Restore our moral authority

April 17, 2002|By Shibley Telhami

THE BUSH administration has had a tough time getting the cooperation it has sought for its Middle East policy.

What has been absent is this: the required moral clarity and authority to convince not only Israelis and Arabs but also the American public and Congress of the need for an immediate Israeli withdrawal and a halt to terrorism.

In justifying their demand that Israel must withdraw from Palestinian cities without delay, President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell have spoken only of possible "consequences" of continued Israeli operations but not of the moral wrong of the unjustified scale and scope of Israeli operations and the means Israel has used. Consequences are easy to debate, but moral principles are not.

In our approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, we take a clear moral position toward Palestinian terrorism that goes like this: The Palestinians must be restrained in their response to the hardship that they endure daily after 35 years of occupation and to the humiliation and hopelessness that an entire generation experiences today. While they have a right to seek freedom, they have no right to use terrorism. The ends can never justify the means. This is a worthy moral position.

Then we turn to the Israelis as we watch the horror that they endure in the face of suicide bombings. We understand that they must respond in some way, but we act as if they can respond in any way they choose. We do not ask morally that such actions must not be sweeping, that they must be less hurtful to the hundreds of thousands of innocent Palestinians who suffer the consequences.

We take no moral position and appear to give a blank check. We put our faith in Ariel Sharon to define the moral limits of military actions. Our moral authority globally is undermined as a result.

This seeming moral indifference to Israeli actions, at least during the first week, could come back to haunt us if it turns out, as Israeli officers and journalists are now reporting, that there are hundreds of Palestinian casualties - especially in a refugee camp near Jenin - that there is much destruction of homes and facilities and that there are severe violations of human rights.

And whereas we ignored the moral dimension of Israeli actions, we chose to evaluate Palestinian behavior only on that dimension. This has handicapped our ability to conceive of the need to put forth a serious political alternative to violence even as we rightfully demand that terrorism must stop.

While nothing can morally justify such actions as killing civilians, analytically we must sadly acknowledge that such actions do not take place in a vacuum. Public opinion polls have consistently shown that both the Palestinian and Israeli publics' positions hardened, and support of violent measures against the other increased, as the hope for a peaceful agreement disappeared.

In the five years preceding the collapse of negotiations in July 2000, terrorism in the Middle East decreased every single year, becoming the region with the fewest terrorist acts of any region except North America in the hopeful years of 1999 and 2000.

Our policy cannot be limited to stating that one side or the other must simply stop because its actions are immoral. The consequences are huge, not only for the Arabs and Israelis and for the Middle East more generally, but also for our war on terrorism as we embark on a slippery slope toward a clash of civilizations that no one wants or can afford.

The challenge now is great. Once details of destruction and death start coming out of West Bank towns, anger in the region will only increase and Palestinian attempts to avenge what happened will unfortunately multiply.

As we have tragically witnessed in the past few days, some will succeed, with Israeli civilian casualties that will further fuel public anger in Israel. If there is any hope of reversing the destructive tide, it is this: Most leaders in the Middle East and around the world, especially in Europe, understand the gravity of the situation and its potential consequences globally. This is an opportunity for the Bush administration to lead in a big way.

But it can only do so if it restores its moral authority. It cannot be morally silent about the needless death and pain of so many innocent Palestinians and Israelis alike.

Shibley Telhami is Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, College Park and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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