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The Bomb's Diameters

Yehuda Amichai, the great Hebrew poet dead a year now, a friend of The New Republic and its editors, wrote a poem two decades ago that began: 

The diameter of the bomb was thirty
And the diameter of its effective range
     about seven meters,
With four dead and eleven wounded...

There has been little progress in the dynamics of peace since those stark lines were written. But over time, the Arabs of Palestine have refined the mechanics of random killing. The diameters of each of the four bombs that went off this past weekend in Jerusalem and Haifa were the sizes of the waists of the Muslim suicide bombers who wore them, and their effective range was far larger than the small bomb that prodded Amichai to write 23 years ago. As of this writing, 26 random targets have gone to the bosoms of their ancestors, and not less than 275 will live the rest of their days maimed in body, in mind, or in both. The Jerusalem bombing was a perfect example of the satanic imagination at work: one murderer in the middle of Ben Yehuda Street, another near the bottom, at Jaffa Road where it meets Zion Square. "No exit," as Sartre put it. This is a lively pedestrians-only area, with cafés and shops catering mostly to the under-30s. In calmer times, young Arabs would mix with young Jews there. But among the dead on Saturday night, no one, save the bomber, was Arab and no one was over 19. Some 20 minutes after the first bombing, a car exploded a block away, this blast coolly calibrated to snare some of the fast-converging rescue workers, the religious Jews who collect all kinds of body parts, limbs, flesh, teeth, scalps, and hair of the victims, in fulfillment of Jewish law. And they do so with tragic frequency.

This time Hamas, the Islamists who only recently Yasir Arafat was trying to entice into joining a governing coalition for the Palestinian Authority, claimed sole responsibility. Yes, the demented of Hamas (led by that other crazed Osama bin Laden figure, Sheikh Yassin) are responsible for what General Zinni, shocked into a visible pallor, called the "deepest evil.... [T]he lowest form of inhumanity that can be imagined." But Islamic Jihad and Arafat's own Al Aqsa Brigade have committed similar crimes. Indeed, the virtue of killing Jews may be the only principle on which the entire Palestinian polity really agrees. This is a culture that is particularly proud of young men who take innocent life. On the afternoon of his macabre deed, hundreds of the Haifa bomber's Nablus neighbors descended on his family's home to help them celebrate his ascent to paradise.

The Bush administration has called on Arafat "to do everything in his power to find those who murdered innocent Israelis and bring them to justice." This is supposed to evoke in our minds the demarche Bush gave to Mullah Omar and the Taliban about turning over bin Laden and the Al Qaeda leadership. But everyone knew that such a transaction would never take place. And no one wanted Omar and his top comrades to survive. Contrast this stringent realism with the delicacy with which the United States has always treated Arafat, and demanded that Israel treat him, too. For decades now, every murderous deed perpetrated by Arafat's men has been followed immediately by American (and, even more so, European) pleas for Israeli restraint, and soon after by pleas for Israeli concessions. So while the administration's rhetoric about our war on terrorism now mirrors its rhetoric about Israel's war on terrorism, the response that we allow ourselves, and that we demand of the Jewish State, remains radically different. For us, appeasement is unthinkable. For Israel, it is prudent.

To be sure, Arafat was not the first to make terror stalk the Land: Palestinian Jewry lived with terror for five decades before Israeli independence. But Arafat is the world's senior terrorist. To the extent that he personifies the Palestinian revolution, that revolution will always be linked to his political innovations, not just in Israel but wherever there were Jews, people friendly to Israel, or business interests linked to Israel. Just say "Munich Olympics" and any listener immediately thinks: "massacre of Israeli athletes" and "the Palestinians." To Arafat, we also owe the modern phenomenon of airplane hijackings, of which September 11 is the logical strategic and psychological outgrowth. And the epidemic of car bombs, kidnappings, hostage-takings, and explosions in markets, assembly halls, airports, places of prayer, and theaters, which is now the common currency of people who cultivate the notion of themselves as victims in order to make real victims of others.

I don't understand why Americans cling to the idea that Arafat wants to cleanse his revolution of terrorists. It would, after all, be a startling act of self-repudiation. Terror is the foundation of Arafat's power, and it is his legacy. This is what his epigones have learned from him, and if some of them now seem to revile him, it is because he has been corrupt on a grand Arab scale that excludes them. Yet neither Arafat's atrocities nor his stealing from the Palestinian poor seem to keep world leaders from fawning over him. The pope prays with him as if he were a penitent. Nearly every European head of state dotes on him. Even after last week's bombings, they tried frantically to rescue him from his self-inflicted predicament. Aside from Ariel Sharon, in fact, the only real world leader who has refused to shake his hand is George W. Bush. In this, the current president offers a refreshing contrast with the last. And his revulsion echoes the revulsion of the American people. In this--Florida or no Florida--Bush speaks for almost everyone.

But Bush, who has gotten the symbolism right, has been less impressive when it comes to concrete policy. He only put Hamas on the now quite long list of the world's certified terrorist organizations in November.

Along with Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, Yasir Arafat received the Nobel Prize for the Oslo accords in 1994. I take no pleasure in I-told-you-so's, but I thought Oslo a fraud from the beginning, which means I think that Arafat's Nobel was not just inappropriate, but obscene, a cover for his bloody acts. The prize, which essentially rewarded Arafat for a career of killing innocents, has not restrained him and his minions from killing more of them in the years since. So it is time the Swedish Academy took it back. Although I cannot be sure, I suspect that Rabin would already have done so--recognizing the historic folly for which the prize was awarded. But he is dead and can't. It is, therefore, left to Shimon Peres, who one hopes is not too vain to admit that his Nobel, like the entire Oslo process, was a terrible delusion.

This article originally ran in the December 17, 2001, issue of the magazine.