July 16, 2006.
Why is this Middle East crisis different from all other Middle East crises?
Because in all other Middle East crises, Israel’s main rivals were the P.L.O.,
Egypt, Iraq and Syria, but in this crisis the main rivals are the jihadists in
Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria and, most important, Iran. In all other crises the
nutjobs were on the fringes, but now the nutjobs in Hamas and Hezbollah are in
governments and lead factions of major parties.
In all other crises, the Palestinians, thanks to Yasir Arafat’s strenuous efforts,
owned their own cause, but now the clerics in Iran are taking control of the
Palestinian cause and turning it into a weapon in a much larger struggle.
In all other crises there was a negotiation process, a set of plans and some
hope of reconciliation. But this crisis is different. Iran doesn’t do road maps.
The jihadists who are driving this crisis don’t do reconciliation.
In other words, this crisis is a return to the elemental conflict between Israel
and those who seek to destroy it. And you can kiss goodbye, at least for the
time being, to some of the features of the recent crises.
You can kiss goodbye to the fascinating chess match known as the Middle East
peace process. That chess match was dependent on a series of smart and
reasonable Arab players with whom Israel could negotiate. Those smart and
reasonable interlocutors still exist. They still invite visiting Westerners to dinner
and may still represent the majority of their countrymen. But they are not
running the show now.
Iran has conducted a semi-hostile takeover of what used to be known as the
Arab-Israeli dispute. Iran has deepened and widened its support for its terrorist
partners. Iran and the Islamists are fueled by the sense that the winds of history
are blowing at their back. They pushed the Soviets out of Afghanistan, the U.S.
out of Lebanon, Israel out of Lebanon and Gaza and they seem on the verge of
pushing the U.S. out of Iraq. After centuries of Muslim humiliation, these people
know how to win.
So Hamas and Hezbollah audaciously set the pace of confrontation. Maybe the
moderates will eventually crack down on the radicals (there’s a first time for
everything), but in the meantime there will be no peace process. There will be
no shuttle diplomacy. Instead, the main mode of communication will be death:
the minuet of missile launches and retaliations, escalations and de-escalations
that irreconcilable enemies use to talk with one another.
You can also kiss goodbye to the land-for-peace mentality. In all other crises
there was the hope that if Israel ceded land and gave the Palestinians a chance
to lead normal lives, then tensions would ease. But this crisis follows
withdrawals in Lebanon and Gaza, and interrupts the withdrawals from the
West Bank that were at the core of Ehud Olmert’s victory platform.
Israel’s main enemies in this crisis are not normal parties and governments that
act on behalf of their people. They are jihadist organizations that happen to
have gained control of territory for bases of operations.
Hamas and Hezbollah knew their kidnappings and missile launches would
set off retaliation that would hurt Gazans and Lebanese, but they attacked
anyway – for the sake of jihad. They answer to a higher authority and dream of
genocide in his name.
What’s happened over the past few years, in short, is that public opinion in
Israel has moved to the center at the same time that decision-making power on
the other side has moved to the extreme.
Now there is a debate over how Israel should respond to this situation. Some
say Israel should temper its response so Arab moderates can corral the
extremists, which would be great advice if the moderates had any record of
ever doing that or any capacity to do so in the near future. Others say Israel
simply must degrade the capabilities of its fanatical opponents.
But this is a secondary issue. The core issue is that just as Israel has been
trying to pull back to more sensible borders, its enemies have gone completely
Through some combination of fecklessness and passivity, the Arab world
has ceded control of this vital flashpoint to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Bashar
al-Assad. It has ceded its own destiny to people who do not believe in freedom,
democracy, tolerance or any of the values civilized people hold dear.
And what’s the world’s response? Israel is overreacting.