America Can't Be Mommy in the Middle East


What, exactly, was Secretary of State Colin L. Powell doing in Jerusalem and Ramallah? Ostensibly, trying to broker a cease-fire. In reality, making what increasingly looked like the last stand of the Mommy Model of the Middle East.

Please excuse the use of a derisory but, I think, fairly accurate label for a view held by quite a lot of sophisticated, smart people. In that view, the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is essentially a local land dispute in which both sides have lost their tempers. Like two boys on a playground, they escalated from hair-pulling to shoving to fists and now to rocks and knives. Yet they could get along if only they would master their emotions. The conflict is irrational. It serves no one's interests. The job of the United States, therefore, is to pull apart the fighters and help them make up. On the Mommy Model, the only mystery is what took the Bush administration so long about saying, as President Bush finally did say, "Enough is enough."

Integral to the Mommy Model is the view that neither side really knows what it is doing and that both are looking for a way out. Palestinian suicide bombers are "deranged and despairing," as Mary McGrory put it in The Washington Post a couple of weeks ago. They have been driven to desperation by decades of political frustration and Israeli torment. As for the Israelis, they are lashing out brutally and blindly in a self-defeating operation that can only make Palestinians more deranged and more despairing.

Like everyone else, I wish the Mommy Model were right. It would be nice to think that the mayhem could be ended soon if only the "cycle of violence" were broken, and that the issue comes down to a land dispute, and that the United States could resolve the conflict without taking sides. Perhaps the Mommy Model may save the day after all. Every passing week, however, makes that seem less likely. American diplomacy, it is becoming clear, would be more sensibly built on a Rational-Warfare Model.

The Rational-Warfare Model takes as its premise that both sides in the Middle East conflict know exactly what they are doing and have good reasons to do it—reasons that will not go away even if the United States shakes its finger and demands better behavior. The reasons are simple. For the Palestinians, terrorism works. For the Israelis, nothing but fighting terrorism works. The war is rational because it is no longer about territory (if it ever was); it is about terror.

>From the point of view of Palestinian militants (who are the ones effectively in charge), shredding Israeli teenagers with bombs has been a success. Strategically, it has put the Palestinian struggle at the top of the international agenda. The militants believe that terrorism is the only weapon that reliably gets the world's and Israel's attention. If they gave it up tomorrow, Israel would declare victory and America and Europe would gratefully forget all about Palestine. Relinquishing this weapon without having attained their goal—whatever that is—must strike the militants as a nonstarter.

Tactically, too, terror has been a grand success. It has brought the brickbats of Europe and the United Nations down upon the head of Israel. It has given the Arab countries an excuse to oppose American action against Iraq. And it has forced the Americans onto the defensive. Just look. The Bush administration had not wanted to deal with Yasir Arafat, whom it regards as a liar and harborer of terrorism; but now it is dealing with him. The administration had insisted, with the Israelis, that a cease-fire must precede political talks; but now it has accepted the Palestinian view that the two must happen together. The administration had waved aside Palestinians' calls for American monitors to enforce a truce (and restrain the Israelis); now it says monitors could be OK.

Why the sudden turns? Perhaps because the Palestinians were right all along and Bush just needed some time to come around? Maybe, but more than a few Palestinians think they know the real reason. Bush's changes of mind, Palestinian Planning Minister Nabil Shaath said in a speech, stemmed from the "courageous Palestinian resistance." Loose translation: We bombed, they budged.

Most impressive of all has been the campaign's moral success. To a degree that would have seemed impossible a couple of years ago, the Palestinian militants have succeeded in establishing the equivalence of terrorism with military action intended to stop terrorism. Civilized people all around the world are coming to accept that "the moral high ground doesn't exist" in the Israel-Palestinian conflict, as James Zogby, the president of the Arab American Institute, recently told McGrory. Even Powell has adopted the nonjudgmental language of a teacher in the school yard. "Violence of whatever form, whether one would call it an act of terrorism or an act of resistance, at this point is counterproductive," he said. Polls show that most Americans regard Arafat as a "terrorist," but at this rate, even they may come around.

Looking at a record of success like that, militant Palestinian leaders have every reason to think they are getting somewhere, and potential bombers have every reason to feel that their lives would not be wasted in a suicide. The militants are not "deranged and despairing." Just the contrary: They are clear-eyed and encouraged.

Like the militants, the Israelis also know what they are doing—but in the Israelis' case, this is something of a change. For months, the government of Ariel Sharon drove tanks around the West Bank, blew up empty Palestinian Authority buildings, assassinated the odd militant, and humiliated people at checkpoints. The policy infuriated the Palestinian population at large while doing little or nothing to disrupt the operations of bombers.

The current Israeli campaign, although ugly, rights the equation; and, unlike Sharon's earlier policies, it might work. "Work" does not mean ending all the terrorism. "There is no 100 percent answer to terror—no," Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, the Israeli defense minister, told reporters. "Work" means taking the fight to the terrorists. It means disrupting their activities and networks, uprooting their infrastructure, depriving them of sanctuary, learning their secrets, arresting their operatives, and otherwise making their lives difficult. That, as the Israelis point out, is exactly what America's own war on terror seeks to accomplish against Al Qaeda.

Many people argue that the Israeli military action only intensifies Palestinian wrath. Those people may be right, but they miss the point, which is that there is no alternative. Fighting terrorists does not always succeed, but seeming helpless or unwilling to fight them always fails.

For terrorists, guerrillas, freedom fighters, or whatever you care to call them, victory is the great motivator and futility the great demoralizer. Al Qaeda looked a lot more attractive as a career option when it seemed invulnerable. In any case, the Palestinians who send the bombers—not primarily Arafat, but the hard men of Tanzim and Fatah and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, and the still harder men of Hamas and Hezbollah—are people who will not give up terrorism until it fails. Israel's job, like America's, is to make it fail.

Realists point out that sometimes one must swallow one's pride and negotiate with terrorists. That is true, but only with a proviso. The time to talk to terrorists is after proving you can fight them effectively, not before. This takes a while. In Sri Lanka and Northern Ireland, it took two decades to convince terrorists that they were better off bargaining than fighting (and even so, progress is fitful and uncertain). Well, it takes as long as it takes. Colombia tried a shortcut. It gave its narco-terrorists a big swath of the country in hopes of luring them to peace. The terrorists dug in, armed up, and in due course launched a new war. In the 1990s, the Palestinian militants did much the same.

The classicist and military historian Victor Davis Hanson remarks that, in their dark hours, free countries tend to bring forward unappealing people who do dirty but necessary jobs—people such as Ariel Sharon. Sharon is probably the wrong man to make peace, but there will be no peace until war looks unpromising to at least a working majority of the Palestinian militants, and that will not happen unless Israel demonstrates it can fight.

Israel may or may not win. It should be held accountable for any war crimes or atrocities that it may commit (but always remember that it faces opponents whose military strategy consists of almost nothing except committing atrocities, and who aim to erase the very distinction between war and war crimes). Still, it cannot not fight. Israel's West Bank action was a rational and requisite response to a calculating barbarism. This is a real war, not a temper tantrum, and the mommy track is a dead end.