Ballot Box

Land for War

Israel to terrorists: Take our peace, lose your land.

Last night, after a Hamas bomber killed 19 Israelis on a bus in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon met with his Cabinet and authorized a new policy. Under this policy, “Israel will respond to acts of terror by capturing [Palestinian Authority] territory. These areas will be held by Israel as long as terror continues. Additional acts of terror will lead to the taking of additional areas.” To prove its point, Israel sent troops into several West Bank cities, where they set up mobile homes, imposed curfews, commandeered buildings, and rounded up suspected militants.

Israeli rightists embraced the policy as a return to permanent Jewish rule of the West Bank. Israeli leftists, Palestinian moderates, and critics of Israel around the world denounced the policy as a betrayal of the peace process. Both claims could turn out to be true, but they needn’t be. Properly gauged, the new policy can extend the logic of land for peace. Take our peace, lose your land.

The critique from the left, as voiced by Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and his Cabinet ministers, is that Israeli invasions of Palestinian territory belie and destroy “the peace process.” But what exactly is that process? Israel gives the Palestinians land, and the Palestinians give Israel peace. (To be more precise, Israel gives the Palestinians back their land, and the Palestinians give Israel back its peace.) Some people think Israel reneged on its land commitment because the Palestinians reneged on their peace commitment. Others think the Palestinians reneged on their peace commitment because Israel reneged on its land commitment. But all of these people agree on the idea of land for peace.

Even many of the terrorists, in their twisted way, share this assumption. Hamas, the organization that sponsored yesterday’s bus bombing, wants to obliterate Israel. But the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, which sponsored today’s bombing of a Jerusalem bus stop (killing seven people and wounding 38), officially just wants Israel to withdraw to its 1967 borders. “Zionists, leave our land because we will not stop our operations as long as there is an occupation,” the group warned in a statement claiming credit for the attack.

The Israeli policy turns this logic on its head. To the extent that the purpose of Palestinian terrorism is to get land—and it must be understood that this extent is limited—the clearest demonstration of the failure of that approach is to take land from the Palestinians each time they commit terrorism. If it wasn’t crazy for the Israelis to halt their surrender of land under the Oslo agreement on the grounds that they weren’t getting the peace they had bargained for, why is it crazy for them to raise the ante? The new policy simply pushes the Palestinian reward/punishment calculus into negative territory. If Israel is deprived of peace, it won’t just stop giving up land. It will take land back.

By the same token, this policy only makes sense if it’s limited. Reports from Israel indicate that hard-liners in Sharon’s Cabinet see the policy as a return to permanent occupation of the West Bank. One Cabinet minister told Israel Radio, “The government should return absolute control over the whole of [the West Bank] to the army.” That notion is self-defeating. If you’re a Palestinian and the Israeli government tells you that it will keep your land regardless of your behavior, what incentive do you have to offer peace in return?

The conflicting statements coming out of the Israeli government today suggest that Sharon’s ministers are fighting over exactly what the new policy means. Some speak of occupation; others speak of capture; still others speak of incursions. The defense minister and the chief of the Israeli army have indicated that they envision police actions lasting one to three weeks. That’s a sensible stopping point for now. As for Israelis who want a pretext to rule the West Bank forever, they should bear in mind the impotence of total war. You can’t threaten the peace of a dead man, and you can’t threaten the freedom of a slave.