Bush Ex Machina

The low point of my week is reading the copy for our pages devoted to victims of Palestinian terror and

violence. We sponsor some of these pages, produced by Kol HaNeshama, a project of the students at Yeshiva University. The others, sponsored by Janine and Peter Lowy, Vivian and Ron Alberts and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, are titled, "The Human Toll of Terror."

It is ineffably sad to read the brief stories that accompany the photos. A 14-year-old boy, going home on his last day of school, murdered at a Jerusalem bus stop. A renowned hematologist gunned down on his way to work.

Five-year-olds shot dead; 59-year-old grandmothers blown up. There is a part of me — a part of all of us, I suppose — that sees the crisis in Israel as a problem to be solved, a set of problems in search of solutions. The eyes I look into each week are a gut-check against glibness, shibboleths and the status quo.

I can’t imagine the pain and suffering that each week’s sheet of faces represent. It is fathomless. And when it comes down to it, there is not much we can do to ease the suffering of the people in the midst of that war. The least we can do is read these stories.

Most of the children listed in those pages are the victims of suicide bombers. Sending people to blow themselves up to kill other people has been a very successful strategy for the Palestinians. A recent poll showed that 65 percent of Palestinians support it, and the practice has spread among Palestinian youths with a fad-like intensity. "The bottleneck on the Palestinian side is not the suicide attacker," a senior Israeli security official told The New York Times. "It’s the bomb." In other words, there are more men, boys, women and girls willing to kill themselves and innocent Israelis than there are bombs to outfit them.

One reason there aren’t enough bombs, is that Operation Defensive Shield disrupted the terrorist cells that manufacture them. But that is hardly getting at anything like the root of the problem. Writing in this month’s Foreign Affairs magazine, Gal Luft, a former lieutenant colonel in the Israel Defense Forces, assessed the success of fighting fire with fire. "If history is any guide," he wrote, "Israel’s military campaign to eradicate the phenomenon of suicide bombing is unlikely to succeed. Other nations that have faced opponents willing to die have learned the hard way that, short of complete annihilation of the enemy, no military solution will solve the problem."

Palestinians and Israelis have this in common: they seem to intuitively agree with Luft. The poll that showed 65 percent of Palestinians supporting suicide bombers also showed that 70 percent support the peace process.

A Ma’ariv poll counted a majority of Israelis who support a peace process, and 60-65 percent who support Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s military operations against Palestinians. What this means is that both sides are suffering, and neither side wants to suffer in vain. It is a killing algebra: If A equals violence and C equals peace, how do you get to C. What is B?

President George W. Bush, maybe? Bush’s initiative may offer enough carrots to both sides to complete the equation. The strength of the plan, which our correspondents discuss at length within (see page 22), is that it aims to appeal to the middle ground residing in the hearts of most Israelis and Palestinians.

It assumes that, despite what they tell pollsters (or because of what they tell pollsters) most inhabitants of that sliver of land want their children to grow up in a peaceful, secure and free society. They don’t want to capitulate to the other side, but they don’t want unending violence either. The Bush plan, if it were to succeed, offers a way out.

The weakness of the Bush plan, of course, is that it makes no guarantees. Its wording is full of contingency and passivity; i.e., "As violence subsides, freedom of movement should be restored." Palestinians and Israelis who were expecting a stronger American hand, a Bush ex machina, have a right to wonder if the president hasn’t missed an opportunity for more intervention, more direct involvement. Oslo died at the hands of extremists. What in the Bush plan prevents a similar fate?

At the very least, the Bush plan is a fork in the road. Both sides, by taking it in and mulling it over, have a chance to stop and think. The Palestinians have to reflect on how their lives would have been different had their leaders tried to conclude negotiations with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. And the Israelis have to look back just a couple of years, to a time when no one could have conceived of waves of suicide bombers wreaking havoc on their country.

And everyone, us included, must try to imagine, absent bold strokes toward peace, what unforeseen hell awaits.