Conversations with Netanyahu

Posted: Sep 04, 2003 12:00 AM

I recently spent 10 days in Israel broadcasting my radio and television shows from the Jerusalem Post studios. During that trip, I had a chance to talk with former Israeli prime minister and current finance minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. During the conversation, Netanyahu drew on his personal experiences to shed light on our own war against terror.

The conversation took place in Netanyahu's sparse and deceivingly normal office.

"I told the decorators they could do whatever they wanted with my office, so long as they didn't spend any money," explained Netanyahu. His only flourish: The walls are studded with pictures of great leaders, from Winston Churchill to Ronald Reagan to George Bush (senior), the last of which a precocious and determined 28-year-old Netanyahu managed to snag as a guest for his 1979 international conference on fighting terror. Netanyahu used the event as a vehicle to articulate two rather revolutionary ideas on the nature of terrorism: 1) that terror was not the work of individuals but the work of states that finance terrorists; 2) terrorists use the language of human rights to crush human rights and that the instrument of terrorism inevitably leads to tyrannical governments.

In regard to the latter, Netanyahu explained that terrorism is predicated on the idea that you can obliterate all human rights - blow up babies, bomb public buses - for what is supposedly a higher cause. Such brutal and arbitrary terror, he surmised, is the raw material of mass tyranny. "Terrorism requires you to suspend normal morality for the sake of a supposedly higher cause. And when you do that, you have no morality and no cause and eventually no freedom, because the people who are willing to obliterate all human rights are not going to establish democracy when they win."

The examples of Iran and Iraq have since borne out this observation. At the time, however, the idea was deemed radical by academics who had difficulty distinguishing terrorists from freedom fighters. Netanyahu's decisive crackdown on terrorist organizations during his term as prime minister elicited similar criticisms.

It should be noted, however, that under Netanyahu, suicide bombings were nearly nonexistent and Israel managed treaties with neighboring Egypt and Jordan. This tenuous peace came about not because Arab societies suddenly recognized the inalienable value of basic human rights, but because Netanyahu had made clear that Israel would not be dislodged. Netanyahu explained his policy succinctly: "You couldn't negotiate with Hitler. It didn't matter if you had peace conferences. He meant to destroy. There was never a middle ground. That sort of fanaticism you need to vanquish..We achieved peace with Egypt and Jordan. The reason we didn't make peace with Arafat is because he wants to overrun the Jewish state. He says so quite openly to his people. Hamas is even more explicit. My hope is that the Palestinians will produce a different kind of leadership that abandons the fantasy of destroying Israel through terror. The test of whether we're moving toward peace will come not when we fight the terrorists, but when the Palestinians fight the terrorists among them."

Sage words that I herewith suggest that the United States take to heart. Since Sept. 11, we have declared war on terror. That war has taken us into Afghanistan and Iraq. The Taliban and Saddam Hussein have been toppled. The world has been made safer as a result. Now we find ourselves at a crossroads. We have an opportunity to use Iraq as a base of operations to attack the true engines of terror in the world - Saudi Arabia and Iran. At the same time, the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has eroded support for that war and likely stalled any future military campaigns in the region.

Now, more than ever, we must remember that the war on terror is not merely a military battle, but rather a moral battle against evil forces that threaten the civilized world. Beyond the niceties of world opinion, there remains a fundamental mission to make clear that terror will not be tolerated. Now that we have a base of operations in the region, the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Iran must be given a choice: Make peace with us or peace with terrorists. If it is peace with terrorists, they will have to pay a heavy price. If they chose peace with us, they must crack down on the terrorist groups that operate within their sphere of control. They can no longer have it both ways.

If we are not strong on this point, then the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq will have been for nothing. This is a lesson the American people must remain mindful of, and that our president must carry with him into a second term.