Any attempt to resolve the crisis in the Middle East forces us -- the American people and American Jewry -- to appraise the motives and the ultimate goals of the leaders involved.
Endless disputes have raged over whether Yasser Arafat and the other Arab leaders merely seek a Palestinian state living peacefully alongside Israel or whether they continue to harbor the ultimate goal of exterminating what they once derided as the "Zionist entity."
But just as important, perhaps even more so, is reaching an understanding of the true goals of Israel's current Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his close associates. They -- even more than their Arab opponents -- hold the fate of the Israeli people in their hands.
Consider the facts: Over the past 18 months, Israel has suffered over 400 civilian dead and thousands more wounded, primarily from the suicide bombings that have so horrified the world. These losses are the per capita equivalent of over 100,000 American civilian casualties.
During nearly all previous wars, danger in Israel had been largely confined to those in the military or civilians living on the border. Now all patrons of a pizza parlor or disco are suddenly on the frontlines. This change is inflicting terrible damage to Israeli morale. By any reasonable standard, Israel now faces the gravest threat to its survival since 1967, perhaps even since 1948.
Israel's leaders have certainly recognized this threat by their rhetoric and by their actions, launching punishing military strikes against the Palestinian organizations and towns whence the suicide bombers have issued. Faced with resulting criticism from various world quarters, the Sharonists have defended themselves as the security-conscious guardians of a small, embattled nation, unwilling to take risks with their people's very survival. They have reasonably asked how America itself would have responded to waves of attacks that together completely dwarf those of Sept. 11 in relative terms.
But perhaps this is the exact question that we ourselves should be asking. Suppose that over the past year and a half, over 100,000 American civilians had been killed or grievously injured by Mexican terrorists who crossed our border and filled our cities from Los Angeles to New York with daily explosions.
Certainly, we would have taken punitive military actions against the terrorist organizations claiming responsibility and also against any Mexican government that we judged complicit in these massacres. But surely the first and most obvious response on our part would have been -- NAFTA or no -- to completely fortify our Mexican border with the best possible safeguards, perhaps an electrified security fence studded with machine-gun turrets.
Israel has not. Today, America's long border with Mexico is far better defended against the dire threat of Mexican nannies and gardeners than Israel's own border is secured against suicide bombers. An unknown number of these recent attackers, perhaps even including the bomber who killed over two dozen at their Passover seder, simply walked across an unguarded frontier into Israel or else drove to their targets using well-known but unpatrolled back roads. This is madness, pure and simple.
Why have the Sharonists suffered through 18 months of terrorist incursions without building a simple fence? Such a fence would have provided much greater security than endless attacks on Ramallah and Nablus.
By all accounts, the Palestinians of Gaza are considerably more militant in their anti-Israel Islamic fervor than those of the West Bank, yet Gaza's simple existing fence has prevented the infiltration of even a single suicide bomber and also kept ordinary terrorist attacks to a negligible level. If a border fence has worked so well in Gaza, why have the Sharonists not considered one for the West Bank as well?
Consider the above analogy. Perhaps an American president would have similarly done nothing if he and his close political allies firmly believed that God had granted them the land of Mexico, and that any American fence along that border would be a dangerous concession to the border's legal validity.
Israel's ruling Likud coalition contains a powerful political strain of individuals who fervently believe that the Palestinian territories of the West Bank -- Judea and Samaria to them -- are incontestable portions of the once and future homeland of the Jews, granted them by the One Himself. A fence would be a huge step backward from achieving that dream of a Greater Israel.
In support of this dream, Israeli governments have, for decades, encouraged some 200,000 Jewish settlers to make their homes in these Palestinian territories, and the ultimate disposition of these settlers is regularly cited as the most nettlesome part of any future peace agreement.
Most of these settlers are peaceable Israeli suburbanites, lured to the West Bank environs of Jerusalem by heavy government housing subsidies, many of which were established by Sharon in his past role as housing minister of the Begin government, and whose costs are ultimately paid by the American taxpayer.
