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Israel in Darkness

Decline and Fall

By Ross G. Douthat

Human beings require hope, even in seasons of darkness. We survive on the belief that today’s nightmare will be redeemed by tomorrow’s light—that this too shall pass, as the Hebrew proverb has it.

In Israel today, there is no hope. There is only despair, and intimations of the abyss.

The world by now knows too well the story of the two peoples, Jew and Arab, warring over a narrow strip of land, a dry and sacred place between the River and the Sea. Their struggle was decades old even in 1947, when Israel fought its way to independence against the combined might of the Arab world, and the wars and intifadas since built up a great weight of hopelessness and woe over the Middle East, so that throughout the Cold War decades the very words Israel and Palestine conjured images of blood and suffering and intractable, undying hatred.

But the hopelessness of the past and the hopelessness of the present are different. However bleak the world was before the Oslo peace process began, there was still a sense that progress might be made, if only visionary leaders could emerge and guide their peoples forward into the light. Then there was Oslo, and the heroism of Yitzhak Rabin, and the apparent conversion of Yasser Arafat to the cause of peace. There were Nobel Peace prizes for all concerned, and limited sovereignty for Palestine, and the promise that there would be an end to war, because peace was the desire of both peoples.

All that is gone now. The world has learned a bitter lesson—or perhaps it has not learned it, since so many continue to prate about the crimes of Israel, the innocence of Palestine, and the need to end the famous “cycle of violence.” This rhetoric is a relic of an earlier time, when the sufferings of the Palestinian people—their poverty, their existence as a subject people, their stifled aspirations of independence—were rightly laid at Israel’s door.

That time has now passed. Two years ago, in the waning moments of Bill Clinton’s presidency, the Palestinians were offered what they had claimed to want all through the years of the Oslo process—an independent nation, with a capital in Jerusalem. And in the name of a fantasy, an impossible “right of return” for people displaced a half-century ago, this offer was rejected.

This rejection, which earned Arafat the adulation of his supposedly peace-craving people, was the first betrayal of peace. The second was far worse—the decision by the Palestinian leadership to allow, and encourage, a campaign of terror so heinous, so criminal, so evil, that it beggars belief.

Amid the wreckage that the suicide bombers have wrought, to speak of moral equivalence between the combatants is to enter the madhouse. There is no “cycle of violence” here, in which all parties are guilty. There are Palestinian attempts to slaughter Israeli civilians, and Israeli attempts to capture and kill those responsible for the atrocities —which includes, of course, Arafat himself, whose government gives aid and comfort to the men and women tearing gaping wounds in the world with their bodies and their bombs.

It is with this man—this terrorist, let us be blunt—that Israel is being asked to negotiate. There is, after all, no one else to negotiate with. But how can peace come with a man who sends his people out to die with fertilizer strapped to their bellies and dreams of glory dancing in their heads? How can peace come with a leader who seems to believe in peace only tactically, as a temporary respite from the struggle to achieve not only a sovereign Palestine, but the end of a sovereign Israel?

For this is the secret that the latest intifada has revealed —that while the Israeli people have accepted the right of Palestine to exist, the Palestinians have not returned the favor. And in this latest campaign, in their fiercely self-righteous support for suicide bombing, the people of Nablus and Ramallah and Bethlehem have allowed their war for independence to drag them down into a swamp of naked, monstrous evil.

How, then, even if Arafat and Hamas and all the other public faces of this evil were to vanish in a morning breeze, can Israelis possibly hope for peace? They are living side-by-side with a culture that has embraced self-immolation as a weapon of war, in the hopes that enough blood will buy them what negotiation could not. The Palestinian people have chosen martyrdom and murder over compromise; how, then, does one seek a compromise with them? How does one negotiate in hell?

Perhaps there is a way out of the abyss. Perhaps the hearts of the crowds that cheer the suicide bombers as they cheered the fall of the twin towers will be changed by a new leader, a fresh wind, a bold initiative. Perhaps.

But it may be that the state of Israel is doomed—doomed by its proximity to a people bent on its destruction.

After all, there are worse weapons than fertilizer and suicide drifting through the lawless fringes of the earth. It takes a dark spirit to wield them —but then, the soul of the Arab world has gone very dark indeed.

Russ G. Douthat ’02 is a history and literarue concentrator in Quincy House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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