Israel’s American supporters spend a lot of energy trying to convince people that Israelis want peace, are working for peace and are prepared to sacrifice for peace. All that’s true but it misses this point: Militant jihadis are waging a war against the “infidel” West. They see Israel as a frontline state. There is no way they will permit a separate peace for Israel.
I realize this stands on its head the long-held and widespread belief that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian question would help us prevail over Islamist extremists elsewhere in the world. But that’s like saying repealing the law of gravity would make it easier for us to fly. Yes, it would; but we can’t, so why delude ourselves?
After September 11, 2001, the Bush administration spoke of a “Global War On Terrorism” (GWOT). The phrase is imprecise, but at least it conveyed the idea of an international campaign against an enemy who routinely violates the most fundamental Laws of War. The Obama administration has rejected the term. Its spokesmen sometimes refer instead to “global contingency operations,” a term that seems to willfully disconnect the dots.
More recently, President Barack Obama has said that we are fighting a war against Al Qaeda. That’s better, but still inadequate—akin to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in 1941, saying we were fighting a war against the Wehrmacht, the armed forces of Germany. In truth, we were at war with violent, supremacist ideologies and regimes—e.g. Nazi, Fascist, Japanese militarist—all of them intent on the conquest and destruction of free nations. Understanding this, Americans braced themselves for a great struggle.
Today, we confront ideologies that are similarly violent and supremacist—e.g. Khomeinism, bin Ladenism, Wahhabism—and no less intent on the conquest and destruction of free nations. Too many Americans do not grasp this and are not prepared for the tough measures necessary to limit, contain and eventually defeat these enemies.
Israel’s existence is a particular irritation to the Islamists because the modern Jewish state was established on land Muslim armies once conquered. They therefore consider every inch of Israeli soil an “endowment from Allah to the Muslims.” To leave it under the domination of “unbelievers” one day longer than necessary would be a sin. To accept the existence of a Jewish state on a permanent basis would be nothing less than apostasy.
The beliefs and goals of Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Iran’s mullahs, Hezbollah, Hamas and a long list of other Islamist groups are not identical, but much more unites them than divides them. All embrace a militant understanding of Islam. All justify their aggression and their terrorism theologically. All believe that a final, decisive and divinely ordained jihad—holy war—is now under way.
On one side is the dar al-Islam, literally the “realm of submission,” the parts of the world governed by Sharia, Islamic law as they interpret it. On the other side is the dar al-Harb, literally “the realm of war,” those countries ruled by Christians, Jews, Hindus and moderate Muslims who oppose them and therefore are “enemies of God.”
The Tunis-born Muslim historian and philosopher Ibn Khaldun was candid: “In the Muslim community, jihad is a religious duty because of the universalism of the Muslim mission and the obligation to convert everybody to Islam either by persuasion or by force. The other religious groups did not have a universal mission, and the jihad was not a religious duty for them, save only for purposes of defense. But Islam is under obligation to gain power over other nations.” He did not come to this conclusion because of any “legitimate grievances” against America and Israel. How can I be so sure? Because Ibn Kahldun died in 1406.
Today, most Muslims do not subscribe to his view. Those who actively challenge it deserve our admiration and support. But understand: Such Muslim reformers are despised and marked for death by their more radical brethren. And few of them have either wealth or political power.
If you have followed me this far, it should be clear: So long as this world war is raging, there can be no resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. For any Palestinian leader to sincerely extend his hand in peace to Israel would be suicide.
Until the Islamist movement is seen as failing and in retreat, there can be no durable resolution of the conflict between Israel and its neighbors no matter how much Israelis want it, no matter how hard they work for it, no matter how much they are willing to sacrifice and no matter how strenuously Americans push.
That does not imply that nothing can improve for Israelis and Palestinians. As I write this in February, Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, has reportedly agreed to a U.S. proposal for “indirect talks” with Israel. This would mean that Palestinian and Israeli teams would sit in separate rooms with an American envoy relaying messages between them. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has indicated he would participate in such talks for no more than three weeks. After that, either direct, high-level negotiations would begin or the talks would be cut off.
Quietly, however, Abbas has been cooperating with the Israel Defense Forces to crack down on both terrorists and criminals in the West Bank—terrorists and criminals who threaten him as much as they do Israelis. Improved security is among the factors contributing to greatly increased commerce, employment and overall prosperity in that territory, in stark contrast to the squalor and hardship that afflict Hamas-ruled Gaza.
Netanyahu calls this an “economic peace.” It’s worth pursuing, not least because it’s the only peace that is realistic any time soon.
Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.