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War of Survival

May 9, 2009 | by Yossi Klein Halevi

In Lebanon and Gaza, Israel is holding Arabs responsible for their own fate.

Three times in the last century, the Jewish people has found itself on the front line against totalitarian ideologies with aspirations to rule the world, and which defined the Jewish people as its primary obstacle in fulfilling that goal. For Nazism, the Jew was not only the source of racial impurity but inventor of conscience, crippling humanity's survival instincts in an amoral world. For Soviet communism, the Jew was the source of capitalism, and Zionism the front line of imperialism. And now, for fundamentalist Islam, the Jew is the satanic enemy, and the Jewish state an abomination against God that must be destroyed.

Though Israeli officials are calling the conflict with Hezbollah and Hamas an "operation," it is, in fact, a war. Ultimately, the war will transcend its Iranian proxies and engage Iran itself. One crucial result must be the destruction of Iran's nuclear capability, which would provide the religious genocidalists with the ability to turn theology into practice. Imagine Israel confronting a Hezbollah backed by a nuclear Iran. Would we be able to defend our northern border knowing that an attack on Hezbollah could provoke an Iranian nuclear attack against Tel Aviv?

A nuclear Iran could be the ultimate suicide bomber.

That prospect is not inconceivable: Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad believes that the Muslim messianic age is about to be inaugurated by the destruction of Israel. Certainly Israel has the capacity to deliver an overwhelming second strike. But the balance of terror that worked during the cold war against the Soviet Union may fail against an enemy that welcomes death as a prelude to eternal life. A nuclear Iran could be the ultimate suicide bomber.

The war of the missiles in Lebanon and in Gaza is actually the second stage of the war that began six years ago. Erroneously, self-defeatingly, Israelis accepted the Palestinian terminology, and called the wave of Islamist suicide bombings that started in September 2000 "the second intifada." Unlike the intifada of the late 1980s, however, which united Palestinian Christians and Muslims against the occupation, the war that began in 2000 has been led by Islamists, after Israel tried to end the occupation. Not coincidentally, there have been no Christian suicide bombers. The Palestinian cause had shifted from national struggle to jihad.

Nevertheless, some insist on distinguishing between Hezbollah and Hamas. While Hezbollah is an operational extension of the Shia Iranian revolution, Hamas, they argue, represents the national aspirations of the Palestinian people. In fact, Hamas represents the undoing of Palestinian national aspirations. For Hamas, a Palestinian state is merely a means to an end: the resurrection of the medieval Caliphate and the transformation of the Middle East into a single Islamist state.

The rise of Hamas, then, has completed the process, which began with the suicide bombings, of Islamizing the conflict. The so-called second intifada has destroyed the achievement of the first intifada, which convinced a majority of Israelis that former Prime Minister Golda Meir had been wrong to insist there was no Palestinian people and that a distinct Palestinian identity had indeed emerged. In rejecting mere nationalism, Hamas is returning the Palestinians to their pre-national consciousness, when Palestinians were part of an amorphous Arab or Muslim identity. The first casualty of the jihad, then, has been a viable Palestinian national identity, and, with it, the possibility of a viable Palestinian state.

What unites Shia Hezbollah and Sunni Hamas is the theology of genocide. Both organizations preach that the Holocaust never happened, even as they actively plan the next one. According to the Hamas Covenant, every ill in the world, from the French Revolution to the two world wars, was provoked by the Jews. For its part, Hezbollah's Al Manar TV station spread the story that the Mossad was behind September 11 and warned 4,000 Jews who worked in the Twin Towers to stay home that day -- a calumny that was accepted, according to polls, by majorities throughout the Muslim world.

The grievance of the Islamists isn't only that they were conquered and occupied but that they have failed, so far, to conquer and occupy. Like Hezbollah, Hamas won't "moderate" with the responsibility of power. To believe otherwise is to underestimate the power of religion. For Hamas is not a political movement but a faith. And for Hamas to abandon its goal of Israel's destruction is to commit heresy against the core of that faith. Religious change, even among fundamentalists, is surely possible; but it is a process measured not in months but in decades, or centuries.

Indulging Rejectionism

In targeting Lebanon and Gaza, Israel is sending a simultaneous message: It is time for the Arab world to take responsibility for its actions. What Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora share is a helplessness -- to some extent self-inflicted -- against the terrorists in their midst. In large measure, the Oslo process failed because the international community allowed Palestinians to continue to act as victims, rather than as responsible peace partners prepared to exploit the extraordinary circumstances they enjoyed for creating a state.

Those circumstances included virtually unlimited international political and financial support, and the willingness of a majority of Israelis -- induced, in part, by a justifiable guilty conscience -- to consider previously unthinkable scenarios, like ceding part of Jerusalem to Yasir Arafat. Imagine what the Tibetans or the Kurds could have done with that level of political goodwill and foreign aid. Indeed, billions of dollars in international aid have gone to the Palestinian Authority. Perhaps the greatest defeat the Palestinians inflicted on themselves was to lose the patience of at least part of the international community and, most of all, the Israeli guilty conscience.

Yet many continue to indulge Palestinian rejectionism. Astonishingly, Israel still needs to prove that it offered a credible and contiguous Palestinian state at Camp David in July 2000, and not, as Palestinian leaders put it, a series of "Bantustans." What doubt remained from Camp David should have been dispelled five months later when Israel accepted President Clinton's proposals -- ceding almost the entirety of the West Bank, all of Gaza, and three-quarters of the Old City of Jerusalem. The Palestinian counter-offer was suicide bombings.

Palestinians act as if victimization affords immunity from responsibility.