But a hard core of these settlers, perhaps up to 50,000, are messianic and militant Jews, often from around the world, who are
absolutely convinced that God has commanded them to settle and thus control this portion of Eretz Yisrael, whether or not Palestinians have lived there for hundreds or even thousands of years. Although less than one percent of Israel's population, these determined individuals are a powerful force within the Sharonist coalition, many of whose leaders publicly or privately share their views.
And these Jewish militants in their hundreds of small settlements do not merely restrict themselves to lobbying. A few years ago, Israeli Prime Minister and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Yitzhak Rabin became the first Middle Eastern leader in years to fall to an assassin's bullet, killed by a Jewish militant for his impious desire to make peace with the Palestinians.
A year earlier, a Brooklynite settler named Baruch Goldstein massacred dozens of peaceful Muslim worshipers kneeling at prayer in their mosque, before he himself was overpowered and killed. Random acts of senseless violence occur throughout the world, but Goldstein's grave is still venerated as the tomb of a holy martyr by thousands of other Jewish settlers, who treat it as a pilgrimage site.
Some of these Jewish militants possess beliefs that would strike most Americans as strange and extreme even by the standards of the Middle East.
For example, over the years Israeli security forces have discovered and thwarted various militant plots to destroy by explosives the Muslim world's holiest mosques in Jerusalem, an action intended to help ensure the outbreak of the biblical battle of Armageddon and thereby the ultimate restoration of the Kingdom of David. And just recently, the birth of a red heifer has been widely heralded by some of these militant leaders as a divine portent instructing them to redouble their efforts to cleanse Jerusalem of its defiling Muslim religious presence.
By any reasonable criteria, many of these 50,000 militant settlers -- and they include at least some of my own relatives -- are best understood as being bearded, Jewish Taliban, as uncompromising and difficult as their Islamic counterparts in Afghanistan.
Yet they are also the heart and soul of the Sharonist movement, and while an Israeli border fence might effectively protect close to 99 percent of Israel's population from terrorism, it would also leave these militant settlers on what was obviously the wrong side of the eventual border. This terrible dilemma between protecting Israeli lives and preserving messianic Greater Israel ideology has so far been resolved entirely in favor of the latter.
And this ideology represents an almost complete abandonment of traditional Zionism. The modern state of Israel was founded by secular socialists from Eastern Europe, men whose own attitude toward Judaism ranged from mild distaste to deepest hostility.
Israel was intended to be a national homeland for a long-persecuted people, a place of refuge and safety for Jews threatened everywhere else. Yet today, in part because of the policies of men like Sharon, Jews enjoy less physical security in their own country than perhaps anywhere else in the world, certainly far less than in our own America. The founders of the Jewish national movement would surely regard a successor who sacrificed Jewish lives and safety to his dreams of a Greater Israel as an absolute traitor to Zionist principles.
They would not be the only ones. For decades, numerous rabbinical scholars, of the deepest Talmudic learning, have regularly denounced the supporters of Greater Israel as individuals who have disgustingly perverted their Jewish faith into a nationalist golden calf that they worship in place of the Almighty. For centuries, such false Jewish prophets have periodically arisen and invariably led their misguided followers into disaster.
If the current leaders of Israel are indeed willing to continue sacrificing the lives of their own people -- including those of young, innocent children -- to their imperial dreams of expansion and glory, then according to these learned Jews they are committing sins on a truly biblical scale.
How would Americans view a president who regarded over 100,000 dead and injured American civilians merely as unavoidable collateral damage toward his ultimate goal of annexing Mexico? We would view him as a madman.
If Sharon continues to wantonly sacrifice the lives of his people for messianic expansionism, then his arms are the ones elbow-deep in the blood of innocent Jews. He faces the world not as a David Ben Gurion or as our own Washington or Lincoln, but instead as someone whose extremism leads his own followers to their doom.
Ron Unz, a software developer and a 1994 Republican candidate for governor, led the 1998 initiative campaign to dismantle bilingual education in California. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.