Is Israel's present America's future?

Science, evolution, and politics explained.
April 5 2002 10:39 AM

Is Israel's Present America's Future?

(Continued from Page 1)

Allegedly key difference No. 2:  Sharon hasn't been allowed  to pursue an all-out war on terrorism. Whereas Bush is free to kill Osama Bin Laden, Sharon isn't free to kill Arafat; he is on a leash—a leash controlled largely by Bush, in fact. If he weren't so constrained, then we'd get to see a true test of the iron-fist strategy. Israel would long ago have launched the kind of house-to-house policing that is only now taking shape.

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This is a partly valid point. In fact, I predict that, in the short run, the current incursion will subdue the rate of suicide bombings. And this effect could last a long time if Sharon were allowed—and were willing—to enduringly turn the occupied territories into a police state.

But this would be slow-motion suicide for Israel. The Muslim world's hatred of Israel would only build until, sooner or later—in five, 10, 15 years—somebody managed to sneak a nuclear bomb into Tel Aviv. (The New York Times' Thomas Friedman has been virtually alone in noting that nuked Israeli cities is a nearly inevitable consequence of a long-run failure to solve the Palestinian issue.) Sharon's new policy of incursion won't ultimately defy the principle illustrated by the old policy of targeted assassination—that trying to stamp out terrorism can make it more contagious. The new policy, even if sustained, will at most drive the contagion underground, delaying the onset of symptoms even as it intensifies them.

In any event, the fact that an Israel unleashed could repress Palestinian terror for months or even years doesn't mean the United States could comparably score short-term successes in its war on terrorism. America doesn't have what Israel has: a distinct territory that is the proximate source of most of the terror, is under its control, and in which it can infinitely violate civil liberties. Israel can turn the occupied territories into a police state, but America can't turn the world into a police state. 

Allegedly key difference No. 3: Palestinians are galvanized by a distinct, heartfelt grievance: They want their land back. Bin Laden's various complaints about America don't pack the same emotional punch or have the same unifying effect.

It's true that few things are more explosive than repressed nationalist aspirations.And this may mean that, say, collateral damage will come back to haunt America less dramatically than it will haunt Israel. (Let's hope so, given the estimated 1,000 or more innocents killed by American bombs in Afghanistan.) But the point is that, whatever the exact factors by which collateral damage converts into Islamic hatred, or Islamic hatred converts into American deaths, these factors are, in the long run, of non-trivial magnitude. Whatever the exact dimensions of America's predicament, it is enough like Israel's that uncritically emulating Ariel Sharon stands a good chance of making the problem worse.   

Besides, in one sense this contrast between the origins of the hatred facing the United States and  Israel make America's challenge the more daunting. Israelis at least know that their problem is Palestinian nationalist aspirations, even if the two different forms of these aspirations—the official Fatah position versus the official, and unacceptable, Hamas position—make addressing the problem very hard. (Note that Sharon, by moving Fatah toward the Hamas position, has compounded the problem.) Americans, in contrast, face a longer list of grievances, some of them vague at best. What's more, many of the actual "root causes" of Muslim anti-Americanism—ranging from poverty to the clash between modernity and tradition to the ennui emanating from a middle-class welfare state (think Atta)—go well beyond the official Bin Laden grievances. 

It is precisely this diffuseness of anti-Americanism's roots that makes it imperative to take them seriously, to work at discerning and addressing them. However hard it is to imagine a miracle peace summit solving Israel's problem, it's even harder to imagine some deus ex machina solving America's problem.

So it's alarming that, in the "root cause" department, Bush is doing roughly what Sharon is doing: dodging the issue. Of course, both men talk the talk. Sharon acknowledges the Palestinians' aspirations of statehood—it's just that it's never a good time to actually discuss them. When the Arab states unveiled their peace proposal—a vague and imperfect idea, but a major step forward—Sharon changed the subject, using the Passover bombing as the occasion to launch his massive incursion. (This seems to have pleased the bombing's sponsor, Hamas, which shares Sharon's aversion to the Arabs' two-state solution). Bush, similarly, says we need to address the sources of Islamic discontent, including poverty; but when it came time to open American textile markets to Pakistan—which Gen. Musharraf had requested in exchange for his courageous alliance with America—Bush balked. (He did so for crass domestic political reasons, as Franklin Foer has shown in the NewRepublic.)

It's true that Bush was finally shamed into increasing foreign aid. It will go up by as much as $5 billion a year. But that's about one-tenth of the projected increase in annual Pentagon spending in the wake of 9/11. (And foreign aid is much chancier than free trade as a way to help people lastingly move toward prosperity.) For both Bush and Sharon, the "war on terrorism" is, for the most part, meant literally.

Obviously, the comparison between Bush and Sharon isn't perfect—in ways I've enumerated and, no doubt, in other ways. (If you think I've missed some key distinction between America's situation and Israel's, e-mail me; I may revisit this topic.) But the analogy holds up well enough, I think, that Americans should use Israel's sad current predicament as an object lesson.

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