arab bloc, however, failed in its latest effort to condemn Zionism in the conference documents. This time many nations understood that the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is, and has always been, political, not racial.

In this vein, it’s well worth remembering the comments of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. on anti-Zionism:

And what is anti-Zionism? It is the denial to the Jewish people of a fundamental right that we justly claim for the people of Africa and all other nations of the Globe. It is discrimination against Jews, my friends, because they are Jews. In short, it is anti-Semitism.… Let my words echo in the depths of your soul: When people criticize Zionism, they mean Jews—make mistake about it.

It is also important stress that non-Jews were not excluded from Israel’s nation-building. To the contrary, today one-fifth of Israel’s citizens are non-Jews, including over one million Arabs, and Arabic is an official national language.

Moreover, Israel’s Jewish population has always reflected enormous national, ethnic, cultural, and linguistic diversity, which became even more pronounced in the 1980s, when Israel rescued tens of thousands of black Jews from drought-stricken Ethiopia who were dreaming of resettlement in Israel. The eloquent comments at the time of Julius Chambers, the director-general of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, bear repeating:

Were the victims of Ethiopian famine white, countless nations might have offered them refuge. But the people dying every day of starvation in Ethiopia and the Sudan are black, and in a world where racism is officially deplored by virtually every organized government, only one non-African nation has opened its doors and its arms. The quiet humanitarian action of the State of Israel, action taken entirely without regard to the color of those being rescued, stands as a condemnation of racism far more telling than mere speeches and resolutions. 

The Arab-Israeli conflict was avoidable

Shortly after its founding in 1945, the United Nations took an interest in the future of mandatory Palestine, then under British rule. A UN commission (UNSCOP, or the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine) recommended to the General Assembly a partition of the land between the Jews and the Arabs. Neither side would get all it sought, but a division would recognize that there were two populations in the land—one Jewish, the other Arab—each meriting a state.

On November 29, 1947, the UN General Assembly, by a vote of 33 in favor, 13 opposed, and 10 abstaining, adopted Resolution 181, known as the Partition Plan.

Acceptance of the Partition Plan would have meant the establishment of two states, but the Arab states and the local Arab population vehemently rejected the proposal. They refused to recognize a Jewish claim to any part of the land and chose war to fulfill their objectives.

On May 14, 1948, the State of Israel was founded. Winston Churchill said at the time:

The coming into being of a Jewish state … is an event in world history to be viewed in the perspective not of a generation or a century, but in the perspective of a thousand, two thousand or even three thousand years.

Years later, President John F. Kennedy offered his perspective on the meaning of Israel:

Israel was not created in order to disappear—Israel will endure and flourish. It is the child of hope and home of the brave. It can neither be broken by adversity nor demoralized by success. It carries the shield of democracy and it honors the sword of freedom.

Israel’s Declaration of the Establishment of the State included these words:

We extend our hand to all neighboring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighborliness, and appeal to them to establish bonds of cooperation and mutual help with the sovereign Jewish people settled in its own land.

Tragically, that offer was ignored. 

On May 15, 1948, the armies of Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria attacked the fledgling Jewish state, seeking its destruction.

In the course of this war, launched by the Arabs, civilian populations were affected, just as in all wars. Controversies continue to this day about how many local Arabs fled Israel because Arab leaders called on them to do so or threatened them if they did not, how many left out of fear of the fighting, and how many were compelled to leave by Israeli forces. Importantly, hundreds of thousands of Arabs ended up staying in Israel and became citizens of the state.

But the central point must not be overlooked—Arab countries began this war aiming to wipe out the 650,000 Jews in the new State of Israel, and by doing so, the Arabs defied the UN plan for the creation of both Arab and Jewish states. 

There have been two refugee populations created by the Arab-Israeli conflict, not one.

While world attention has been focused on the Palestinian refugees, the plight of Jews from Arab countries, hundreds of thousands of whom became refugees as well, has been largely ignored. Indeed, many experts believe that the size of the two groups was roughly comparable. But there was one profound difference—Israel immediately absorbed the Jewish refugees, while the Palestinian refugees were placed in camps and deliberately kept there as a matter of calculated Arab policy and with the complicity of the UN. 

There is no comparable situation in the world today where a refugee population has been cynically exploited in this way.

Until now, only one Arab country—Jordan—has offered citizenship to the Palestinian refugees.

