Last June, Palestinian television broadcast a sermon in a Gaza mosque in which the imam, Ibrahim Madi, made the following statement: "God willing, this unjust state Israel will be erased; this unjust state the United States will be erased; this unjust state Britain will be erased."
The sheikh's gentle homily comes again to mind as Palestinians' efforts to build their arsenal and persistent attacks on Israeli civilians have again been exposed of late. The most recent assault was at a ballroom last night, when a Palestinian used hand grenades to kill five and wound more than thirty Israelis, a much smaller number than would have been the case had the explosives on the terrorist's body gone off as intended.
And while the American and Israeli situations might seem completely different, Sheikh Madi's remarks remind us that the forces of militant Islam see them as akin. So if a reminder is needed that the war on terrorism goes beyond the campaign in Afghanistan, the Palestinians offer a powerful mnemonic. Militant Islamic rule in Afghanistan may be history but militant Islam is not.
Osama bin Laden years ago declared a jihad against all Christians and Jews while his friend Mullah Omar, the Taliban dictator, talked publicly about "the destruction of America," which he hoped would happen "within a short period of time." That militant Islamic leaders wish the same for Israel should hardly be news. The most powerful of them all, Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, recently called for "this cancerous tumor of a state be removed from the region."
There are differences in the situations, to be sure. The jihad against the U.S. is newer, less advanced, and less supported by non-militant Islamic elements. But especially now, as the U.S. has formally declared war on terrorism, the common cause of the two states is growing.
As far as being target nations goes, Israel is a bit further along the learning curve. 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 the state of Israel as a temporary condition, an enemy they eventually expect to dispense with, permitting Israelis to, at best, live as a subject people in "Palestine." At worst, who knows?
When Israel first came into existence, the Arabs casually assumed they would destroy it. But Israel did something right. For 45 years the state defended itself with a toughness and determination that had, by 1993, left the Arabs reeling. It was a moment when Israel should have pushed its advantage, to get, once and for all, recognition of its right to exist.
Instead, the Israelis made what has turned out to be the historic mistake of easing up. Rather than go in for victory, they offered advantageous deals to their two main enemies, the Syrians and Palestinians.
Predictably, these offers backfired: Rather than being seen as far-sighted strategic concessions intended to close the conflict, they were interpreted as signs of Israel's demoralization. The result was renewed Arab hopes of destroying Israel through force of arms and an upsurge in violence. Diplomacy, in other words, unintentionally revived Arab dreams of obliterating the Jewish state.
Obviously, this wall of Arab 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 a high standard of living, a democratic policy, and a vibrant culture.
The great irony is that Arabs are paying the higher price for their destructive urge. The Arab focus on harming the Jewish state prevents a talented and dignified people from achieving its potential. It means they neglect improving their own standard of living, opening up their own political process, or attaining the rule of law. The result is plain to see: Arabs are among the world leaders in percentages of dictatorships, rogue states, violent conflicts, and military spending.
Getting Arabs to reconcile themselves to Israel's existence is easier to say than to do. But it is, and will remain, the only solution. Only such a change of heart will close down the century-old conflict, permit Israel to attain normality, and give Arabs a chance to advance down the path to modernity.
But this interpretation of the Arab-Israeli conflict puts the onus on Arabs, something we're not altogether accustomed to doing these days. Conventional wisdom has shifted so far that even Israelis tend to consider Arab acceptance of Israel a fait accompli, shifting the burden of action to Israel in the form of concessions (handing over the Golan Heights, parts of Jerusalem, etc.). But if that position was credible in 1993, surely today's inflamed rhetoric and the drumbeat of Palestinian violence proves it to have been a mirage.
Israel now has the unenviable task of convincing the Arabs that their dreams of destruction will fail. Translated into action, that means resolve and toughness. It means becoming feared, not loved. The process will be neither domestically pleasant or internationally popular. But what choice is there? The failure of the Oslo negotiating process showed nothing so much as that attempts at a quick fix are doomed to fail.
Understanding the conflict in this way has profound implications. It means that the outside world, always anxious to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict, can be most helpful by simply coming to terms with the basic fact of continued Arab rejection of Israel. It must acknowledge Israel's predicament, tolerate its need to be tough, and press the Arabs to make a fundamental change in course.
For many governments, even the American one, this approach requires a reversal from current policy of premising a breakthrough on concessions from Israel. Such a reversal in policy will not come easily, but it is a near-prerequisite for anyone truly serious about closing down the Arab-Israeli conflict.