The Curse of Jihad

Mackubin T. Owens

March 1, 2004

Most Americans don’t really understand how ubiquitous and pervasive the threat of terrorism is in Israel. Israelis have lived under the specter of terrorism for years, but especially so since the outbreak of the “Oslo War” in the fall of 2000. They have come to terms with security measures that most Americans would find restrictive at best. For instance, an American cannot help but be struck by the sight of armed security guards everywhere in Jerusalem—from the entrance of shopping malls to cafes and restaurants.

But many Americans have convinced themselves that the terrorism Israelis face on a day-to-day basis is somehow qualitatively different from that which struck the United States on 9/11. The latter is “global” terrorism while the former is “regional” or “local,” stemming from the particular circumstances of the Palestinian problem, and, according to the conventional wisdom, pits Israeli security against Palestinian “rights.” Indeed, this understanding seems to pervade U.S. policy toward Israel: The Bush administration, certainly the most pro-Israel one in a generation, still insists on a level of restraint by the Israelis when it comes to Palestinian terrorists that it would never agree to in its own dealings with al Qaeda.

In fact, 9/11 and terrorist attacks against Israel form a seamless garment, both being motivated by the same hatred. No one has done a better job of demonstrating this point than Saul Singer, the editor of the Jerusalem Post’s editorial page and a columnist for the paper. Many of his columns and unsigned editorials have now been collected in Confronting Jihad: Israel’s Struggle and the World After 9/11 . Americans who wish to understand the reality of Israel’s war against terrorism and its connection to our own struggle should read this fine collection of essays.

The pieces that appear in Confronting Jihad cover the period from 1997 until the summer of 2003. The selections are outstanding examples of political commentary and the editorialist’s art. Those who possess the ability to provide penetrating analysis in a thousand words or less are a rare breed indeed. Singer is one of them and his columns exemplify both common sense and moral clarity. As Bill Kristol says in his forward to Confronting Jihad, Singer’s “character, as well as his mind, are visible in these essays.”

Singer was one of the first Israeli commentators to criticize the Oslo “peace process.” To see how right he was and how wrong its advocates were, it helps to remember that when the Accords were signed in 1993, the Palestinian Intifada was exhausted and Yasser Arafat’s power had reached its nadir. He was shunned by the Arab world owing to his support for Saddam Hussein in 1991 and was on the verge of being kicked out of Tunis. The world had not yet heard of suicide bombers.

Oslo rehabilitated Arafat, thereby sowing the seeds of its own destruction. The failure of Oslo should have become apparent to all when Arafat, first, rejected the best deal the Palestinian Arabs are ever likely to get—the offer by former Prime Minister Barak of some 97 percent of the disputed territories in the West Bank and Gaza, and control of East Jerusalem as a Palestinian capital—and secondly, relaunched the Intifada, now built around the suicide attacks that have rocked Israel for several years now. Why Americans and Israelis of all stripes continue to push the “peace process” as Jewish corpses continue to pile up is beyond me.

The central recurring theme of Confronting Jihad is that Israel and the United States are fighting the same war, and that it doesn’t make sense for the latter to criticize the former when it takes steps to enhance its own security. Perspective is important. For instance, in response to four coordinated attacks that killed some 3,000 Americans, the U.S. has pursued terrorists, attacked them in their sanctuaries, and overthrown two regimes supported terror attacks against the West. So why does the U.S. insist that Israel show “restraint” in response to the more than 100 attacks over a three-year period that have killed nearly a thousand Israelis, proportionately the equivalent of 20,000 Americans?

As Singer observes, Israel’s 9/11 began at Rosh Hashana in 2000, a full year before our own. Since then, Israel has been under a constant and pervasive threat of terrorism unlike any other the world has ever known. The Clinton administration sought to apply “evenhandedness” to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs. Israel was admonished to refrain from the “excessive use of force” lest such a response feed the “cycle of violence.” The way to achieve “peace” was to respect Palestinian “rights.”

But Israeli restraint sent the message to Arafat that he could negotiate by means of terror, that Israel could be bled into withdrawing from territory. Since Arafat had already rejected Barak’s deal, the message seemed clear to anyone but the ideologically blind: Arafat and the Palestinian Arabs did not seek a peaceful settlement with the State of Israel but rather, sought its extermination and the creation of a Judenrein Palestine.

Singer argues that 9/11 made it clear that “Israel and America are both on the receiving end of what is essentially the same jihad: an expansionist war by militant Islamists who cannot tolerate any form of non-Islamic power.” President Bush seemed to recognize this state of affairs in the wake of 9/11. As he stated in his speech of 20 September, 2001, “We must unite in opposing all terrorists, not just some of them. There is no such thing as a good terrorist.”

But in practice, the U.S. all too often continues to distinguish between the terrorism that it faces and that confronting Israel. For instance, senior U.S. envoys recently told the Sharon government that Washington would back a unilateral Israeli pullout from Gaza only if it could be ensured that former Gaza security chief Muhammad Dahlan would take charge of the area. Dahlan is a terrorist. Why is he treated as a “good terrorist”?
The same holds true with Israel’s security fence. Administration officials have criticized the fence for creating potential hardship for Palestinians. While there are many good reasons to oppose the fence, it is a step necessitated by the failure of the Palestinian Authority to curb terrorist attacks against Israel.

Finally, there is the latest State Department Human Rights Report. This “balanced” report finds both Israel and the Palestinian Authority guilty of countless human-rights abuses. But its evenhandedness smacks of moral equivalency: It counts as an human-rights abuse every action Israel has taken to combat terrorism, thereby equating actions aimed at protecting Israeli citizens with terrorist acts executed to kill them.

Such steps fly in the face of common sense. As Singer notes, “September 11 should have destroyed the supposed dichotomy between local and global terror. Before September 11, one might have argued, however cynically, that ’local’ terror would never spread, and would stay ’local’ if the West did not oppose it too vigorously. Now it should be clear that if ’local’ terror is a successful and quasi-legitimate way to address local grievances, there is nothing stopping the use of terror in the war for the ultimate grievance, that of Islamists against the West.”

If the Bush administration does not see this, who will? John Kerry and the Democrats who still treat the problem of terrorism as an issue of law enforcement? The United Nations and the European Union? The International Court of Justice in The Hague, which is seriously considering a Palestinian challenge to Israel’s security fence? “If Israel disappeared, the U.S. withdrew all its troops from the [Middle East], and all Arab regimes were replaced by Taliban clones, the [Islamists’] conflict with the West would not end—it would just be getting rolling. The ’karffirs’ [infidels] would be ripe for the plucking.”

Singer’s column for the Jerusalem Post is called “Interesting Times,” as in the Chinese curse, may you live in interesting times. The times are indeed interesting when otherwise moral people cannot see the difference between terrorism and self-defense, and between regimes that threaten human rights and those that seek to protect and expand them. Times are interesting when people in the government of the United States see the steps that Israel takes to defend itself as part of the problem rather than as part of the solution. The essays in Saul Singer’s Confronting Jihad provide something of an antidote for interesting times, at least for those with a will to embrace common sense and a moral approach to international affairs.

Mackubin Thomas Owens, an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center, is an associate dean of academics and professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, RI. He led a Marine infantry platoon in Vietnam in 1968-1969.