LONDON — Fifteen Israelis, half of them children, were killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber in Sbarro’s pizzeria in Jerusalem on Thursday. A comparable number were killed by a suicide bomber at a Tel Aviv disco in June. These outrages have a far greater impact on public opinion at home and abroad than the daily death toll on Israel’s roads — but then, the bombs are intended to have a huge impact.
“Nothing is gained by cowardly acts such as this,” said U.S. President George W. Bush after the Jerusalem bombing, using a formula that must be pasted on the teleprompter by now. It’s what he had to say — what everybody in authority is obliged to say when these things happen — but, of course, it isn’t true.
Blowing oneself up may be misguided, vicious, any number of negative things, but “cowardly” isn’t one of them. And the 23-year-old man who detonated the bomb in Sbarro’s did expect it to gain something. He may be right.
The point about the bombs is precisely that they have a long-term political purpose. Many of the other killings in the Israel-Palestine arena at the moment have short-term tactical purposes, like the targeted Israeli assassinations of Palestinian militants and the drive-by shootings of Jewish settlers by Palestinian gunmen. But the massacres committed by the human bombs are strategic, not tactical.
The point of the bombs, for those who lead the militant Palestinian group Islamic Jihad, is to prevent a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians that enshrines the supplicant status of the Palestinians forever. Young Arab “martyrs” may not fully grasp it, but they are meant to fill Israelis with such hatred for Palestinians that they reject any peace deal with the likes of PLO leader Yasser Arafat in this generation: For in the following generation or the next, when the balance of forces has changed, such deals may not be necessary.
The real question, for people who think like this, is whether there will be an Israel in 2100. There will almost certainly still be an Israel in 2020, though on current demographic trends its population (within the 1948 borders) will be one-third Palestinian. There will probably still be a Jewish-dominated Israel in 2050, though by then several Arab states will likely have nuclear weapons too and the U.S. will no longer be the sole superpower. But will there be an Israel in 2100 or will it by then have shared the fate of the various European-run Crusader states that flourished in the region 1,000 years ago?
Israelis think about this. It’s clearest in the case of the mostly American settler-fanatics in the settlements of the West Bank, who are prepared to sacrifice not only their own lives but those of the next couple of generations to ensure that this land becomes (or as they would put it, “remains”) Jewish. But every prime minister of Israel, from David Ben Gurion to Areil Sharon, has also thought about 2100, and how to get there without losing what has been gained.
You could even say that the goal of all Israelis is common, and all that differs is the tactics. That does a disservice to the many in Israel who refuse to accept that the end justifies any means. It also omits the huge differences among Israelis about the possible or theologically necessary borders of that long-term Israel. But there is a level at which all Israeli Jews are on the same side.
The goal of all Palestinians is also common: to regain some or all of the historic territory of Palestine as an independent homeland where they can determine their own fate. The differences between the maximalists, such as Islamic Jihad (which dreams of driving the Jews into the sea), and the pragmatic minimalists, such as Arafat, remain huge, but in the current environment arguments about tactics slide easily into arguments about basic strategy, and that slide is certainly happening among the Palestinians.
Both sides are easily seduced by the notion that the other side will eventually break if subjected to enough pressure, and this delusion plays a role in the present round of violence. But in fact neither side will break: They are both made up of brave and obstinate human beings. The job of the maximalists on either side is to ensure that they don’t make any compromises either. But there is a distinction.
Arabs, rightly or wrongly, think that time is on their side. One hundred years from now, they assume, Israel’s Western friends will be less dominant in the world’s affairs and Muslim countries will be more prominent, and the technological gap will long since have closed.
Many Israeli leaders, including those on the right, make the same assumptions — which makes them ambivalent about a compromise peace now, rather than totally opposed to it. Even men like Sharon are reluctant to slam the door on a negotiated peace in this generation, though their terms for peace are unlikely ever to be acceptable to Palestinians.
This explains Sharon’s surprisingly measured response to the Jerusalem bombing. But the bombers (who despise Arafat as much as Sharon) are not finished, and the Israelis who voted for Sharon do not take nearly as long a view as he does. In the end, the bombers may win.