November 11, 2006
By Abraham H. Foxman
Recent events in the Middle East – the war in Lebanon, the emergence of Hamas among the Palestinians, the threat of a nuclear Iran – are often cited as evidence that Israel’s policies and behavior play into the hands of Islamic extremists. I would argue, however, that two other conclusions are far more appropriate.
First, it should be clearer than ever that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, rather than being a catalyst for Islamic extremism, is a reflection of the pervasiveness of attitudes on the Islamic side that characterize a religious fanaticism that threatens everyone. The unwillingness to compromise, the belief that the future is theirs and theirs alone, the denial of the legitimacy of the other’s narrative, and the determination to pursue one’s ideology even at the expense of one’s own people, are characteristics that have made resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict impossible. And these characteristics are at the heart of the Islamic extremist assault on the West.
This is not to say that Israel doesn’t always have to consider what more it can do to further peace. It must. But the concomitance of Israeli initiatives – Ehud Barak’s offer at Camp David, Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, and the election of Ehud Olmert on the basis of a commitment to a withdrawal from the West Bank – with the deepening extremism among the Palestinians manifest in the election of Hamas – highlights the gap between Israel’s intentions and the reality of extremism on the other side. It cannot be said often enough: It is not Israel that is the obstacle to peace or the cause of continued Palestinian suffering.
The point is that the unending Israeli-Palestinian conflict is far less a cause of Islamic extremism’s rise, and far more a product of its ideology and its power. Reduce the impact of this ideology, and not only will relations between the Islamic world and the West improve, but the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians can be resolved.
Second, the war in Lebanon and the growing threat from Iran not only present challenges, but opportunities as well. They can be the occasion for the possible renewal of an unofficial strategic sharing of interests of moderate parties in the region.
We should recall that in the Cold War era, Henry Kissinger articulated the strategic basis for U.S. support for Israel. He argued that when Israel faced combat with the Soviet-backed radical states, Iraq and Syria, it was vital that America make sure Israel would emerge victorious, because the moderate Arab states would be watching closely to see in which direction the wind was blowing. An Israeli victory would bring the moderates to the U.S. side; with a radical win, they would move to the Soviet sphere.
Now there is an updated version of that equation. The Saudis, Egyptians, Jordanians and Gulf states are terrified of radical Islam, particularly what is emanating from Shi’ite Iran. Nothing illustrated this better than the remarkably candid comments by the Saudi foreign minister on the third day of the Lebanon war, when he strongly condemned Hezbollah, not Israel, for the bloodshed.
Stopping Hezbollah from regaining an autonomous mini-state in southern Lebanon, finding a way to move the Palestinians away from support of Hamas, and, most of all, halting Iran’s nuclear development are goals shared by the moderate Arabs, Israel, and the U.S.
We need to keep our eye on the ball: resisting Islamic extremism as we resisted its totalitarian predecessors, Nazism and Communism. We must not allow ourselves to be diverted by efforts to blame Israel or Jews or America for the problem. Of course, we need to examine our own policies to see if they are wise and effective. And we should always seek to reduce resentment of Israel by emphasizing Israel’s desire for peace and the concrete steps it has taken to that end. But never should we lose sight of the cause of the problem – extremism itself.
Defeating Islamic extremism and bringing the Islamic world to peace with Israel are parts of the same problem. They require strength and resolve, and action, not merely words – most notably with regard to Iran and the nuclear threat. They require convincing moderate Arabs that they need to be more explicit in stating their interests and not limit their comments to private conversations. They require neither condescension nor weakness in addressing Muslims about their role in the world.
In the 1930s the West failed to act in time to protect its own interests. It paid a terrible price, but the Jews paid even more. This time around, we must do better. If not, a price will again be paid, but now the Jews are not powerless.
Abraham H. Foxman is national director of the Anti-Defamation League and author of “Never Again? The Threat of the New Anti-Semitism.”