- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 1, 2000

The unthinkable has happened a war in the Middle East. But war is a political act; it serves political aims. If this is war, then what are our political objectives, and how does Israel fit in? The collapse of the "peace" process and the current crisis is a decisive moment in Middle East history. The sources of the crisis and the coming upheaval are regional, not local to the Palestinians. America's response to this upheaval should also be regional.

For quite some time, both the United States and Israel accepted the definition provided by the most radical Arab despots that the Palestinian conflict drives the region's endemic violence, poverty, instability, corruption, anti-Americanism and despotism. These despots preferred this definition because it helps them deflect criticism from the tyranny and the ills it inflicts upon Arab society. For them, survival demands hostility toward Israel. A wily despot knows that only in war can he enslave and prey upon his own nation and call it "mobilization for a cause." He renames his failures of governance as virtues. At times, radical Arab leaders attack Israel as a bold stroke to pre-empt an impending defeat at the hands of other Arab states by rearranging the chess pieces with regional upheaval or because they have set a trap and want to shove an opponent into it.

By the early 1990s, this staple of regime survival for these most radical Arab despots "the hatred of Israel and America" became poisonous. Until the 1980s, Israel defeated armies but did not politically destabilize its enemies. It 1982, it destroyed the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). From its isolated perch in Tunis, the PLO was impotent to affect events; awaiting death. The 1980s also saw an American return to tradition. The Cold War ended like World War II proving it was suicidal to tangle with the United States. True, for one brief moment, radical Arab nationalists, such as the PLO, clung to life by a hope given them by Saddam. But by 1991, the Iraqi "hope" lay ruined. The Soviet Union had vaporized. Over the globe, all "including Arabs" paid close attention to American ideas vindicated by victory.

These American and Israeli victories changed the tide and tone of Arab politics. Arabs whispered that Israel's free society, like America's, was its source of strength. Israel became a seductive local example of the idea which had won the Cold War for America. People lined up to align with the United States. Gingerly, less revolutionary Arab regimes abandoned the safe shelter of anti-Zionism and dealt with the forbidden foe. It seemed safe. Israel and the United States were seen as the forces of the future. Radical movements be they secular Nasserites like the PLO or Baathists in Iraq and Syria, or religious fundamentalists, like Ayatollah Khomeini's Iran and Hezbollah were ashamed and quietly crawled to the periphery of Arab and Muslim thought.

But at the moment of victory, Israel and the United States misunderstood the true context of anti-Israeli and anti-American violence as a feature of the despotic nature of their attackers, not of their own behavior which led both to discount the positive influence of their power. Instead of capitalizing on victory, they traded it for affection. They were lured into a series of neo-pacifist fantasies which have strategically, dramatically weakened both.

Israel, immersed in an isolated, theoretical dialogue over the morality of its behavior, mostly about the evils of being powerful was tempted by the regional utopia it expected were the Palestinian issue resolved. It failed to imagine how its superior power, rather than treated with disgust, could have instead acquired a moral purpose by shaking the foundations of radical Arab nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism. Instead, Israel was determined to show that it was so open-minded that it would traffic with the most radical Arab rulers to negotiate its legitimacy.

The United States also engaged in a fantasy called "conflict resolution." This concept suited the theoretical world of American academics, but it was haughty and inappropriate advice to lend to those who held genuine principles and pursued serious national interests while facing foes who practiced duplicity or harbored evil intentions.

Further east, America stumbled on Iraq by abandoning a viable insurgency and UNSCOM, which controlled Iraq's deadliest weaponry. By 1998 the United States enlisted United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan to provide a diplomatic disguise for its humiliating retreat. It also apologized to Iran's mullahs, not only for the evils it ostensibly did to Iran this century, but for evils its allies supposedly did last century. And it guaranteed Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi that his regime would not be challenged and sanctions would be lifted in exchange for disgorging two low-level operatives involved in the Pan Am 103 bombing.

This was a horrible turn of events for all those who sided with the United States and made peace with Israel. These two powers chose strategic self-mutilation, amusing their antagonists. Saddam Hussein, Yasser Arafat, Moammar Gadhafi and Iran's Ali Khameini now set the tone of the region. And they have scores to settle, starting with replacing the last "American" decade with a new "radical" decade of revenge by launching a series of upheavals, the first of which is upon us.

Crises can create opportunities. If war is thrust on Israel and the United States, then both have a strategic opportunity unthinkable only a few weeks ago. Israel must avoid a war of attrition in West Bank towns. Mr. Arafat wants that war; Israel cannot win it. Instead, if war erupts, then it should be fought with a strategy to reverse the strategic retreat. The conflict should be broadened to strike fatally, not only disarm, the centers of radicalism in the region to re-establish the certainty that fighting with either the United States or Israel is suicidal.

Many in the region who live in a constant battle for survival will quickly understand the merits of being an American ally and of making peace with Israel. They will even discuss again how powerful freedom is, as they did earlier in this decade. On the other hand, failure to do so will bring about the opposite, as we have already seen.

David Wurmser is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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