Middle East madness

Posted: Apr 09, 2002 12:00 AM

Everyone seems to be clamoring for the United States to "do something" about the carnage in the Middle East. Demands for action are ringing out from the pacifists on the left to the "national greatness" crowd among the neo-conservatives on the right.

Whether in domestic policy or foreign policy, few things have led to so many disasters as the notion that we have to "do something." No nation and no individual can simply do "something." Whatever action you take has to be specific -- and what matters are precisely those specifics and their specific consequences.

The fact that American intervention has always hovered in the background of the relations between Israel and the enemies by which it is surrounded has itself made aggression against Israel safer than it would have been otherwise. In the absence of the prospect of outside intervention, anyone contemplating unleashing a wave of suicide bombings against Israeli civilians would have to think twice if that meant facing the unbridled fury of the Israeli military, unlimited in time or scope by outside pressures.

Pacifist movements, "world opinion" and the prospect of intervention by either the U.S. or the U.N are an aggressor's ace in the hole. The force needed to deter aggression is often more than squeamish people can stand watching on their TV every day. When contemplating terrorist attacks, Arafat and the Palestinians know that it's usually a case of heads I win and tails I get saved by "world opinion."

What does winning mean in this context? It means gaining a series of piecemeal concessions from launching successive attacks on the Israeli population, without ever having to grant peace and normal relations. It means destroying Israel on the instalment plan. If all it takes is talking peace in English and urging war in Arabic, why not?

While we fight the war against terrorism all out, the way we fought World War II, we seem to be insisting that Israel fight its war against terrorism the way we fought Vietnam -- restricted by political considerations and pulling our punches to appease those who indulge themselves in kibitzing from the sidelines about life and death issues that they have never bothered to study seriously.

People safely nestled in the Berkeley Hills or Parisian cafes can engage in moral preening about Middle Eastern problems, without having to worry about the consequences. For such people, pious phrases like "the peace process" or "trading land for peace" have great appeal. Too often, foreign policies have been made in response to such uninformed pieties that disregard brutal realities.

Worse yet, foreign policy has too often in the past been dominated by a need for White House photo ops showing Israeli and Palestinian leaders shaking hands while the American president of the moment looked on, beaming. The latest round of suicide bombings of Israeli men, women and children are a tragic aftermath of the illusions behind the photo ops and the notion that Israel can exchange "land for peace."

Land for peace has in practice meant land for promises. Perhaps Israel should have responded to this misleading phrase by saying: "You want land for peace? We agree! Give us six months of peace and we will turn over so many acres of land. Make that a whole year of peace and we will turn over so many square miles of land. And if you can behave like decent human beings for five consecutive years, we will give you enough land to have your own country.

"However, if you start raising hell after that, we will send in our troops and tanks, to take back the land you got under false pretenses."

Instead, the deal was that Israel would make the first concession by giving permanent land for promises of peace. Whatever proposals come out of current attempts at negotiating a Middle East settlement will undoubtedly expect Israel to first make concessions in hopes of later gaining the peace and security that it has been vainly seeking for more than half a century.