Exiting a Dead End

By William Raspberry

Monday, August 5, 2002

We must not reward terrorism.

The White House says it with sorrow. The Israeli prime minister says it with impressive determination. Pundits say it as though it is stone-carved truth.

We must not reward terrorism -- by demolishing the West Bank settlements, by negotiating with Yasser Arafat (or even accepting the legitimacy of his leadership), by withdrawing Israeli troops from Palestinian territory or, above all, by seriously pushing for Palestinian statehood.

The admonition is repeated as though its meaning is crystal clear. But what, in fact, does it mean?

It is supposed to mean, of course, that Israel (and the United States, its chief supporter) will not call off the military action or press for a Palestinian homeland in the face of the continuing suicide bombings.

But isn't the implication that all these things will happen if the Palestinians stop the suicide bombings, dump Arafat and otherwise behave? Is it believable that Israel will make -- can make -- the critical concessions in the absence of pressure that it could not make at the peak of pressure? Isn't that like expecting civil rights demonstrators to call off their marches in the hope that Bull Connor will escort them to the registrar's office, or expecting the World Trade Organization to modify its policies if only the protesters behaved civilly, or expecting management to accede to labor's demands if the picketers will just shelve their embarrassing placards and their nasty threats to strike?

There is, to be sure, a vast difference between a picket line and bombings. I am right now looking at the bleeding face of a young victim of one of the most recent bombings, which killed at least seven and wounded more than 60 in a Hebrew University cafeteria.

It takes a cold heart and a closed mind not to understand the jut-jawed determination that such savagery not be rewarded with negotiations. But what else? It isn't as though the ribbon to the new state of Palestine was about to be cut -- until the suicide bombers canceled the ceremony. Are the Palestinians wrong to doubt that statehood will ever be their reward for good behavior, when no one seemed to pay much attention to their distress until the intifada?

My reason for mentioning labor disputes and civil rights marches is simple: Groups that need change understand that relaxing the pressure usually works against them. The whole point of the pressure is to give the other side an interest in changing. The Palestinians need change.

Does that justify violence? Rock-throwing, maybe, but certainly not the deliberate slaughter of civilian innocents. So how can I doubt the wisdom of refusing to reward that slaughter with negotiations?

Because there's nothing else to do. The July 31 Hebrew University violence was itself apparent retaliation for an Israeli air raid nine days earlier on Gaza City that killed 15 Palestinians, including the targeted leader of the militant Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) and at least eight children younger than 11.

The point is neither to establish innocence nor to prove moral equivalence. The point is that peace, security and morality do not lie at the end of this cycle of violence.

The Post reported after the Gaza City bombing that since the intifada began, 570 Israelis had been killed and 1,670 Palestinians. Can either side believe such violence has served the interest of peace? Indeed, the reports are that the Gaza City rocket attack scuttled a proposed accord among militant Palestinian groups to end the suicide bombings.

They ought to move forward with the accord anyway -- if Israelis can't strafe their way into security, the Palestinians can't suicide-bomb their way into statehood.

The question, ultimately, is less about rewarding terrorism than about the mindless perpetuation of violence in a region that has seen far too much of it.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company