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Bret Stephens is a member of the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal and was in 2002-04 editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Post, Israel's leading English-language daily. Previously, Mr. Stephens was an editorial page writer for The Wall Street Journal Europe. In 2004, he was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum, where he is also a media fellow. Mr. Stephens addressed the Middle East Forum in New York, on January 19, 2005.

Is Israel significant or insignificant regarding its position in the affairs of the Middle East and the world? Although the views from Jerusalem and even the United States and Europe may present Israel as part of the most important story in the world, there are more pressing stories, particularly in the Middle East.

For example, the possibility of Iran possessing a nuclear arsenal in the near future may pose the greatest foreign policy challenge the United States has faced in decades. The unfolding results and consequences of the recent Iraqi election are also of the utmost importance. In addition, the gradual weakening of the Saudi kingdom, coupled with the eventual passing of Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, will present two enigmas concerning leadership succession.

Significance of Israel internationally

In light of these issues, why do so many people still think Israel is at the center of the universe?

There are four potential reasons why so many believe Israel is the most important issue in Middle Eastern and even world affairs. First, there is a certain Jewish and Israeli conceit that what matters in Israel is greatly important and that view should be perpetuated for both political and psychological motives.

Second, it is easy to be a journalist in Israel and media access in the country is often facilitated by its democratic nature. To comprehend this phenomenon, it is necessary to consider western media access across the rest of the Middle East. For example, there is no CNN bureau in Damascus. In the rest of the Middle East, the media are severely limited in comparison to Israel and as a result, most news clips and coverage of the region disproportionately show Israel and create a sense of heightened significance.

Third, there is a widespread Western messianism that posits that peace in Jerusalem will lead to peace in the rest of the world. Although this is a Christian belief, originally associated with the political right, it is now mostly voiced by those who are secular and on the political left.

Finally, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict occupies too much media coverage in the Arab-Muslim world on stations such as al-Manar and al-Jazeera. Since these stations often show Israeli tanks and violence all the time, Arabs become enflamed and the adherents of jihad are usually bolstered. Consequently, Israel is perceived as a central issue in the Arab world and Arab governments are able to manipulate this conception of Israel as an obstacle in order to refuse internal democratic reform and prolong dictatorial practices.

Significance of Israel to U.S. foreign policy

To a great extent and for a variety of reasons, Israel is genuinely significant in terms of American interests and foreign policy. First, the reality of Jewish statehood is considered historically necessary and morally acceptable to America and several western nations.

Second, from a strategic standpoint, Israel is vital to western interests because it impedes what the scholar Fouad Ajami calls the "Dream Palace of the Arabs." In essence, it stops both pan-Arabism and pan-Islamism espoused by individuals like Nasser, Arafat, Saddam Hussein, and Bin-Laden. Israel is a literal and figurative bulwark against a cross continental Arab-Muslim empire. It inhibits pan-totalitarianism in the forms of Arab nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism.

Third, America faces a current crisis of diminished credibility in the face of its enemies. America pulled out of Lebanon, pulled out of Mogadishu, responded weakly to embassy bombings in 1998, and did not respond at all to the USS Cole attack. By promoting the significance of Israel through aid and defense, the US markets an identity that it will fight back to its enemies in the Arab-Muslim world. This premise was also behind the war in Iraq. From this standpoint, the war has been a success.

Finally, Israel is significant because it will contribute to the growth of a democratized Palestinian state. With pressure exerted from both democracies, Israel and America, Abbas and the PA will be expected to bring an end to violence by reining in and quashing terrorists. More democracy in the region will contribute to the overall goal of regional stability and mark a great victory for the west in its war against Islamic fundamentalism.

Israel and the future of the Middle East

It is also important to consider the large debate currently going on in political and academic circles over what to call the last four years of war between Israel and the Palestinians. Some argue it should be the Oslo War while others say it should be the war against the occupation. In reality, the last four years of war between Israel and the Palestinians has in effect been the clash of civilizations. Israel has defended the West against its enemies. This marks the true significance of Israel and why American and western support for Israel is so important.

This summary account was written by Ari Goldman, a research assistant at the Middle East Forum.