The Washington Times

In the Middle East, the temptation is to ignore the first rule of politics: You begin where you are. This is not Lebanon in 1982, Ariel Sharon versus Yasser Arafat, all over again. Nor is it 1967, 1948 – nor, for that matter, 715, when the al Aksa mosque was completed in Jerusalem, nor 561 B.C., when the Second Temple was erected. Trying to tease out the meaning of the current violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from thousands of years of strife may be an interesting exercise, but it is not going to get anybody anywhere.

So, where are we? Israeli forces moved into the West Bank because a rash of suicide bombings emanating from there created an intolerable situation: substantial loss of Israeli life and a terrorized population. Though the Israeli military has withdrawn from some areas by now, in others it remains and is likely to continue to do so as long as the Israeli leadership thinks that, on net, doing so will make Israelis more secure.

It’s perfectly legitimate to question the leadership abilities of Prime Minister Sharon. But it is absurd to personalize the conflict. What is often called “Sharon” actually refers to an almost completely united Israeli government acting with the overwhelming support of Israeli citizens. It’s difficult to imagine any successor government to Mr. Sharon’s viewing matters all that differently. Current conditions are such that Israel is well past the point, for example, of thinking about whether building settlements on the West Bank is or was a good idea. In fact, it was a terrible idea. But to Israelis now, the question is how best to stop such Palestinian attacks as the one on Adora this weekend. The best answer may, in the end, be by removing the settlements, but that does not address the security need that Israelis are acutely feeling right now.

Nor, in a way, is this problem really uniquely Israeli, in the sense of being bound up in some way with either the Holocaust and its aftermath, the Zionist tradition of the 20th century, or Jews’ millennia-old aspirations for nationhood in the Holy Land. I think it is perfectly obvious that any nation facing the circumstances Israel has lately faced, namely, terrorist attacks on civilians carried out from a neighboring territory, would act to protect its citizens.

But, of course, no other nation faces such circumstances on the day-in, day-out basis that has characterized the attacks on Israel in the past few months – not even the post-September 11 United States. So it apparently becomes imaginable to some people in other, safer places that Israel isn’t really facing what it’s facing and therefore somehow has the option of responding to force with something other than force. Have Israel’s Western critics really grown so accustomed to their comfort and safety that they can’t imagine fighting back in response to enemy suicide attacks on their civilians?

It’s a possibility. But there is another possibility that, if anything, reflects even more poorly on the moral imagination of some of the critics. This is the imputation of something specifically “Jewish” (or, more safely for those harboring such views, “Israeli” or “Zionist”) to the situation in which Israel finds itself. But for the Jewishness of the Jews of Israel, in this view – their sense of their own particularity as a people, and “God’s chosen people” at that – Israel might long ago have made peace with its neighbors and reached an accommodation with a Palestinian state.

This is, in my view, the most sophisticated form of anti-Semitism going. It finds in the Jewish people’s very sense of themselves as a people sufficient grounds for treating them differently as a people – expecting of them something other than a military response to enemy attacks, on the grounds that something existential about themselves brought on and justifies the attacks.

Mr. Sharon will do what he can on the ground until either he is satisfied with the results or the pressure to withdraw becomes too great to withstand. As for the latter, the United States hasn’t really tried to apply such pressure, even as it has tried to be seen as trying to apply pressure. The result is not pretty from the point of view of either diplomacy or moral clarity. But underlying it is a relatively healthy attitude within the United States, which has serious security responsibilities around the world, about when a nation has to fight.

As a general rule, when an enemy attacks your people, you have to fight. Later, perhaps, you can make peace, if there is a peace to be made. I think there is one to be made here, and to the extent Israelis likewise wish to locate the present moment elsewhere – to begin someplace other than where we are – they are in for trouble, too. By now, the case in principle for Palestine has been well-established. But Palestinians and their supporters need to understand that their national aspirations aren’t going to be fulfilled while the attacks continue. Either their leaders stop it, or Israel will reply with force, if necessary again and again.