Center field: Israel must be mad enough to induce fear – yet crazy enough to seek peace

Making peace with your enemies is one thing, but dealing with sadists is impossible.

June 17, 2014 22:52
Western Wall

Praying for the return of the missing teens in the Western Wall. June 15, 2014. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)


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Once again, Palestinian terrorists have shown a perverse genius for hurting Israelis yet uniting them – even as the international media mostly ignores the Palestinian crime. When two 16-year-olds and a 19-year-old are abducted hitchhiking – they are no longer “yeshiva students” or “settlers” but simply “our kids.” Israel becomes one intimate kibbutz as we all see our own children, friends or neighbors in the smiling photos repeatedly broadcast of Naftali Frankel, Gilad Sha’ar and Eyal Yifrach.

I have had a sick feeling in my stomach since hearing the news – terrified by what those kids must be enduring, while heartbroken in feeling their parents’ anguish, too.

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Conversations with other terror victims have taught me that if Naftali, Gilad, and Eyal are still alive, they are replaying their mental tape of Thursday night repeatedly, imprisoned in the “if only” regret game, blaming themselves for doing something that is quite routine. If they survive – and we desperately hope they do – they will struggle with the Israeli terror victim’s vertigo-inducing life lesson: although targeted deliberately as members of a despised group, their particular victimization was random.

Similarly, the parents are playing “what if” scenarios over as they feel paralyzed by fear, bargaining with God, hoping that somehow, their kids will “only” be traumatized by being kidnapped, rather than brutalized or killed. The cost too many have paid to live in this land is too high – losing so many precious gems. But the traditional cliché remains true: “ein breira,” we have no choice, we cannot run away back to statelessness and impotence.

While every life is precious, kidnapping teenagers is particularly cruel. It shows these terrorists have no ethics, no limits to their hatred – and to their rejection of any chance at peace. What kind of a person kidnaps a teenager – and what kind of a people celebrates such evil? The Palestinians distributing candy to celebrate this empty “victory” disgust me. Cartoons celebrating catching these three teenagers, showing mice with Jewish stars dangling on a fishing rod (that the vigilant Palestinian Media Watch translated), enrage me – and this from Fatah, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s “moderate” movement if we swallow the naïve Obama-Kerry peace-processing Kool-Aid.

Making peace with your enemies is one thing, but dealing with sadists is impossible.

When will the world pressure the Palestinians to change their thuggish totalitarian political culture rather than always blaming democratic Israel? In this nasty neighborhood, Israel must restore the balance of dread, whereby our enemies fear us more than we fear them. The Israeli government should shut down the West Bank until Naftali, Gilad and Eyal are freed.

I desperately hope for peace but unhappily must prepare for war. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu can find encouragement in Machiavelli’s insight that it can be “a very wise thing to simulate madness.” Palestinians must fear Israel’s response when they target us – terrorists themselves can be terrorized if their own people turn on them and say “stop” – a word most Palestinians have failed to use with the murderers they idolize.

Nevertheless, as Israel mobilizes, I hope Palestinian leaders can break the cycle their own people are starting. Assuming these kids are still alive, it would be truly transforming if Abbas could intervene, save these children, and return them home as safely as his wife returned to her home after undergoing surgery in an Israeli hospital.

Alternatively, if Hamas is truly moderating as America and the rest of the world have decided it is, here is an opportunity for statesmanship.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh could free the kids as thanks for earlier Israeli medical treatment of his mother-in-law and his late granddaughter.

A Palestinian leader saving these Israeli teens could make an epoch-changing gesture comparable to Egyptian president Anwar Sadat visiting Jerusalem. He would earn Israelis’ gratitude, demonstrate his power in the territories and demonstrate that he truly wants peace. There has to be some Palestinian leader brave enough to challenge his people to seek a different path. Do they really want the word “Palestinian” to be most freely associated in the civilized world with the word “terrorism?” Is that who they are? Is that who they wish to be? In a world whose one constant is change, leaders – and followers – can make things better or worse. Fifteen years ago, Palestinian leaders were pitching Gaza as a tourist destination, as millennial Oslo hopes soared, even amid tensions. Then the Palestinians turned from peace talks back to terrorism; yes I blame them, as Bill Clinton and other experts do. Israeli counterattacks finally produced today’s relative quiet – which the kidnappers now threaten. We need Palestinians courageous enough to end their people’s addiction to violence – and Israelis brave enough to respond warmly if such moves occur.

Asking Israelis to be mad enough to induce fear yet crazy enough to risk for peace is mutually reinforcing, not contradictory. Israel’s attempts at peace during the Oslo years reinforced my love of Israel – while fueling my fury at Palestinians’ violent rejectionism enabled by the world’s myopic complicity.

Willingness to compromise can telegraph strength, not weakness. President John Kennedy cleverly distinguished between compromises of “issues, not of principles,” explaining, “we can compromise our political positions but not ourselves.” Israel’s borders can be debated and adjusted – but we will not compromise our existence or our children’s safety. Fury at Palestinian crimes will not blind me to our own shortcomings – or stop me from trying to lure the dove of peace, even when the weather turns stormy.

This duality has shaped Israeli success since 1948: ever vigilant in both defending and building the state; seeking peace while preparing for war; sheathing the sword whenever possible but keeping it sharp and ready, because “ein breira,” we have no choice. We must defend our children and ourselves.

The author is a professor of history at McGill University and the author of eight books on American history including, Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism, recently published by Oxford University Press.

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