YOU CANNOT MAKE SENSE of the Israeli-Palestinian war without first making sense of 1993.
That year found Israel in reasonably good shape. Its economy was the most powerful in the Middle East. Its military power was respected and feared throughout the region. Its enemies in the Arab and Muslim world, who for so long had dreamt of wiping Israel off the map, were at last coming to accept that the Jewish state was here to stay. To be sure, Yasser Arafat and his Palestine Liberation Organization still plotted to "liberate" Israel from the Jews, but they were in exile in Tunisia and their political and moral capital were close to nil.
Things were not perfect, of course. The Palestinian intifada of the late 1980s had petered out, but violence still flared in the West Bank and Gaza, where Israel's military presence -- the result of the Arabs' 1967 aggression -- was resented. In Israel proper, Arab terrorism sometimes sent innocent civilians to terrible deaths. Israelis longed for a more normal existence, one that didn't involve such a heavy burden of military service or the hostility of their neighbors or the onus of ruling over another people.
If these conditions weren't ideal, they were stable. Israel could have continued to shun the PLO as long as its charter called for Israel's extermination. It could have maintained indefinitely its tough-minded policy of deterring hostility by retaliating fiercely when attacked.
But Israel chose a different course. In 1993, following secret negotiations in Oslo, Norway, it embarked on a "peace process" designed to elevate Arafat and the PLO to heights of power, wealth, and respect they had never before known. In exchange for Arafat's promise of peace -- "the PLO renounces the use of terrorism and other acts of violence," he had pledged in writing -- Israel agreed to forget the PLO's long history of mass murder and terror and to treat it as the legitimate representative of the Palestinians. The deal was sealed at the White House on Sept. 13, 1993, when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin gave Arafat his hand and affirmed his new status as Israel's partner in peace.
What followed was unprecedented in the history of statecraft. Arafat and thousands of PLO killers, now reconstituted as the "Palestinian Authority," entered Gaza and the West Bank in triumph. In short order, Israel transferred virtually every Arab city and town in the territories to Arafat's control. It allowed the Palestinian Authority to assume total control over the Palestinian people. It not only agreed to the creation of an armed Palestinian militia, it supplied that militia with weapons. It began paying Arafat a multimillion-dollar monthly allowance and lobbied internationally for additional financial support. It permitted the PA to build an airport, to operate radio and television networks, and to deal with other countries as a sovereign power.
This was appeasement on a scale far beyond Neville Chamberlain's infamous 1938 land-for-peace agreement in Munich. For when it became clear that Hitler's intentions were not peaceful, Britain abandoned appeasement and went to war. But even after Israel saw that Arafat's hostility was undimmed, it went on making one concession after another.
Literally from the day the Oslo accord was signed, Arafat made it plain that his lifelong goal -- Israel's liquidation -- had not changed. He reaffirmed the PLO's "Plan of Phases," its 1974 program of eliminating Israel by stages. He repeatedly called for jihad and extolled Palestinian terrorists as "martyrs" and heroes.
Palestinian terror attacks, such as this suicide bus bombing in Jerusalem, soared in the years following the Oslo accord.
Yet the Israeli government never called a halt. Time and again, it responded to Israeli deaths by proclaiming its faith in the "peace process" and giving more territory to Arafat. Desperate for peace, the Israelis kept overlooking Palestinian violations and upping the price they were willing to pay for a final settlement. With every new concession, the Palestinians grew more certain that the Israelis were weak and on the run -- and that hitting them even harder would bring even greater returns. When Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered Arafat nearly everything he had demanded, including a state with Jerusalem as its capital, Arafat's reply was to unleash a second intifada, more furious and lethal than the first.
Israel is at war today because it refused to see that dictators bent on conquest can never be appeased, only defeated. It craved peace at any price, craved it so madly that it was willing to overlook even the murder of its own sons and daughters. In so doing, it emboldened the murderers -- and achieved not peace, but its opposite.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)