The other twenty-one Arab countries, with their vast territory and common language, religion, and ethnic roots with the Palestinians, have refused to do so. Why? Sadly, they appear to have little interest in alleviating the plight of refugees living in often squalid camps for two and three generations. Rather, they want to breed hatred of Israel and thus use the refugees as a key weapon in the ongoing struggle against Israel.

Parenthetically—just to give a sense how Palestinians are treated in the Arab world—Kuwait summarily expelled over 300,000 Palestinians working in the country (but never given Kuwaiti passports) when Yasir Arafat voiced support for Iraq in the Gulf War and the Palestinians were seen as a potential fifth column. There was hardly a peep of protest from other Arab countries about what amounted to the expulsion of an entire Palestinian community. 

Unfortunately, the story of the Jewish refugees from Arab countries is not often told.

When the issue of Jewish refugees from Arab countries is raised, Arab spokesmen often feign ignorance or strenuously assert that Jews lived well under Muslim rule (unlike Jews in Christian Europe). Sometimes they disingenuously argue that Arabs, by definition, cannot be anti-Semitic because, like Jews, they are Semites.

It is certainly true that there was no equivalent of the Holocaust in the Jewish experience in Muslim lands, and it also true that there were periods of cooperation and harmony, but the story does not end there. Jews never enjoyed full and equal rights with Muslims in Islamic countries; there were clearly delineated rules of behavior for Jews as second-class citizens. Violence against Jews was not unknown in the Muslim world.

To cite but one illustration of the fate of Jews in Arab countries, Jews lived uninterruptedly in Libya since the time of the Phoenicians, that is, many centuries before the Arabs arrived from the Arabian Peninsula, bringing Islam to North Africa and settling—occupying?—lands already inhabited by Berbers, among others.

The vast majority of Libya’s 40,000 Jews left between 1948 and 1951, following pogroms in 1945 and 1948. In 1951, Libya became an independent country. Despite constitutional guarantees, the Jews who remained in the country were denied the right to vote, hold public office, obtain Libyan passports, supervise their own communal affairs, or purchase new property. After a third pogrom in 1967, Libya’s remaining 4,000 Jews fled, permitted to leave with only one suitcase and the equivalent of $50. In 1970, the Libyan government announced a series of laws to confiscate the assets of Libya’s exiled Jews and issued bonds providing for fair compensation payable within fifteen years. But 1985 came and went, with no compensation paid.

At the same time, the government destroyed Jewish cemeteries, using the headstones to pave new roads, as part of a calculated effort to erase any vestige of the Jewish historical presence in the country.

There were an estimated 754,000 Jews in Arab countries in 1948, the year of Israel’s establishment; today, there are fewer than 8,000, the bulk of whom live in Morocco and Tunisia. 

Where was the Arab sympathy for the Palestinian population from 1948 to 1967?

With armistice agreements ending Israel’s War of Independence, the Gaza Strip was in the hands of Egypt. Rather than consider sovereignty for the loArab population and the Palestinian refugees who settled there, Egyptian authorities imposed military rule. Meanwhile, the West Bank and the eastern half of Jerusalem were ruled by Jordan. Again, there was no move to create an independent Palestinian state; to the contrary, Jordan annexed the territory, a step recognized by only two countries in the world, Britain and Pakistan.

It was during this period, 1964 to be precise, that the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was founded. Its aim was not the creation of a state in the lands under Egyptian and Jordanian rule, but rather the elimination of Israel and the founding of an Arab Palestinian state in the whole of Palestine.

Article 15 of the PLO Charter clearly revealed this goal:

The liberation of Palestine, from an Arab viewpoint, is a national duty to repulse the Zionist, imperialist invasion from the great Arab homeland and to purge the Zionist presence from Palestine.

In the ensuing years, PLO-sponsored terrorism took its deadly toll, focusing on Israeli, American, European, and Jewish targets. 

How did Israel come into possession of the West Bank, Golan Heights, Gaza Strip, the Sinai Peninsula, and the eastern half of Jerusalem, including the Old City?

