Israel Peace Talks Aren't a Reward for Terror

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Does negotiating peace while suicide bombings continue mean you are, as some pundits and Israeli hawks have argued, rewarding terrorism? The argument doesn't hold water, but as the Bush administration attempts to re-engage with the Palestinian leadership of Yasser Arafat to broker a cease-fire it's worth examining why peace negotiations should be separated from a war on terror.

The hawks argue that any move to accommodate Palestinian political aspirations before terrorism has ended — even as part of a cease-fire plan — will simply whet the appetites of the terrorists for further concessions. They also say it sends the message that terrorism works, fundamentally undermining the Bush administration's zero-tolerance stance. [an error occurred while processing this directive]

But rather than rewarding terrorism, peace processes are designed to challenge terrorism by offering a non-violent political alternative through which disenfranchised peoples can pursue their national goals. History's lesson is that whatever victories an occupying army wins against a popular guerrilla enemy are almost invariably temporary. Political solutions that would be labeled by the hawks as "rewarding terrorism" are in fact the norm in solving armed conflicts.

A short history of terror and peace

Northern Ireland's Good Friday Agreement, for example, has made remarkable progress in disarming the IRA by creating non-violent channels of political expression for the Republican cause. Some former IRA gunmen are now cabinet ministers in Northern Ireland.

In Macedonia last year, NATO "rewarded" ethnic-Albanians who took up weapons against a legitimate democratic state by pressing for major constitutional changes to accommodate their aspirations. In Kosovo, two years earlier, the U.S. went to war alongside the Kosovo Liberation Army, which Washington had had branded "terrorists" only months before, in order to pursue their shared goal of ending Serb rule over the territory.

South Africa's Nelson Mandela is internationally regarded as an unimpeachable moral giant today, but it's worth remembering that his African National Congress fought a 29-year guerrilla war against the apartheid regime which at one point included a series of terrorist attacks on civilians in shopping malls and bars. Yet it was with the same organization that the white minority regime finally negotiated the transition to democratic majority rule.

The U.S. negotiated with the Vietnamese, whom they branded terrorists. So did the French with the Algerians. And back in 1948, the international community recognized the claim of Jews in Palestine to statehood even though some — including two subsequent Israeli prime ministers — had pursued that goal through acts of terrorism against the British.

Suicide bombers vs. McVeigh

Terrorism is not an independent phenomenon. It's a ghastly political tactic used by quite different movements throughout history. Morally, we should make no distinction between Timothy McVeigh and the Passover suicide bomber — both made innocent civilians the target of their rage. But if we're to be effective in stopping such outrages, we have to understand and address the very different circumstances that created each one. And this goes beyond simple police work or military action.

McVeigh may have deluded himself that he was a "patriot," but his actions were abhorred even by most of the fringe elements who supported his political views. But the suicide bomber has become part of the Palestinian mainstream, precisely because that society has lost any hope in achieving its national objectives through peaceful channels. So while nobody followed in McVeigh's footsteps, there are thousands upon thousands of young Palestinians waiting to emulate the Passover suicide bomber. And nobody seriously believes Israel's current offensive will change that reality.

The Bush administration is wisely attempting to restore a non-violent channel for pursuing Palestinian national aspirations — to create hope, because suicide terrorism thrives on despair. McVeigh's acolytes were few because even those who share his grievances have other channels of expression in a democratic society. Right now, most Palestinians see violence as the only way to pursue independence and an end to the occupation.

Separating the hardliners from the mainstream

It's worth remembering that those dispatching the suicide bombers see no reward in renewed political negotiations. If anything, their actions reveal they're threatened by dialogue. It's no coincidence that every visit by General Zinni to broker a truce has brought a sharp uptick in terror attacks. The militants believe they can win by violence, and they have no interest in negotiations over a two-state solution. That's why the late Yitzhak Rabin had the foresight to recognize that stopping the peace process in response to terror attacks gave extremists veto power over the destiny of both peoples. He kept the Oslo process going even when suicide bombers attacked, believing that the terrorists would ultimately be defeated by the completion of the peace process. Rabin's motto was "fight terrorism as if there is no peace process; pursue peace as if there is no terrorism."

Right now, somewhere in the West Bank, a hardened Palestinian militant is coaxing a traumatized teenager into becoming a human bomb. The recruiter is offering the glory of martyrdom in service of his suffering people. What alternative future does that teenager see? The frightening reality is that for much of Palestinian society the future looks so grim as to give suicide bombing a ghoulish appeal. And that's why restarting a process toward separating Palestinian society from Israeli occupation by creating a viable Palestinian state is a matter of considerable urgency. Both sides currently believe they're fighting for their very national survival, and both sides see that as worth dying for. Restarting the peace process is an essential step in offering them an alternative worth living for.