Despite the claims of terrorist organizations, Israel’s current two-front war is not just about land. After all, Hezbollah and Hamas fired rockets from Lebanon and Gaza well after Israel had withdrawn from both places.
Indeed, if sacred Arab ground were driving the Middle East crisis, surely Syria would now be willing to risk a shooting war over the all important Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Meanwhile, Cairo is still perhaps the nexus of virulent Arab anti-Semitism, though Israel finished handing over Sinai to Egypt in 1982.
The world prayed that after the unilateral departure of Israel from Lebanon in 2000 and Gaza in 2005, and the recent elections in Beirut and the West Bank, it was witnessing an incremental evolution toward a lasting peace between rational democratic states. Gradually, Israel was returning to its 1967 borders. In response, gradually, it was hoped, Israel’s Arab neighbors would vote into office reasonable statesmen who would renounce terror and get on with crafting workable economies and governments. But all that optimism presupposed a radical change in the Middle Eastern mentality that unfortunately hasn’t happened.
So, if the most recent war in Lebanon and Gaza is not about land per se, whence arises the elemental desire to destroy Israel?
The answer boils down to Islamists feeling their reputation is at stake. Words like “honor” and “pride” are evoked— in the sense they need to be regained — by every insecure radical in the Islamic world, from al Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden to Hezbollah’s Sheik Hassan Nasrallah and Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Fist-shaking crowds, fiery mullahs and terrorists all boast of not giving an inch to infidels, and restoring the now sullied honor of the Islamic people. Why their hurt?
For about the last half-century, globalization has bypassed most of the recalcitrant Middle East — economically, socially and politically. So there are now few inventions and little science emanating from the Islamic world — but a great deal of poverty, tyranny and violence. And rather than make the necessary structural changes that might end cultural impediments to progress and modernity — such as tribalism, patriarchy, gender apartheid, polygamy, autocracy, statism and fundamentalism — too many Middle Easterners have preferred to embrace the reactionary past and the cult of victimization.
At one time or another, they have welcomed all the bankrupt ideologies that traditionally blame others for prior self-induced failure: fascism, communism, Ba’athism, Pan-Arabism and, most recently, Islamic fundamentalism.
When there is high unemployment, corruption, zero economic growth, endemic illiteracy and no freedom, mullahs, dictators and jihadists of the Middle East always seem to fault the ancient colonial power — Britain, France or Italy (though rarely Islamic Turkey) — that supposedly set them back more than a century ago. Or they try blaming the omnipotent United States whose oilmen developed the riches of the Gulf and whose military has saved Muslims from Kosovo to Kuwait.
But above all, for decades leaders like Egypt’s Abdel Gamal Nasser, Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, the Palestinians’ Yasser Arafat and al Qaeda’s bin Laden have scapegoated tiny Israel.
It is the closest Western bogeyman, and its Holocaust survivors transformed part of the desert into a technologically sophisticated Western state. Israel’s astounding success is a constant irritant to many nearby Muslims, representing the infidel’s ability to fashion a prosperous, democratic society without oil revenues.
Victimization turns out to be the real creed of the Middle East, uniting disparate Shi’ites, Sunnis, dictators, theocrats and terrorists. “They did it to us” offers an easy explanation of why Islamic states are now weak and offer little hope to millions of their poor, who, ironically, emigrate to the much pilloried West by the millions. U.S. aid, Israeli concessions, windfall petrol profits and, most of all, appeasement of radical Islamists can do nothing to alleviate these perceived grievances.
Instead, there will be no peace in the general Middle East until Iranians and Arabs have true constitutional government, free institutions, open markets and the rule of law. Without these reforms, they will continue to fail, seeking easy refuge in the shreds of mythical ancestral honor — and this pathetic neurosis of blaming nearby Israel for the loss of it.
Victor Davis Hanson is a nationally syndicated columnist and a classicist and historian at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and author of “A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War.”