These days, some people reflexively refer to the “occupied territories” without ever asking the question of how they fell into Israel’s hands in 1967. Once again, there are those in the Arab world who seek to rewrite history and impute expansionist motives to Israel, but the facts are clear. Here’s a quick summary of some of the major events leading up to the Six-Day War:

On May 16, 1967, Cairo Radio announced: “The existence of Israel has continued too long. The battle has come in which we shall destroy Israel.” On the same day, Egypt demanded the withdrawal of UN forces that had been stationed in Gaza and Sharm el-Sheikh since 1957. Three days later, the UN announced it would comply with the Egyptian demand.
  • On May 19, Cairo Radio said: “This is our chance, Arabs, to deal Israel a mortal blow of annihilation….”
  • On May 23, Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser declared his intention to block the Strait of Tiran to Israeli shipping, thus effectively severing Israel’s vital trade links with East Africa and Asia. Israel replied that under international law this was a casus belli, an act of war.
  • On May 27, Nasser said that “our basic objective will be the destruction of Israel.”
  • On May 30, Jordan’s King Hussein placed Jordanian forces under Egyptian control. Egyptian, Iraqi, and Saudi troops were sent to Jordan.
  • On June 1, Iraq’s leader added his thoughts: “We are resolved, determined, and united to achieve our clear aim of wiping Israel off the map.”
  • On June 3, Cairo Radio hailed the impending Muslim holy war.
  • On June 5, Israel, surrounded by Arab forces likely to attack at any moment, launched a preemptive strike. Within six days, Israel had defeated its adversaries and, in the process, captured land on the Egyptian, Jordanian, and Syrian fronts.

Israel had made strenuous efforts, via UN channels, to persuade King Hussein to stay out of the war. Unlike Egypt and Syria, whose hostility toward Israel was unremitting, Jordan had quietly cooperated with Israel and shared concerns about the Palestinians’ aggressive designs. Years later, King Hussein publicly acknowledged that his decision to enter the 1967 war, in which he lost control of the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem, was one of the biggest mistakes he ever made. 

Another lost peace opportunity

Shortly after the Six-Day War, Israel indicated its desire to negotiate peace with its Arab neighbors. While Israel was unprepared to relinquish the eastern half of Jerusalem—which contained Judaism’s holiest sites and which, despite the terms of the Israeli-Jordanian armistice agreement, had been entirely off limits to Israel for nearly nineteen years (while Jordan desecrated dozens of synagogues in the Old City)—it was willing to exchange the seized territories for a comprehensive settlement. But Israel’s overtures were rebuffed. An unmistakable response came from Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, where Arab leaders issued a resolution on September 1 announcing the three noes: “no peace, no recognition, and no negotiation.” 

In November 1967, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 242.

This resolution, often cited in discussions about the Arab-Israeli conflict as the basis for resolving it, is not always quoted with precision. The resolution stresses “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war and the need to work for a just and lasting peace in which every [emphasis added] State in the area can live in security.”

Further, it calls for “withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict,” but deliberately omitted use of the word “the” before the word “territories.” The U.S. ambassador to the UN at the time, Arthur Goldberg, noted that this was intentional, so that any final settlement could allow for unspecified border adjustments that would take into account Israel’s security needs. 

The resolution also includes a call for “termination of all of claims or states of belligerency and respect for and acknowledgment of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every State in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force [emphasis added].”

And, not least, it “affirms further the necessity (a) For guaranteeing freedom of navigation through international waterways in the area; (b) For achieving a just settlement of the refugee problem [Author’s comment: Note the absence of reference to which refugee problem, allowing for more than one interpretation of the refugee populations covered.]; and (c) For guaranteeing the territorial inviolability and political independence of every State in the area, through measures including the establishment of demilitarized zones.”

On October 22, 1973, during the Yom Kippur War, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 338, which called for a cease-fire, implementation of Resolution 242 in its entirety, and the onset of talks between the parties concerned. Resolutions 242 and 338 are normally cited together in connection with any Arab-Israeli peace talks. 

The settlements have been a contentious issue.

No question, but, like just about everything else associated with the Arab-Israeli conflict, there’s more here than meets the eye.

After Israel’s victory in the 1967 war, and once it became clear that the Arabs were not interested in negotiating peace, Israel, under a Labor-led coalition, began encouraging the construction of settlements, or new communities, in the captured lands. This practice was accelerated under Likud-led governments after 1977.

Whatever one’s perspective on the settlements, it’s important to understand Israel’s motives in moving ahead on this front: (a) Israel contended that the land was disputed—both Arabs and Jews laid claim to it—and since there was no sovereign authority, Israel had as much right to settle there as the Palestinians; (b) there had been Jewish communities in the West Bank long before 1948, for example, in Hebron and Gush Etzion, both sites of massacres by Arabs in which large numbers of Jews were killed; (c) the West Bank, according to the Bible, represents the cradle of Jewish civilization, and some Jews, driven by faith and history, wanted to reassert that link; (d) the Israeli government believed that certain settlements could serve a useful security purpose; and (e) some Israeli officials felt that building settlements, and thus creating facts on the ground, might hasten the day when the Palestinians, presumably realizing that time was not on their side, would talk peace.

