By Paul Thomas Chamberlin

Tomorrow marks the 40th anniversary of the 1972 Munich massacre in which Palestinian militants killed 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team. For many Westerners, the incident was the most chilling example of international terrorism before 9/11.

Munich — and the lessons learned from it — played a pivotal role in shaping American views on terrorism: Terrorists were bloodthirsty fanatics bent on spreading destruction and anarchy. Negotiation with such extremists was futile and immoral. The only acceptable response was to crush them.

This was essentially America’s response to terrorism for the next four decades as the frequency and ferocity of attacks rose. As terrible as Munich was, the response from President Richard M. Nixon did nothing to help the situation; rather it played into the hands of the most militant Palestinian factions, ensuring that the violence would continue.

Most scholars of the Palestine Liberation Organization now agree that attacks like the one in Munich were designed by Yasir Arafat’s rivals to shift power away from moderates and into the hands of more radical factions. The string of attacks attributed to the Palestinian Black September Organization between November 1971 and March 1973, of which Munich was the most dramatic, were actually an indication of the rifts within the P.L.O. While events like Munich seized headlines, a growing number of moderates within the P.L.O. — most notably Arafat — were putting out feelers about the prospect of a two-state solution in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

Although their rhetoric continued to call for Israel’s destruction, moderate leaders sent private signals indicating a willingness to compromise. “We need a change of tactics,” Arafat told Soviet officials in 1971. “We cannot affect the outcome of the political settlement unless we participate in it.” He then drew a map outlining a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. Read more…

Paul Thomas Chamberlin, an assistant professor of history at the University of Kentucky, is the author of “The Global Offensive: The United States, the Palestine Liberation Organization, and the Making of the Post-Cold War Order.”

As published in www.nytimes.com on September 3, 2012 (a version of this op-ed appeared in print on September 4, 2012, on page A27 of the New York edition with the headline: When It Pays To Talk to Terrorists).



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