You hear it all the time on CNN, FOX and MSNBC – the moral equivalency equation – Palestinian terrorism leads to Israeli retaliation, which leads to more Palestinian terrorism, which leads to more Israeli retaliation. In March, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called on both Prime Minister Sharon and Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat to end this “cycle of violence.” Annan placed the blame equally on both parties. The argument suggests that both sides save to foreswear violence and start talking peace.

That is how most of the outside world sees Middle East events. The “cycle of violence” is a neat, simple way to understand a confusing situation. No wonder its been embraced by the UN, European capitals, and the State Department.

The problem is: it’s wrong. The idea that both sides are equally to blame for the current violence is totally absurd. The violence has one cause, and one cause only – Palestinian terrorism.

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In Oslo, Israel entered into negotiations with the Palestinians Authority (PA) when it renounced “the use of terrorism and other acts of violence” and assumed “responsibility over all PLO elements and personnel in order to assure their compliance, prevent violations and discipline violators.” After the breakdown in negotiations at Camp David in July 2000, the PA recast itself as Israel’s enemy, effectively renounced negotiations and began a terrorist war of attrition. Mr. Arafat and the PA have bet that they can get through terrorism that which they couldn’t achieve through negotiations.

As a result, Israel today is suffering the most intense and sustained terrorist assault that any modern nation has ever endured – 1,970 terror attacks directed against Israelis during the past year, including drive-by shootings, ambushes, assassinations, firing of mortars or anti-tank missiles, Kassem II missile attacks, katyusha rocket attacks, use of grenades, and stabbings. Not to mention suicide bombings and machine gun attacks in public streets, catering halls, restaurants and cafes. No country in the world would have tolerated such attacks on its citizens.

The Palestinians would have the world believe that it is they who are reacting to Israeli violence, and that suicide bombings are just a “spontaneous human reaction” to Israeli violence on the West Bank and Gaza.

But Palestinian violence isn’t a reaction at all. The terrorist war on Israel is a calculated, deliberate campaign designed to demoralize Israelis and create a crisis that would bring international intervention to favor the Palestinian cause. There is nothing “spontaneous” about Palestinian terrorism. It is an attempt to use violence as an alternative to negotiation. It is planned and premeditated.

Distinctions over violence may seem like hair-splitting when bullets are flying and blood is flowing. But they do matter. To frame the Mid East conflict as a simple “cycle of violence” is to put the response to terrorism on the same plan as terrorism itself. There is a substantial moral difference, and it is that difference that separates modern civilization from barbarism. If no distinction is made, the Israeli general who sends his tanks into a refugee camp after gunmen is every bit as debased as the terrorist leader who sends his suicide bombers to blow up a café or a bus.

And we know that that is not so. Every nation has the right to defend itself against terrorism. That includes the right to retaliate with the military force (as the US is doing) if necessary. Even when that retaliation ends in the loss of innocent lives, as is often the case in the Palestinian areas, that does not put the retaliator in the same moral league as the terrorist.

There is a world of difference between the Israeli soldier who accidentally shoots and innocent child in the heat of battle and the terrorist who deliberately blows up a bus full of Israeli children. The deaths are equally tragic, but the killers are not equally culpable.

There is no equation between Palestinian terrorism and the Israeli response to it. Nor is there any equation between acts of Islamic terrorism on America and America’s response to these acts. Israeli retaliation is an action justified by national self-defense, and, in its essence, is no different from American retaliation for September 11th. If equivalence is the standard by which all violence is to be judged, then the actions of the World Trade Center terrorists are no better and no worse than American retaliation against Al Qaeda for the attack.

As a matter of principle, America must stand for something, or it stands for nothing.

George W. Bush’s comment that Israeli retaliation was “unhelpful” was not only an incentive to Palestinian terrorists, but shows that even the President of the United States can miss the point.

The way to stop terrorism is to stop the terrorists, and not the retaliation.