Today, most Israelis agree that any peace agreement with the Palestinians will necessarily entail dismantling many, though not all, of the settlements. Polls repeatedly show that a majority of Israelis accept this prospect, but only in the context of a real peace process. Ho, Israelis fear that any unilateral decisions to withdraw would be viewed by the Palestinians and their Arab supporters as a of weakness, not strength, and could only encourage further violence.

In hindsight, this perception of Israeli weakness may have actually been one of the unintended consequences of Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 1999. Israeli troops were there for one reason only—not to acquire territory, but rather to maintain a security zone that would prevent deadly terrorist strikes from Lebanon on the villages and towns of northern Israel.

But periodic attacks by Hizballah on Israeli soldiers took their toll, and Prime Minister Barak concluded that the benefit to Israel no longer justified the price. He ordered the troops home. Hizballah declared victory over the seemingly invincible Israel Defense Force (IDF), and this may have emboldened Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to believe that they could follow suit and accomplish what no Arab army had succeeded in doing since Israel’s founding in 1948, namely, defeat the IDF. 

The possibilities of peace

In 1977, Menachem Begin, Israel’s first Likud prime minister, took office. That did not stop Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat from making his historic trip to Israel the same year and addressing the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. An extraordinary peace process ensued, with all the ups and downs that came with a difficult set of negotiations. In September 1978, the Camp David Accords were adopted, containing a framework for comprehensive peace, including a proposal for limited self-government for the Palestinians. (The proposal was rejected by the Palestinians.) Six months later, a peace accord was signed and the thirty-one-year state of war between Israel and Egypt came to an end.

It was a remarkable moment in history. Sadat, virulently anti-Israel and anti-Semitic for much of his life, and the mastermind of Egypt’s surprise attack (together with Syria) on Israel that ignited the 1973 Yom Kippur War, teamed up with Begin, the head of Israel’s leading right-wing party, to open a new chapter in Arab-Israel relations. It proved that with will, courage, and vision, anything was possible.

But every Arab country, except Sudan and Oman, severed diplomatic ties with Cairo. And in 1981 the Egyptian leader was assassinated by members of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, who would later become brothers-in-arms of Osama bin Laden and his Al-Qaida network.

For its part, Israel yielded the vast expanse of the Sinai (approximately 23,000 square miles), which had provided a critical strategic buffer zone between itself and Egypt. It also gave up valuable oil fields it had discovered in the Sinai, a big sacrifice for a country with no natural resources to speak of. It closed important air bases it had constructed. And, despite Begin’s staunch commitment to settlements, it dismantled these enclaves in Sinai.

In doing so, Israel demonstrated very clearly its desire for peace, its willingness to take substantial risks and make sacrifices, and its scrupulous commitment to fulfilling the terms of its agreements. 

Israel and Jordan reached an historic peace agreement in 1994.

This was a much easier negotiation than with Egypt, since Israel and Jordan already enjoyed good, if quiet, ties based on overlapping national interests with regard to the Palestinians. Israel once again demonstrated its deep yearning for peace and readiness to take the steps necessary to achieve it, including border adjustments and water-sharing arrangements called for by Amman. 

Another opportunity for peace was spurned by the Palestinians in 2000-2001.

When Ehud Barak took office as prime minister in 1999, he announced an ambitious agenda. The Israeli leader said he would attempt to reach an historic end to the conflict with the Palestinians within thirteen months, picking up where his predecessors had left off, and building on the momentum of the 1991 Madrid Conference and accelerated by the 1993 Oslo Accords. As it turned out, he went beyond what anyone in Israel might have thought possible in his willingness to compromise.

With the active support of the Clinton administration, Barak pushed the process as far and as fast as he could, and, in doing so, he broke new ground on such infinitely sensitive issues as Jerusalem for the sake of an agreement. But alas, he and Clinton failed.

Arafat was not ready to engage the process and make it work.

Rather than press ahead with the talks, which would have led to the establishment of the first-ever Palestinian state, with its capital in eastern Jerusalem, he walked away, after preposterously trying to persuade President Clinton that there was no historical Jewish link to Jerusalem and dropping the bombshell demand of a so-called “right of return” for Palestinian refugees and their generations of descendants. Arafat surely knew that this was an instant deal-breaker, since no Israeli government could ever conceivably allow millions of Palestinians to settle in Israel and thus destroy Israel as a Jewish state. 

