Since the outbreak of the second Intifada in Israel, and in the wake of the September 11th attack on the U.S., many leaders of faith have weighed in on the proper disposition of U.S. foreign policy. For example, last month, various news agencies reported that a "group of prominent evangelical Christians" wrote to President George W. Bush challenging his policy in the Middle East. We read the actual letter in the Saudi Arabian Arab News. Although we doubt the signatories to the letter knew their words would be used as propaganda in a newspaper hosted and sponsored by a country where Christians cannot even be citizens, we think there is much in the letter that deserves a response.
Among other things, the letter urges the President "to employ an even-handed policy toward Israeli and Palestinian leadership" and states "an even-handed U.S. policy towards Israelis and Palestinians does not give a blank check to either side, nor does it bless violence by either side." We do not believe anyone in the White House or in the Knesset, to this point, has blessed violence. We do know, however, that certain members of the Palestinian leadership and the Arab world have blessed homicide bombings. By making martyrs of the bombers, by guaranteeing a subsidy to their families, and by allowing their pictures to be posted with heroic imagery in the streets is to bless their violence.
While neither of us -- and certainly not most Christians and Jews -- approves of violence and war for the sake of violence and war, we think it important to understand that war is terrible, but sometimes wars have to be fought and sometimes sides have to be taken. President Roosevelt had no trouble taking sides to support Great Britain with the Lend-Lease program when Adolph Hitler was on the march. Roosevelt made the analogy that when your neighbor's house is on fire, you don't quibble over costs, you lend him your hose. Great Britain was on fire then. Israel is on fire today.
Why do we take Israel's side? Israel is a democracy and a long-standing U.S. ally. And while it is a "Jewish state" it affords political and civil rights to Christians and Moslems as well. By contrast, the Palestinian leadership has been a long-standing supporter of U.S. enemies from Castro and Brezhnev to Khaddafi and Saddam Hussein. Have we already forgotten the scenes of those Palestinians dancing in the streets on September 11th celebrating bin Laden's attack on the U.S.? Have we forgotten Israel's response? Israel lowered its flags to half-staff. Benjamin Netanyahu stated, "Today, we are all Americans."
When innocents are harmed on the Palestinian side, Israel grieves, investigates, and rethinks the mission that led to civilian casualties. Indeed, it is not uncommon for Israeli officers to be held to account for their actions. And when an Israeli bombing takes the lives of civilians when a terrorist target is secreted among a civilian population, Israel mourns, investigates, and apologizes. Nonetheless, the Palestinian terrorists who deliberately target civilians and then hide under civilian cover define the battlefield. President Ronald Reagan understood this when he bombed Libya and, regretfully, some of Muhammar Khaddafi's children were said to have been killed-unintentional casualties of a legitimate action. President Reagan acknowledged this and expressed sorrow for the outcome. But he did not waver in his determination to target terrorists. President Reagan said, "If necessary, we shall do it again."
The letter continues in its moral confusion by criticizing the "continued unlawful and degrading Israeli settlement movement" and by statements such as "The theft of Palestinian land and the destruction of Palestinian homes and fields is surely one of the major causes of the strife that has resulted in terrorism...." There is great legal dispute as to whether the Israeli settlements are illegal and we would have hoped the signatories of this letter would have consulted the vast amount of literature on this point.
Nevertheless, settlements did not begin until after the 1967 war-and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was founded in 1964, three years before Israel had any control over the disputed or "occupied" territories. Yasser Arafat founded his Fatah movement in the 1950s. Israel itself was the problem for the Palestinian leadership. History and language, where Arafat says one thing in English and another in Arabic, leads to the conclusion that an Israel of any size is still the problem, not the territories and not the settlements. And it is an ongoing curiosity why so many condemn Jewish settlement in historically biblical land while no one asks why Arabs have a right to live in Tel Aviv. Arabs do have a right to live in Tel Aviv, just as Jews should have the right to live in Hebron. And the fundamental right to live anywhere one pleases is not a just cause for terrorism. Nothing is.
President Bush is right to seek a democratic Palestine before taking seriously Palestinian statehood. To do otherwise would be to reward terror. Democracies rarely start wars with democracies -- and freedom of religion rarely thrives in anything but a democracy (see how Coptic Christians are treated in Egypt, note how neither Christians nor Jews are welcome as citizens in Saudi Arabia). This is why a democratic Palestine, when it comes, should it come, will be welcome by all of us. Until then, we should continue to support Israel as we should continue to "pray for the peace of Jerusalem."