As the Middle East watches for America’s reaction to the attacks on its soil, Israelis worry that Americans may now think that supporting Israel is too costly, while Palestinians fear that America’s pain may translate into anti-Arab sentiment and added empathy with Israel. But if the aim of the cease-fire steps announced yesterday is merely tactical, both sides miss the point entirely. The disaster we now face profoundly affects the lives of Israelis and Palestinians regardless of American reaction: In the disaster that befell America, they should see the grim prospects of their own future if they maintain the violent course of the past year.
The means that both sides employ in the Middle Eastern conflict could ultimately replace the ends to which they aspire. For those who live in daily anguish—and there is much anguish and pain in the Middle East these days—it has been tempting to condone almost any means to overcome fear and despair. The secular elites among the Palestinians and other Arabs, as well as the political moderates and the middle classes, have too often allowed anger, fear and a sense of helplessness to mute their protest against the horrific suicide bombings that have killed innocent civilians in the past year, even if most believed that such acts are profoundly wrong. In the World Trade Center calamity they should see the haunting conclusion of allowing almost any means to justify one’s ends. One side can hurt—even defeat—the other, but only by losing itself. Recent history in the Middle East provides ample instances of people assuming that any means will do, only to be bitterly disappointed.
Many secular groups that opposed the repressive shah of Iran in the 1970’s believed that they could join the Islamic revolution to achieve his overthrow, only to find themselves in exile later, fighting the new Islamic regime. Israel sought to weaken the Palestine Liberation Organization in the 1980’s by supporting the Islamic opposition, only to find that it had helped give rise to Hamas. And in fighting the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the United States helped mobilize some of the same forces that now terrorize it.
Even Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group, learned not to rely on attacks that blatantly conflict with international standards of behavior by causing large-scale civilian casualties. As it focused primarily on Israeli soldiers on Lebanese soil rather than on Israeli civilians, both the international opposition to its operations and the Israeli will to fight them diminished. When Israel ultimately withdrew last year, it was not because of any terrorism but because the moral weakness of its occupation had been made nakedly clear.
Today, neither Arabs nor Israelis can afford to go back to their conflict as if little had changed. Arabs cannot look at the tragedy in the United States as a short-term setback that they must ride out until things return to normal, and Israelis cannot merely see a public opinion advantage that allows them room to operate as usual. Life is altered—not only for the United States, but also for them.
It seems surreal that just over a year ago Syria and Israel failed to agree on peace over a few hundred feet of land, or that Israelis and Palestinians, having come so far in their previous negotiations, would fail to continue trying to reach a normal and peaceful life for both their peoples.
Moderates on both sides who have been hiding in the shadow of violence must summon the courage today to provide an alternative, for otherwise the means that their nations employ may destroy any possibility of achieving their legitimate ends. Both Palestinians and Israelis will survive even if they continue to fight, but what will become of their societies and their lives as militants and occupiers?
As the world tries to discern the motives of those who carried out the attacks in the United States, everyone must reject the notion that pain and anger in the Middle East can alone explain such horror, even if we know that terrorists seek to exploit such pain and anger.
And as the United States and other nations contemplate the means of our necessary response to terrorist crimes, hearts must never be so hardened as to forget that what is at stake is much bigger than mere retaliation or that one cannot defend one’s values by subverting them.