Tragically, Arafat revealed himself incapable or unwilling, or both, of pursuing peace at the negotiating table. Instead, he returned to a more familiar pattern—on occasion talking peace while consistently encouraging violence.

He knew that the media images of heavily armed Israeli troops facing Palestinians in the streets, including children cynically sent to the front lines, would work to his advantage. Israel would be cast in the role of aggressor and oppressor, the Palestinians as downtrodden victims.

It wouldn’t be long, he calculated, before the Arab world would angrily denounce Israel, the nonaligned countries would dutifully follow suit, the Europeans would urge still more concessions from Israel to placate the Palestinians, international human rights groups would accuse Israel of excessive force, and the world, plagued by a short memory, would forget that the Palestinian leader had just spurned an unprecedented chance to strike a peace deal.

Moreover, he presumably reckoned, Washington might eventually take a tougher line on Israel, as the result of pressure from Egypt and Saudi Arabia, two Arab countries that loom large in the worldview of American policy makers. And finally, there was the long-term possibility that Israel, a first-world country, would begin to tire of the struggle and its daily toll of military and civilian casualties, the negative impact on the nation’s mood and psyche—not to speak of its economy—and the potentially growing international isolation.

Some in the media have too uncritically bought the Palestinian spin and, as a consequence, have been less than fully objective and balanced in their coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So, too, have a number of international human rights groups, which sometimes seem to have a blind spot for human rights violations in the Arab world, including especially in the Palestinian Authority. And many European Union nations, Germany being the notable exception, haven’t always been as understanding of Israel’s profound security dilemmas as they should be; it’s undoubtedly easier to render judgments on the situation from the safety and comfort of distant capitals. 

What exactly is Israel expected to do to ensure the safety of its citizens? What would other states do in a similar situation?

We’re about to find out, as the United States and its allies respond to Osama bin Laden, Al Qaida, the Taliban, and possibly some nations that provide shelter and support for terrorist groups. Judging from the military buildup to date and the global diplomatic, political, and financial full-court press, it doesn’t look as if “restraint,” “dialogue,” “compromise,” and “understanding” are currently part of Washington’s vocabulary with regard to those who attack us, nor should they be.

At the end of the day, Israel tragically finds it has no credible negotiating partner. Instead, its citizens are targeted for murder by suicide bombers who are brainwashed to believe they are destined for martyrdom and sexual ecstasy in paradise.

Despite repeated requests, the Palestinian Authority has proved unwilling to arrest and imprison those responsible for murdering Israelis.

The limits on a Palestinian police force, agreed to in the Oslo Accords, have long since been exceeded, and well-armed and aggressive militia forces are emerging to do battle with Israel. Several of these groups, including the Tanzim and Force 17, are under the direct control of Arafat.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad, two radical groups on the American list of terrorist organizations that are believed to have links with bin Laden’s Al Qaida, operate with relative impunity in the Palestinian-controlled areas.

Cease fires negotiated with Israel are regularly broken by the Palestinians. Ze’ev Schiff, the highly respected defense correspondent for Ha’aretz, noted last year (October 20) that Arafat agreed to twenty-two cease-fires with Jordan’s King Hussein until he was banished from the country thirty years ago and to more than seventy cease-fires during the Lebanese civil war.

The education for peace that is so necessary to laying the groundwork for a new era in the region, regrettably, is absent in the Palestinian Authority. Schools, the media, and the mosques preach hatred of Jews, vilification of Judaism, Holocaust denial, demonization of Israel, and violence.

Perhaps the tragic events of September 11 will help the world grasp the kind of threat Israel has been facing and the rationale for Israel’s unflinching response.

Unflinching yes, but also measured. The truth is that Israel could deliver a much more devastating blow to the Palestinians but has chosen not to for a host of diplomatic, political, strategic, and humanitarian reasons.

In the final analysis, even though Israel enjoys military superiority, Jerusalem understands that this is not a conflict that can be won exclusively on the battlefield. Simply put, neither side is going to disappear. This conflict can be resolved only at the peace table, if and when the Palestinians finally realize they have squandered more than fifty years and numerous chances to build a state—alongside Israel, not in its place. 

Israel is a democracy and thinks and behaves like a democracy.

That’s not always easy to do in light of the situation it faces. But, while Israel gets its share of criticism for allegedly heavy-handed methods, the Palestinians, despite all their shrill rhetoric, understand better than anyone that it is precisely Israel’s democratic values and rule of law that they regard as the nation’s Achilles’ heel.

