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?

For the last few months, American critics of President Bush's war on terrorism have been using Ariel Sharon as exhibit A. Sharon's basic approach to fighting terrorism has been to find terrorists and kill them, a tactic that also lies near the heart of Bush's strategy. But so far, at least, the more terrorists Sharon kills, the more Israelis get killed by terrorists. You get the picture: The current state of Israel—a state of horrible, bloody insecurity—could be the future state of America if Bush doesn't add some nuance to his world view.

This analogy gets dismissed by American hawks as facile. Even I, who have been known to brandish it in casual conversation, admit that it demands closer inspection than it's gotten, given the undeniable differences between America's and Israel's situations. So let's inspect it more closely.

Robert Wright Robert Wright

Robert Wright is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Follow him on Twitter.

Both Bush and Sharon, in centering their strategies on the pursuit of terrorists, are using a formula that works well with bank robbers and other common criminals: Get some of the culprits out of the picture—kill them, jail them, whatever—and in the process deter other would-be culprits. So for both Bush and Sharon, a big question is whether terrorists respond to standard deterrents the way bank robbers do. It didn't take long for Sharon's policy of targeted assassination to provide the answer: No. 

The problem goes beyond suicide bombers (who obviously don't meet standard game-theory assumptions about rational self-interest), extending well up the chain of command. In January, Israel assassinated Raed al-Karmi, a leader of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. Would this deter the group by sending a chilling message to its surviving leaders? Apparently not. Prior to the assassination, the Al-Aqsa Brigades had confined its terrorism to the occupied territories. Since the assassination, it has moved into Israel proper and has launched more suicide bombings than Hamas or any other group.

Meanwhile, the shockingly abundant supply of suicide bombers, and its expansion to include females, drives home another point. Killing terrorists doesn't just fail to discourage aspiring martyrs—it can actually create more of them. Whereas bank robbing is contagious only to the extent that it isn'tpunished, terrorism can grow more contagious when it is punished. And one accelerator of contagion, apparently, is something Sharon and Bush share: a (not surprising) aversion to casualties on their own side. Because they've often killed terrorists by remote control, they've sometimes killed innocent civilians, a fact that inflames hatred all the more.

Notwithstanding these general parallels between the Bush and Sharon policies, American hawks are good at listing allegedly key differences between the two strategies, or between America's situation and Israel's.

Allegedly key difference No. 1: Israel is more tightly intertwined with its tormentors than America is—the Palestinians live right in its backyard. America's terrorist enemies are mostly an ocean away.

This is true and is reason to doubt that America will soon face the frequency of terrorist acts that Israel faces. But this doesn't weaken the basic point of the analogy: Whatever the size of the threat confronting America, a strategy focused overwhelmingly on punishing terrorists, with little attention to "root causes," may make the problem bigger, not smaller. This is especially likely if the terrorists are hunted down sloppily, with lots of collateral damage (as when an American drone fired a Predator missile at a hapless Afghan because he was tall, wearing flowing robes, and getting what looked like deferential treatment from other men).

And note that, while America doesn't have many radical Muslims in its backyard, it does have many Muslims in its backyard—in fact, within its borders. One recent lesson from Israel is that an iron-fisted war on terrorism can radicalize previously innocuous people. And Bush's war on terrorism—as waged abroad by Donald Rumsfeld and, especially, at home by John Ashcroft—is definitely alienating some American Muslims.

Besides, that America may never reach the one-suicide-bomber-a-day level of terror is meager consolation. In America, it doesn't take a lot of suicide bombs to kill a lot of people. For now, at least, there is enough freedom to do these things Timothy McVeigh style. And don't forget about the famously growing threat from weapons of mass destruction. Moreover, in a globalized world, American targets lie well beyond American borders.

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.

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.

The point isn't that we shouldn't hunt terrorists. Obviously, it's good news that Bin Laden lieutenant Abu Zubaydah was just nabbed in Pakistan—and that his high-level colleague Mohammed Atef was killed during the Afghan war. But, in deciding when, where, and how to hunt terrorists, we should bear in mind that hunting them is more fraught with downside than, say, hunting bank robbers. (See, for example, Nicholas Kristof's New York Times columns on Bush's ham-handed campaign against terrorists in the Philippines.)

And we shouldn't be beguiled by short-run success. If terrorist bombings indeed abate after the current incursion, prepare yourself for the inevitable Charles Krauthammer column touting the success of Sharon's iron-fist policy. It's a natural sequel to Krauthammer's column belittling the significance of the "Arab Street" after the Street failed to boil over and depose any Arab regimes in the wake of the Afghanistan war. In both cases, the fallacy is the same: failing to see 1) that metastasizing hatred can work slowly, beneath the surface; 2) that, increasingly, hatred needn't be mediated by a regime (or a quasi-regime, like the Palestinian Authority) to be lethal; and 3) that the lethal leveraging of hatred—the hatred-death conversion factor—will probably grow exponentially over the next five to 10 years, as lethal technologies advance and spread. (Hamas recently moved from crude fertilizer bombs to sophisticated plastic explosives.)

Unfortunately, Krauthammer's time horizons mirror those of many politicians in a democracy. If your goal is to keep your poll numbers up for a few months or even years, it may pay to be crudely, crowd-pleasingly tough on terrorists while avoiding the messy and frustrating spectacle of addressing terrorism's causes: Just do the immediately popular things and hope that the long-run cost of your negligence doesn't show up until your successor takes office. If that is your ambition, Ariel Sharon is a fine role model.