The tendency of much of the international community to excuse every Palestinian failure has helped convince Palestinians that victimization -- even when it is self-willed -- affords immunity from responsibility. Many foreign journalists with whom I've spoken in recent weeks accept the Palestinian argument that the rocket attacks from the 1967 Gaza border into sovereign Israel are legitimate, or at least understandable, given that Israel continues to occupy the West Bank. Yet that argument ignores the historic Palestinian failure to exploit the Gaza withdrawal, which created the first sovereign Palestinian territory.

Had the Palestinians shown the most minimal effort at statebuilding -- for example, applying foreign aid to rehabilitate refugee camps -- the Israeli public would have supported a return to the negotiating table. Instead, the Palestinian national movement proved again that it is more keen on subverting the Jewish state than on creating a Palestinian state. And so one more opportunity for a negotiated end to the conflict was lost.

Responsible Adults

In conversations I've had over the years with Palestinians, invariably my interlocutor would offer a version of the following: You and I, we are little people. The "big ones" are only interested in themselves. They don't care if we suffer. I used to find that sentiment moving, an attempt by Palestinians to create a common humanity with Israelis. But now I see it as an expression of self-induced helplessness, precisely why the Palestinians and the Lebanese have allowed our common tragedy to reach this point.

Israel's attack on Lebanon, holding it responsible for what occurs in its territory, is not a violation of Lebanese sovereignty but an affirmation of it. And in targeting the democratically elected Hamas government, Israel is telling the Palestinians that there is a price to pay for empowering the theology of genocide. If the only alternative to a corrupt Fatah that Palestinian society can generate is a non-corrupt Hamas, then Palestine will become a pariah. Israel's policy, then, is to stop patronizing the Lebanese and the Palestinians and relate to them as adults responsible for their fate.

Some in the Arab world are beginning to understand this. In an article published in the Kuwaiti newspaper Arab Times, the editor-in-chief, Ahmed Al Jarallah, wrote:

This war was inevitable as the Lebanese government couldn't bring Hezbollah within its authority and make it work for the interests of Lebanon. Similarly leader of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas has been unable to rein in the Hamas movement. Unfortunately we must admit that in such a war the only way to get rid of 'these irregular phenomena' is what Israel is doing. The operations of Israel in Gaza and Lebanon are in the interest of the people of Arab countries and the international community.

The war, then, is not only inciting Islamists, but may, potentially, embolden moderates. The extraordinary Saudi -- along with Egyptian and Jordanian -- condemnation of Hezbollah marks the first time in any of Israel's wars that a significant chunk of the Arab world has publicly blamed Arab aggression for starting hostilities. This could create an opening for a tacit Israeli alliance with moderate Arabs against the Islamist, and particularly Iranian, threat. Just as we need to be resolute against the pathologies of the Middle East, so we need to be open to its changes. The responsibility of the people of Israel is not only to be on the front line against terror but to be on the front line for reconciliation. Not only to help stop evil, but to help empower the good.

Territorial Withdrawal

So far, Israel enjoys three crucial strategic advantages in this war: unequivocal American support, a divided Arab world, and, most crucial of all, a united Israeli people. Arguably not since the 1973 Yom Kippur War has Israel been as determined in war as it is today. Though some restlessness has begun -- an antiwar rally in Tel Aviv drew 2,500 people -- most of the left supports the invasion. Indeed, Peace Now and other Zionist left-wing groups stayed away from the Tel Aviv rally.

Since the Israeli defense minister is such a dove, that insures broad support for military action in Gaza and Lebanon.

One reason for the absence of serious left-wing opposition is the fact that Amir Peretz, our most dovish mainstream politician, happens to be running the war as defense minister. Peretz's ideological credentials are compensation for his lack of military ones: Just as Ariel Sharon helped insure broad support for withdrawal from Gaza, so Peretz is insuring broad support for the reinvasion of Gaza and Lebanon.

Most of the left understands that this is a war, in part, for the viability of the concept of territorial withdrawal. For years the left assured the Israeli public that, in the event of withdrawal, Israel would resist any subsequent aggression with determination, unity, and international legitimacy. In Lebanon and Gaza, then, two fronts from which Israel has already withdrawn to the green line (Israel also withdrew to the green line on the Egyptian border in 1982), that premise is now being tested. If the left defects from the war effort, triggering international pressure, then the Israeli public will rightly despair of future withdrawals.

Most of all, this is a war for the viability of Israeli deterrence. After Israel unilaterally withdrew from Lebanon in May 2000, Hezbollah leader Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah described the Jewish state as a "spider web": Just as a spider web seems solid from a distance but disintegrates when swiped, so Israel will collapse under the pressure of Arab resolve. The "spider web" speech, as it came to be known, is very much in the mind of Israelis today as we belatedly try to restore our lost deterrence, without which the Jewish state will not survive long in the Middle East.

Israel tried to avoid this war, to the point of endangering its most basic credibility. For months we allowed Palestinian groups to shell Israeli towns on the Gaza border with virtual immunity. And for six years we turned away as Iran supplied Hezbollah with thousands of long-range rockets and built a vast infrastructure literally meters across our border. When three Israeli soldiers were kidnapped by Hezbollah in October 2000, then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak didn't massively retaliate, preferring to negotiate a prisoner exchange. Among some Israeli journalists, Nasrallah was considered a "responsible" leader, capable of insuring quiet in the north, rather than biding his time and awaiting instructions from Iran to act.

The Jewish people is once again being forced to act as a brake against evil. This is not a repetition of the first Lebanon war, but a return to our consensus wars of survival -- not a Vietnam moment but a World War II moment. That is why Israel fights, and why it will win.

Reprinted from The New Republic

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