The Palestinians know, even if they don’t publicly acknowledge it, that the democratic system puts brakes and limits on Israel’s policy options.

They know that Israel has a multiparty political system and that these parties need to differentiate themselves from one another to have any chance of electoral success. In fact, the parties include every viewpoint from extreme left to extreme right, from secular to religious, from Russian Jewish to Arab. In fact, Israeli Arabs currently hold approximately 10 percent of the Knesset seats (and a few of these parliamentarians have identified with Israel’s enemies in the current conflict).

They know that public opinion in Israel counts for something and can affect policy; witness the grassroots movement that successfully urged the government to pull out of southern Lebanon.

They know that Israel enjoys a free and inquisitive press.

They know that Israel has an independent judiciary that occupies a respected place in the nation’s life.

They know that Israel has a thriving civil society and numerous human rights groups that stress their objectivity and impartiality.

They know that Israel protects freedom of worship for all religious communities, indeed has gone so far as to prevent Jews from praying on the Temple Mount, one of Judaism’s holiest sites, specifically to avoid tension with Muslim worshipers at the two mosques built there, and, since the 1967 Six-Day War, has ceded authority for the area to the Waqf, the Muslim religious authority.

They know that Israel cares about world opinion, especially American and European reactions to its policies.

They know that Israel, based on the core values of the Jewish tradition, attaches great importance to ethical and moral standards of behavior, even when, at times, it falls short of them.

And, as a result, they know that there are self-imposed restraints on Israeli behavior precisely because Israel is a democratic state and because, in the final analysis, its government is accountable to the will of the people. 

If only the Middle East resembled the Middle West!

Wouldn’t that augur well for peaceful conflict resolution and regional cooperation? When was the last time that one democratic nation launched a military attack against another democracy? Regrettably, democracy is a very rare commodity in the Middle East.

The Palestinians know how Syria’s Assad dealt with Islamic fundamentalists, killing an estimated 10,000-20,000 in Hama and leveling the city as an unmistakable message to other fundamentalists in the country.

They know how Iraq’s Saddam Hussein handled the Kurds, using poison gas to kill thousands and destroying hundreds of Kurdish villages.

They know, as noted above, how Kuwait responded to Palestinian support for Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War by expelling 300,000 Palestinians from the country in one fell swoop.

They know how Saudi Arabia reacted to Yemeni support for Saddam Hussein during the same war. Overnight, the country expelled an estimated 600,000 Yemenis.

And they know how Egypt dealt with its own Islamic radicals in the 1990s—below the radar of the media, without fanfare. Within a few years, thousands of these radicals were either dead or locked up in jails.

The Palestinians count on the fact that Israel will not follow any of these examples. That is Israel’s strength as a democracy, but it comes with a price. The Palestinians seek to take advantage of it. But they have made one fundamental error—they have underestimated Israel’s will to survive. 

Israelis desperately want peace. At the same time, peace at any price is no peace.

Israelis want to stop worrying about bombs on buses and in malls. They want to put an end to burying their children, victims of terror or military engagements. In short, they want to lead normal lives, and they have demonstrated their willingness time and again to endorse far-reaching, even potentially risky, compromises in the quest for peace.

Israelis, however, have learned the painful lessons of history. Peace without security can be tantamount to national suicide. And who knows better than the citizens of Israel, who include Holocaust survivors and refugees from communist lands and from Arab extremism, how dangerous it can be to let one’s guard down too quickly, too easily?

Are Israelis simply to ignore Iran’s and Iraq’s calls for Israel’s annihilation, their insatiable appetite for acquiring weapons of mass destruction, Syria’s hospitality to terrorist groups bent on Israel’s destruction, Hizballah’s accumulation of short-range missiles capable of reaching the northern third of Israel, and the blood-curdling calls for suicide attacks against Israel heard in Gaza and the West Bank?

Our world hasn’t been terribly kind to the naive, the credulous, or the self-delusional. Despite the doubters at the time, Hitler meant exactly what he said when he wrote Mein Kampf, Saddam Hussein meant exactly what he said when he insisted that Kuwait was a province of Iraq, and Osama bin Laden meant exactly what he said when he called for killing as many Americans as possible.

Israel lives in a particularly rough neighborhood. To survive, it has had to be courageous both on the battlefield and at the peace table, passing both tests with flying colors. As Israel faces the unresolved challenges in its region, it deserves both understanding and support.