Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Iraq, Islam and Israel

Ever since the U.S. prepared to go into Iraq, too little thought has been given to how developments there might affect Israel. The assumption in Israel and perhaps among most American Jews who identify themselves as Jewish has been that the overthrow of Sadaam Hussein and his murderous regime is a good thing and for that reason alone, his riddance is good for Israel. More generally, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and war in Iraq are regarded as separate matters. Even with the bad news coming out of Iraq, there continues to be a failure to connect the dots.

What happens in Iraq is of direct and important consequence to Israel. While the Bush Administration is severely and rightly criticized for faulty intelligence and dubious war calculations and now also for the horrific abuse of prisoners, the greater failure is the paucity of intelligence – both in the sense of information gathering and also the rational understanding of events – regarding how U.S. military action would provoke Islamic and nationalistic fervor among Iraqis. Therein lies the mess this country is in, as well as the greater dangers confronting Israel.

All of this should have been foreseen, for the brutish and fanatical side of Islam has been on display for quite a while, even before 9/11. More than a year ago and before the start of military action, I questioned whether defeating Iraq and deposing Hussein “are important goals for Israel.” After acknowledging that “it is not smart to go after a President who is both popular and a friend, especially since the administration’s war plans are aimed at combating terrorism, a goal that Israel and American Jews share,” I wrote:

“The problem is that there are critical issues affecting Israel that ought to be discussed. For openers, there is the problem of Islamic fundamentalism engulfing post-Hussein Iraq, a state which for all of the butchery of its dictator is essentially secular and has not been particularly hospitable to Islamic fanatics. While this does not make Hussein any less an evil man, it does affect political realities that should not be ignored.”

I would be happier had my doubts been misfounded, perhaps the product of a too critical and pessimistic outlook. But the news is not good. We may have thrown out the baby with the bath water. More than the deteriorating American position in Iraq, there is the rapid acceleration of rabid Islamic fundamentalism and fanaticism. For Israel, there are new perils on top of the familiar dangers arising from Palestinian terrorism and endless Arab hostility. Iraq has been destabilized, unless we regard the uniting of Shi’ites and Sunnis in a coalition of the willing to do battle against the U.S. as a salutary development.

Iraq poses no military threat to Israel and that’s not likely to change any time soon. The danger is more elusive and scary because it arises from a violent ideology that is not restrained by the strategic or moral considerations that ordinarily inhibit extreme actions. Israel can protect itself quite well, albeit with casualties, against the enemies that it has had to contend with for more than a half century. Security fences and pre-emptive strikes, however, are flimsy protections against theological madness, against a mind-set that recognizes violence as a noble value.

What is happening in Iraq is a major headache for Jordan and, more generally, for Syria and even Egypt. For all of their nasty rhetoric, encouragement of anti-Semitism and coddling of terrorists, frontline Arab states are terrified over the possible contagion of an Islamic ideology that cannot accept the legitimacy of these substantially secular regimes. Egypt and Jordan may sincerely accept the notion that Israel has a right to exist, although at times I wonder. Even more, they know that Israel’s existence provides them with an extra measure of protection.

The Islamic menace transcends the Middle East, as events throughout Europe and large chunks of Asia make clear. The twenty-first century, still in its infancy, is likely to be dominated by violent eruptions emanating from Islamic fanaticism. No victory or string of victories is likely to quiet the fever that emanates from a theology that is entirely at odds with the dignity and freedom that we accept as basic human rights.

I do not feel comfortable writing in this vein. I do not believe that Arabs should be demonized or that all who embrace Islam are mindless fanatics. Likely, there are many – perhaps they are a silent majority – who want peace and who have aspirations that resemble what we aspire to. The problem is that in revolutionary situations and especially in societies that are driven by violence, political outcomes are not determined by majority rule. What is too often decisive is the willingness of those who are intoxicated by ideology to fight for their cause, whatever the cost. In the Islamic world, there is now no light at the end of the tunnel, no reason to expect that somehow, as President Bush predicted, those who reject democratic ideals will be transformed into advocates of civil liberties.

If this admittedly pessimistic interpretation is valid, it may be that there is little for Israel to do except to sit tight and continue to muddle through. There should be no expectation that concessions will result in a meaningful peace or lasting security, for concessions have no more efficacy than tossing raw meat to a pack of hungry animals. The satisfaction of today’s needs will not mitigate tomorrow’s demands.

Admittedly, experience shows that there is no right or sure formula for Middle East diplomacy, that decisions are largely a patchwork of guesses. Since every peace plan can easily be dissected and its risks exposed, there is something to the argument that Israel should stand pat.

I believe that this is an invitation to others to attempt to determine Israel’s destiny, specifically for the U.S. to put great pressure on Israel, something that is going to happen sooner or later. The Likud vote rejecting Mr. Sharon’s plan is a vote that adds to Israel’s vulnerability. What the Prime Minister is proposing is risky, to be sure. There is even greater risk to staying in Gaza.