Stating the Obvious

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Sept. 23 2001 1:33 PM

Stating the Obvious

"Israel Isn't the Issue," says the headline over Norman Podhoretz's piece in last Thursday's Wall Street Journal. Podhoretz doesn't claim Israel has nothing to do with the terrorists' motivations. (He agrees that "one of the great 'crimes' of America in Arab eyes remains its support of Israel.") Instead, he asserts, in a carefully crafted thesis paragraph:

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The point is that if Israel had never come into existence, or if it were magically to disappear, the U.S. would still stand as an embodiment of everything that most of these Arabs consider evil.

That's true. But what Podhoretz doesn't say is as important as what he does. He doesn't say that if Israel were magically to disappear, the threat of terrorism would remain undiminished. He doesn't say this because it's transparently not true. Sure, America would remain the "embodiment" of evil to "most" of the Islamic terrorists. But not to some of them. And for many ("most"?) of the others, the ferocity of their anti-American animus (and, perhaps, their willingness to give their lives for that cause) would inevitably be reduced.

Similarly, the New Republic's eloquent 9/13 editorial  argues:

The common view is that [Bin Laden] is seeking to punish America for its association with Israel, but the contrary is also the case.

Which is a backhanded way of admitting that the annoying "common view" is "also the case" also!

That's obvious, you say. Yes, it's obvious. That's the point, too. It's obvious--that Israel is partly the issue--yet a lot of effort seems to go into appearing to deny it, or into obscuring it, or at least into not saying it plainly. More than aversion to cliché seems to motivate these contortions. And this motive seems obvious too--it is the fear that admitting the truth might lead to an attempted appeasement of radical Islamic terrorists through abandonment of our ally. Yet, as far as I can see, nobody anywhere near the political mainstream, aside from Robert Novak, is talking about abandoning or weakening the US-Israeli alliance. They're mainly talking of "stepping up pressure on Israel to settle with the PLO," as my colleague Jacob Weisberg puts it.

The reaction of Israel's defenders reminds me of the decades-long domestic policy debate over the "culture of poverty." Intellectuals on the left (with a few exceptions, such as Michael Harrington) fiercely resisted the idea that a dysfunctional "culture," rather than the mere absence of jobs, kept the poor impoverished. These intellectuals did this out of the not-crazy fear that accepting the "culture of poverty" thesis would lead voters to write off and abandon the poor. The problem was a) the fear was inflated, based on an excessively unflattering view of the American electorate; and b) the thesis was true--there was a culture of poverty. Denying the obvious didn't help the poor, but did help discredit their champions. Similarly, fear of Israel's abandonment isn't crazy. It is, however, inflated, and denying the obvious doesn't help.

How much might the terrorist threat diminish if Israel and the PLO reached a settlement? (Presumably less than "if Israel had never come into existence"--but how much is that?) Is the Israel issue a bigger motivating factor for Bin Laden's terrorist cadres than, say, the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia? I don't know! Kausfiles is not a haven of expertise (or certainty) in the current crisis. But resolving the Israel-PLO conflict would almost certainly remove a non-trivial amount of motivational fuel from the radical Islamic terrorist machine. Even if Israel isn't the main issue for Bin Laden himself--and even if Bin Laden would try to violently sabotage any PLO deal--such a settlement might still make a big difference, in practice, for his potential recruits. Perhaps more important, as Weisberg notes, it would make it easier for moderate Arab states to help America out in the anti-terrorist campaign to come.

I'm not, I think, arguing for appeasing Bin Laden. I think we should kill Bin Laden, and wipe out his organization. (Also, if Bin Laden doesn't really care about Israel, doesn't that make it harder to argue that settling the Israel-PLO dispute is appeasing him?) I'm not saying Israel should go further than former Prime Minister Ehud Barak appeared to go at the end of the Camp David talks. I'm not saying the PLO shouldn't be "pressured" too.

But something has changed. The 9/11 attack revealed that, as Podhoretz writes, "we Americans are in the same boat as the Israelis." The "terrorist war against the United States and the terrorist war against Israel is the same war," declares the New Republic. But precisely because it's the same war--a war in which we've now taken thousands of casualties, and are preparing to bear the burden of additional painful sacrifice--America has more of a stake in anything that might affect the war's outcome.

If we're in the same boat, we're now entitled to a bigger say in how the boat is steered. That would be true whether we wanted to pressure Israel to make peace or pressure it to make war. But right now, our interest is in the former, especially if we conclude that the Israeli government isn't doing all it might reasonably do to reach an agreement. Does Prime Minister Ariel Sharon defer to the demands of militant Israeli settlers? America might once have given great deference to that decision, and to the complex political calculation behind it. It was Israel's business, after all, and Israel presumably knew its business.

But that was before 9/11. We now have at least 6,000 new reasons to second-guess Sharon's judgment--or even the judgment of Israel's voters. It's not just their business. It's our business, too, in a way it wasn't two weeks ago.

Note: A discussion of this issue continues in the Breakfast Table.

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