Consider two very different Israeli troop withdrawals from Arab-held territory. The first took place on May 24, 2000, when Israelis left southern Lebanon after an 18-year occupation. The second was on August 14, 2001, after a three-hour incursion into the West Bank town of Jenin.
Amazingly, in the two incidents, both sides professed delight with the outcome. In each case, one party was fooling itself - the Israelis in 2000, the Arabs last week.
In 2000, Ehud Barak's government implausibly maintained that the unilateral retreat from Lebanon enhanced Israel's strategic position. His countrymen brainwashed themselves into believing that their ignominious loss was "a defeat for Syria and a victory for Israel." Israelis refused to see what was plainly before their noses, so desperately did they want the end to warfare.
In contrast, the Lebanese organization Hizbullah rightly claimed for itself a signal victory over the mighty IDF and the first Arab military triumph over Israel. Without exceptions or conditions, it achieved the goal of expelling Israel from Lebanon.
In last week's skirmish, both sides again claimed victory, only this time they reversed roles. The Israeli army accurately announced the accomplishment of all its goals in Jenin. In contrast, Palestinians deluded themselves into thinking they won a famous victory, complete with dubious reports about youths strapping explosives to themselves and heroically confronting Israeli tanks. A Palestinian Authority official grandly (and inaccurately) declared that Israel's "attempt to invade Jenin failed because of the heroic popular resistance." A Hamas leader echoed his words, calling the episode "another defeat" for Israel. Islamic Jihad was slightly more circumspect, calling the confrontation merely "an honor to the Palestinian resistance." Even Jenin's police chief joined the triumphant chorus: "Our people fought the Israeli tanks with all their might and forced them with their heroic resistance to withdraw." A street party ensued, with chanting, gunshots, and festive food - all to celebrate this phantom success.
Three observations: First, just as Israelis have thumpingly returned to reality after a seven-year hiatus, their opponents are sailing off to la-la-land.
Second, each party's mistake is entirely characteristic. Israelis crave resolution, so they fantasized that showing goodwill would lead to Arab acceptance. Palestinians dream of victory, so they convince themselves that self-sacrifice is the path to triumph over Israel. The Israeli error was overly generous, the Palestinian one is vicious.
Third, both mistakes have deeply damaging consequences. Israel's failure to maintain the normal standards of self-preservation in 1993-2000 signaled a softness that rejuvenated moribund Arab ambitions about destroying the "Zionist entity," with today's crisis the direct consequence.
Palestinian emotionalism now threatens further to exacerbate the problem. Heated calls for self-sacrifice are drowning out cool balance-of-power assessments, with an incipient cult of death and martyrdom particularly worrisome.
The PA's top religious figure has publicly proclaimed that "The Muslim embraces death... the Muslim is happy to die," while disparaging Israeli society as "a selfish society that loves life." Any society that loves death is headed for certain trouble - as is its opponent.
To be more precise, three developments could translate the Arabs' growing taste for apocalyptic confrontation into actual war. The flashpoint could be Iraqi troops moving toward Jordan, Egyptian troops moving into the Sinai Peninsula, or Hizbullah missiles landing in northern Israel. None of these scenarios is outlandish, all are plausible.
How has the outside world responded to the serial hallucinations by Israelis, then Arabs? With a total lack of seriousness.
Not a single government and hardly any major media outlets counseled Israel against its seven-year flight from reality. Instead, as if with one voice, they egged the country on and encouraged its preposterous hope that unilateral concessions to PA Chairman Yasser Arafat and Syria's president Hafez Assad would bring "peace."
Likewise, foreign ministries and editorialists are today not telling the Arabs what they desperately need to hear. That would be something along these lines: "Israel has a modern economy and hi-tech arsenal that you cannot possibly match. Your suicide attacks have the counterproductive effect of reawaking Zionist sentiments. If you make war on Israel, you will almost surely lose, at a huge cost to yourselves. Do everyone a favor: abandon the wicked dream of destroying your neighbor and instead concentrate on the constructive goal of fulfilling your own economic and political potential."
Unless such words are soon heard, a regional war that no one will have wanted - after it's over, anyway - seems increasingly probable.