Nothing is more to be despised, in a time of crisis, than the affectation of "evenhandedness." But there are two very nasty delusions and euphemisms gaining ground at present. The first of these is that suicide bombing is a response to despair, and the second is that Sharon’s policy is a riposte to suicide bombing.
On my very first visit to the unholy land, in September 1976, I went to pay a call on Uri Avnery in his Tel Aviv apartment. I still have the notes of my conversation with this brave writer and human-rights campaigner–one of the most staunch and intelligent veterans of the peace camp–and I blew the dust off the notebook a few days ago. Here it all was: the warnings and the predictions. The Gush Emunim settlers, religious rightists who had just begun to colonize the West Bank in earnest, were hoping to create a permanent occupation. A certain General Sharon was already turning up at their meetings and looking for a political opening. Meanwhile, Yasir Arafat was refusing to repudiate the Palestinian "covenant," which more or less called for the expulsion of all Jews who arrived in Palestine after the 1917 Balfour Declaration. There were "rejectionists" on both sides, but Begin and Sharon were still on the fringes, and it was conceivable that peace would consist of two states, with both sides renouncing their maximum irredentist positions and–this had a special importance–being willing to confront their own fanatics. Avnery mentioned his friendship with Said Hammami, a Palestinian internationalist then representing the PLO in London and ready to discuss mutual recognition. I knew and admired Hammami myself; he was murdered by the Abu Nidal gang not long afterward.
One weeps to think of what might still have been accomplished then if the United States had been willing to act on a two-state solution. Yet Washington took the same line on Palestinian statehood that St. Augustine took on chastity: It was something to be desired eventually, but not quite yet. It still does, dumbly and unbelievably, take that same line, as if the West Bank was the one place in the world where a superpower’s writ does not run.
None of this recognition of our own responsibility can be wasted on rationalizations of the suicide bombers and the Palestinian organizations that sponsor them. The self-murder of preprogrammed individuals who have the massacre of civilians as their aim is not just disgusting in itself. It expresses very clearly the absolutism of the ideology that exalts it; a depraved religious mentality combined with a rigidly exclusive ethnonationalism. If it took only "despair" there would or could be millions of Palestinians doing it, and doing it furthermore (since the "risk" is hardly greater) at least against "military targets." But the immolation of an old people’s Passover dinner, in the territories that are supposedly recognized as Israeli, requires more than a blank lack of discrimination. It requires planning.
"Condemnations" of such deeds are worthless, and more than worthless, in fact contemptible, when they have to be exacted. Edward Said to his credit long ago expressed a secular wish for a Palestinian Mandela, instead of the Papa Doc figure who now leads a hideously misgoverned people. Well, Nelson Mandela was in jail when the practice of "necklacing" the supposed collaborators infected the townships of South Africa. But Desmond Tutu, short and vulnerable as he was, waded into a mob and forced a halt to a public burning. No doubt that crowd had felt despair and frustration also. But there was no question which side the leadership was on.
A simple thought experiment shows that if there were any sign of a two-state solution, suicide murders would increase and not decrease. In case you have forgotten, these obscene tactics were first employed when the Rabin-Peres government was in power and when there was much more negotiating "space" than there is now. Netanyahu quite probably owes his election to those events, and something tells me that his rival and successor, General Sharon, does not tear his hair with grief when he learns of the random slaughter of Jews.
Here again, it is wise to look at the original political programs. The forces of Islamic Jihad say that non-Muslims are vile interlopers in a consecrated land. Their tactics therefore express their primitive ideology. Sharon and Netanyahu believe that god reserved this same territory for the Jews, and Sharon has specialized for decades in punitive wars against those impudent enough to complain at their original expulsion or subordination. He has taken this campaign of revenge against the victims all the way to Jordan, to the Sinai, to Gaza, to Lebanon and most recently to Jenin. He has welcomed to his Cabinet Effi Eitam, an open advocate of ethnic cleansing, and he has appointed a minister of internal security, Uzi Landau, who says that Israel should treat the Palestinians as Saddam Hussein dealt with the Kurds. (Funny how those who say the wrong thing are often saying what they mean.) Not one US government voice has been raised against the statements of Eitam or Landau. Not one US government voice has been raised against the Saudi financing of the suicide militias. Referring this trade-off to the international scene, it’s now a race to see whether Saddam saves Sharon, or Sharon saves Saddam.
Facile equivalences are to be avoided. One in particular is the stupid equation by peaceniks between Sharon in Jenin and the international coalition in Kabul, which easily made distinctions between killers and noncombatants and which still does. But if the American conservatives choose to make the same mistake by identifying in reverse order, then they replicate the reciprocity between Sharonism, which is an insult to the Jews, and jihadism, which is a disgrace to the Arabs. (Perhaps a pious Christian supervision of this ghastly "process" of symbiosis is all that we needed.) September 11, more than anything, marked the opening of a culture war between those who believe that god favors thuggish, tribal human designs, and those who don’t believe in god and who oppose thuggery and tribalism on principle. That ought to be the really historic and dialectical sense in which it "changed everything."