In June of this year, Palestinian television broadcast a sermon in a Gaza mosque in which the imam, Ibrahim Madi, made the following statement: "God willing, this unjust state [of] Israel, will be erased; this unjust state the United States will be erased; this unjust state Britain will be erased."
The sheik's gentle homily came to mind this weekend, when Palestinian suicide bombers launched nearly simultaneous attacks on Israeli civilians in Jerusalem, Haifa, and Gaza, killing 26 and wounding nearly 200. If a reminder were needed that the war on terrorism goes beyond Sept. 11 and the campaign in Afghanistan, the Palestinians provided a powerful mnemonic. Even as U.S. and British forces respond to the World Trade Center atrocity by closing in on Kandahar, the last city under militant Islamic rule in Afghanistan, Israeli forces began preparing a response to the Jerusalem atrocity with a "frontal attack" against the Palestinian Authority.
The American and Israeli situations seem very different to some, but Sheik Madi's remarks show they are not. In both cases, the forces of militant Islam are targeting a Western country with the intention of destroying it. Osama bin Laden years ago declared a jihad against all Christians and Jews while his friend Mullah Omar, the Taliban dictator, provided more specifics in mid-November: "The current situation in Afghanistan is related to a bigger cause-that is the destruction of America. If God's help is with us, this will happen within a short period of time-keep in mind this prediction. The real matter is the extinction of America, and God willing, it will fall to the ground."
Likewise, with an almost numbing routineness, militant Islamic leaders call for the destruction of Israel. The most powerful of them all, Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called sometime ago for "this cancerous tumor of a state [to] be removed from the region."
There are differences, to be sure. The battle against the United States is newer, far less advanced, and less supported by nonmilitant Islamic elements. Ironically, however, the U.S. government has declared a "war on terrorism," while its Israeli counterpart is still (with U.S. encouragement) trying to hammer out a deal with its enemies. These differences aside, the drive to destroy the United States and Israel are at base similar.
The latest attacks on Israel serve to remind us of something else too: that the attempt to destroy the Jewish state has gone on since it came into existence in 1948. For over a half century, the majority of Arabs have persisted in seeing Israel as no more than a temporary irritant, one they eventually expect to dispense with, at best permitting Israelis to live in "Palestine" as a subject people and at worst massacring them.
This destructive impulse has waxed and waned since 1948. When a seemingly weak Israel first came into existence, it started very high. Then 45 years of steadily losing to a tough and determined Israel left the Arabs reeling by 1993 and partially open to the possibility of accepting it. Rather than pushing this advantage to achieve full acceptance, the Israelis made the historic mistake of easing up and offering their two main enemies, the Syrians and Palestinians, an advantageous deal.
These offers completely backfired: rather than understood as far-sighted strategic concessions intended to close the conflict, Arabs interpreted them as signs of Israel's demoralization. The result was an upsurge in violence and renewed Arab hopes of destroying Israel through force of arms. For the first time since the 1960s, politicians, civil servants, religious leaders, journalists, and intellectuals routinely called for Israel's elimination.
Obviously, this wall of rejection harms Israel, denying its bid to live as a normal nation, subjecting its population to homicidal attacks, and compelling it to take tough steps against neighbors. But Israel is prospering despite these attacks, boasting of a high standard of living, a democratic body politic, and a vibrant culture. In fact, the real harm is felt primarily by Arabs. The destructive urge prevents talented and venerable peoples from achieving their potential. Arabs are focused on harming Israelis rather than improving their standards of living, opening the political process to all, and insuring the rule of law. The result is plain: Arabs are among the world leaders in percentages of dictatorships, rogue states, violent conflicts, and military spending.
A solution is easy to propose though much harder to implement: the Arabs must reconcile themselves to Israel's existence. Only that will close down the century-old conflict, permit Israel to attain normality, and launch Arabs on the path to modernity.
This interpretation of the Arab-Israeli conflict, which puts the onus on Arabs, differs profoundly from the usual one. Even Israelis, not to speak of Arabs and everyone else, tend to think that the Arab acceptance of Israel is already done and now it is up to Israel to do its part by making a series of concessions (handing over the Golan Heights, Jerusalem, etc.).
If it was possible to believe in the Arab acceptance of Israel in 1993, surely today's inflamed rhetoric and the drumbeat of Palestinian violence proves that it was a mirage. Israel has the unenviable task of convincing its enemies that their dreams of its destruction will fail; translated into action, this means it must show resolve and toughness. How can it be otherwise? Such lethal intentions as one finds widely in the Arabic-speaking countries can only be defeated with strength. This will not be pleasant; Israel will incur both foreign condemnation and domestic discontent, but it has no choice.
Understanding the conflict this new way has profound implications for the West. It means that Europe and the United States, always eager to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict, can most helpfully do their part by offering fewer clever plans and making a greater effort to comprehend its basic truths. It means coming to terms with the basic fact of continued Arab rejection of Israel, with all its destructive implications. It means seeing the Israeli predicament, tolerating its need to be tough, and pressing the Arabs to make a drastic change in course.
For many governments, even the American one, this approach requires a reversal from current policy (which is to press Israel). Such a shift will not come easily, but it is a near-prerequisite for anyone truly serious about closing down the Arab-Israeli conflict.