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Blows to Israel Must Never Go Unanswered

The nation's security depends upon exacting a tremendous price against those who attack it

September 05, 2003|Martin Peretz | Martin Peretz is editor in chief of the New Republic.

Jewish history had prepared neither Gentile nor Jew for the cosmic achievements the Zionist enterprise would make in the process of reconstituting a nation. These achievements are easily summarized: the ingathering of a millennially dispersed and diverse people; the regeneration of its ancient and near-moribund language; the fashioning of a lively and democratic polity and press; a genuinely independent judiciary; the mobilization of one of the two or three most proficient and scrupulous militaries in the world; the crafting of a commonwealth curious, open, tolerant -- a nation-state not unlike the United States.

At the end of a century of unthinkably cruel and ultimately empty revolutions -- Nazism, communism -- Israel stands virtually alone in the right to assert that, after the crackup of empires and rage for popular sovereignties, it is a success, and a decent one at that.

Now envision Israel in its actual neighborhood -- the tyrannical societies of the Middle East made even more twisted by corrupting and unproductive oil wealth -- and you have a standing reproach to the Arab hubris that lies to itself.

From the western Sahara to the deserts abutting the Persian Gulf, not a single regime beyond Israel has so much as even embarked, or allowed its entrepreneurs to embark, on the exacting beginnings of industrial advance. This wide swath of terrain on which a quarter of a billion people live produces with all its hands and brains just about what little Finland or Spain does. Remind yourself also that not one ruler across the region governs by consent of the ruled. Evoke the phantoms of lost grandeur put in the heads of miserable boys and girls by dogma and dogmatics.

Mesh all this together and you have some sense of why the West is resented on the Arab street and why, moreover, Israel has not been able to reach, for all its accomplishments, the one quintessential and existential goal articulated by Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, that "the Jew be able to die peacefully in his own bed." And maybe he never will.

It may be that Israel is doomed to live dangerously, even if a shooting, a stabbing, even a bombing on a bus or in a mall occurs only every few years. Maybe there is no enforceable peace treaty that can truly guarantee against crackpots and random fanatics.

Israel's longtime enemy, and its enemy today, is of the very same terror that was launched on us on Sept. 11, but, if less confounding, more routine and more tolerated. It is the world's acceptance of the routinization of this killing of Jews that has so affronted Israel and its allies.

One of the fundamental and actionable principles of Zionism is that Jewish blood is no longer cheap. It follows that the shedding of Jewish blood will not pass without an accounting, without being avenged. And not just for vengeance's sake. But to bring about the elimination of the organized blood sport in Jewish lives.

The fact is that Israel has for years vacillated between responding to terror with exquisitely calibrated force and pacifying terrorists by giving them some of what they want -- for example, the release of prisoners. The latter option is, of course, always the preferred path of the peace process interlocutors, even the American ones.

But, alas, despite the eclat, there had been no actual cease-fire in place since the end of June, although that was the absolute precondition of the "road map." Still, Israel had to pretend, not least of all to its own people, that there was. Otherwise it couldn't go on making concessions to the Palestinians, whether textually obligated or not. And if it didn't make concession after concession, everybody would know that the road map was a map to nowhere.

But no one could really pretend either that Hamas and Islamic Jihad had actually agreed to the famous hudna because day after day, week after week one or another of these groups (and sometimes two competing with each other and with the devil himself) would claim credit for some macabre death happening in Israel.

The Palestinian Authority itself renounced its obligation to squelch these murderous militias, at once asserting its impotence and claiming that any attempt to fight them would lead to civil strife it could not win. So it seemed almost ungentlemanly for the Israelis to insist that the Palestinian Authority try. After all, if the Palestinian Authority lost, Israel would be without a partner at all in the cease-fire that, as it happens, ceased very little fire, indeed.

But the keeping up of pretenses does not advance the cause of peace. Yet it is precisely the keeping up of pretenses that the high-minded folk are always recommending.

When Israel sent a helicopter gunship to kill a top Hamas leader in retaliation for the latest Jerusalem atrocity that claimed 21 Israeli lives, a New York Times editorial criticized Israel for its hasty response: "It is far from clear what would have been lost by giving the Palestinians more time."

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