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Jewish World Review March 12, 2002 / 28 Adar, 5762

Chris Matthews

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Suicide means never having to say you're sorry | For decades, the Israeli Defense Force guarded its security with a rough, yet effective, rule of engagement: Kill an Israeli and 10 Arabs die.

But what happens when the enemy wants to die? How does the IDF protect even the corner pizzeria if the enemy has the deliberate purpose of dying along with his victims?

This is the conundrum facing those defending Israel from the Prime Minister to the young Israeli doing his duty. How do you guard Jewish life when the suicidal Palestinian you're protecting your people from expects his name to be glorified in death? What kind of deterrence can you enforce when the killer knows that his surviving family will be honored and rewarded with comfort he could never provide in life?

Put even more bluntly, what do you do when, to paraphrase an old movie line, your enemy's suicide means never having to say you're sorry?

This is the horrid game Israel finds itself losing. Since Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount in September 2000, a site in East Jerusalem sacred to both Jew and Muslim, nearly 1,200 lives have been lost.

While a Vietnam-like "body count" shows three-fourths of the dead were Palestinian, this provides little solace to the politicians and citizens of Israel.

For one thing, there are lots more Arabs than there are Israelis. Demographically, the Jewish state is an island in an Arabian sea. Even if the enemy casualty ratio remains at 3 to 1, Israel will require a heroic will to suffer it for much longer. Israel is, after all, a very small country. If someone does not know a casualty personally, they surely know someone who does.

The irony is that a "get tough" appearance that's reflected in a higher Israeli murder ratio would trigger even greater dangers. Were the IDF to return to the old 10-to-1 standard, that could easily ignite an even greater fire in the Islamic world than the one burning today. It would jeopardize Israel's "cold peace" with Egypt and its peaceful relations with moderate Jordan.

The option of escalation is also closed to Israel. Even if the United States moves on Iraq, Saddam Hussein's first target will be Israel. What would Hussein have to lose by luring the Arab world's most hated enemy into a fight? Whatever retaliation comes from Israel would be offset by the elevated position Hussein would assume in the huge land of Islam. The man confronting this vacuity of options is Ariel Sharon. Having just turned 74, this soldier-politician is able to look back on a life of wars and elections in which his get-tough policy has certainly held its own.

But what can Sharon look forward to? Elected to stand guard over Israel, he spends his days playing prison guard to his nemesis, Yasser Arafat. The tighter a watch he keeps, the more abuse he dumps on the Palestinian Authority leader, the further his poll numbers drop and Arafat's rise.

Sharon's problem is not a loss of nerve but of vision. There's a reason why the old hard-liner is looking with "interest" at the Saudi plan for Arab recognition of Israel in exchange for Israel's withdrawal from the territories captured in the 1967 war. When what you've done for a half century doesn't work anymore, you've got to try something else.

Consider again this gruesome factor of suicide. When a young Palestinian girds himself with dynamite and heads to one of Jerusalem's busiest street corners, he carries a rich life insurance policy. He knows that his family will receive benefits. He imagines in his mind the afterglow of celebrity that will settle on his name.

The question is, how do you "get tough" with an enemy who asks only that you let him die?

JWR contributor Chris Matthews is the author of "Now, Let Me Tell You What I Really Think". and hosts a CNBC show of the same name. Comment by clicking here.

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