The hour of binary thinking

The hour of binary thinking

Last year, New Republic senior editor Jonathan Chait accused blogger Andrew Sullivan of “binary thinking” when it comes to Israel.

“I think pressure should be placed on Israel to halt — or, ideally, reverse — settlement construction, and the U.S. should recognize that Palestinian rejection of any Jewish state is the deeper problem,” wrote Chait.

His point was that a political observer could hold two ideas in his head at the same time — that Israel is not blameless in its dealings with the Palestinians, and that Palestinian rejection of Israel is the greater obstacle to peace.

But binary thinking seems to be the occupational hazard of Middle East punditry, as I noticed in two stories floating around the Web.

In the first, Chait’s former boss and fellow blogger at the New Republic, Martin Peretz, notes a glaring omission in the Obama administration’s recent guidelines for marking the 9/11 anniversary. “As we commemorate the citizens of over 90 countries who perished in the 9/11 attacks, we honor all victims of terrorism, in every nation around the world,” according to the White House memo. “We honor and celebrate the resilience of individuals, families, and communities on every continent, whether in New York or Nairobi, Bali or Belfast, Mumbai or Manila, or Lahore or London.”

Peretz wonders why Israel was omitted from the “long list of target countries that have been the victims of terrorism.” He’s right to wonder. Why “Belfast” and not Beit She’an or Be’er Sheva? “President Obama has a habit of making such lists, and he always fails to include Israel (or anyplace within its borders) as a target of this distinctive and most vicious form of warfare,” writes Peretz.

My hunch is that the president’s people leave Israel out for fear that including it will change the subject from “the global war on terror” to “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” Whatever the reason, it is a foolish and, to Israeli victims of terror, insulting omission.

But Peretz has bigger fish to fry. He wants Obama to acknowledge that Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians and America’s war with Al Qaida are one and the same — that is, a war against “Muslim extremists.” Taking his binary thinking to the extreme, Israel has no more chance of making peace with Palestinians than America has with Al Qaida.

The mirror opposite of Peretz’s blog post was one by Larry Derfner — which cost him his job as a columnist for the Jerusalem Post. Derfner argued that “Palestinians have the right to resist [the occupation] — to use violence against Israelis, even to kill Israelis, especially when Israel is showing zero willingness to end the occupation.”

Derfner later apologized for his shocking post and took it down — although too late to save his job. “What I mean is this,” he wrote in the follow-up. “The occupation does not justify Palestinian terror. It does, however, provoke it.”

Derfner’s initial post argued, sloppily and even obscenely, against Peretz’s notion that Palestinian terror has no connection to Israeli actions or decisions. But there is a big difference between challenging the policies of the Israeli government and justifying the deaths of teenagers in a Jerusalem pizza shop, or tourists heading home from Eilat. Palestinians may have a “right” to their anger, but terrorism can never be justified, neither on moral nor tactical grounds.

The moral argument is obvious. As for tactics, you can argue that Derfner has it exactly backward — not only has the 40-year campaign of Palestinian terror been “a terrible injustice to Israel,” but a terrible injustice to the Palestinians. Palestinian claims to a state of their own have long been overshadowed — and thwarted — by their leaders’ support for the most unspeakable acts of violence. The Left has not undermined Palestinian aspirations through “ritual condemnations of terror,” as Derfner asserts, but by signaling to the Palestinians that they have the “right” to resist by any means necessary. The Palestinians’ friends should have isolated the terrorists and the leaders who supported them. By coddling Arafat and his ilk, the Left glamorized terror — and doomed the Palestinians to decades of unrealized dreams.

But while it is easy to condemn Derfner and applaud his firing, there is an aspect to what he writes that Israel ignores at its own peril. Israel’s control of millions of people hostile to its rule has security consequences. Israeli military brass have asserted this for years — they know that operations in the West Bank and Gaza are essential to protect Israel, but also that checkpoints, nighttime raids, and mass arrests — justified as they are — create more enemies. (Or, as Chait also wrote, “settlements encourage Palestinian rejectionism.”) They insist that the solution will be political, not military.

Israel certainly faces Muslim extremism, in the form of Hamas and other murderous rejectionists. But to pin all of Israel’s woes on “Muslim extremists” is to discount the tragic entanglement of Israelis and Palestinians; the legitimate claims to autonomy on both sides of the Green Line; the few but significant Palestinian leaders who have been more interested in state-building than bloodletting; and the Israelis, perhaps the majority, who, like Yitzhak Rabin, “believe that in the long run, separation between Israel and the Palestinians is the best solution for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

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