The Magazine

Better to Be Feared Than Loved, cont.

Especially in the Middle East.

Apr 29, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 32 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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IT HAS RAPIDLY BECOME accepted wisdom in Washington that the United States is in ever-worsening trouble in the Arab Middle East. The collapse of the peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians has, according to this zeitgeist, left America bereft of friendly Muslims in the region, thereby jeopardizing both the Bush administration's global campaign against terrorism and its inchoate plans to topple Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. In particular, Ariel Sharon's military incursion into the West Bank, which has reinvigorated in the Arab mind all the awful imagery of General Sharon's drive to Beirut in 1982, has crippled Secretary of State Colin Powell's quest for "an integrated strategy" for the Middle East and humiliated the president, who'd urged an Israeli withdrawal "without delay." American credibility among the Arabs, so the theory goes, is in tatters.

Fortunately, this depiction of the United States in the Arab world makes no sense. The reverse is probably closer to the truth: that America is actually now in a far stronger position to prosecute a war against the Baathist regime in Iraq than it was before the Israeli Defense Forces reoccupied the West Bank. Its standing in the Arab world, that is, its ability to achieve its strategic goals, has gone up, not down, because of Israel's recent military operations. Israel's house-to-house combat in Jenin will undoubtedly reinforce Arab awe at Israeli prowess. This can only aid President Bush's larger war against terrorism rooted in Islamic militancy. Jenin, like the battle of Tyre, Sidon, and Beirut in '82, may make a real peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza someday possible. One look at Palestinian chairman Yasser Arafat today--hyperventilating, shaking, stuttering in both English and Arabic, pathetically appealing to memories of "my brother" Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin (as if that seasoned general wouldn't have pulverized the Palestinian Authority for its holy-warrior kamikaze attacks on Israeli civilians)--should tell us that we are probably at the dawn of a post-Arafat era in Palestinian politics. That would be very good, for only when Arafat is gone will there be a real chance for an adequate settlement of the differences among the denizens of the Holy Land.

This continuing misapprehension of the Arab-Israeli conflict and its impact on the U.S. position in the Middle East is distressing, though not surprising, 52 years after Israel survived its first Arab war. Wrapped up in the peace process are bureaucratic equities--primarily those of the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency--and analyses that span several generations. But the reality is that Israel's repeated victories over the frontline Arab states have enormously increased Washington's coin from Morocco to Iran. The American-Israeli nexus has been for many, if not most, Arabs an inextricable part of the American mystique, the recurring reminder that Western power could not be overcome. The Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat understood this well, which is why he decided to move away from the pro-Soviet, anti-American, and anti-Israeli camp. Sadat's successor, Hosni Mubarak, who has played a two-faced game with America, supporting Washington in VIP meetings while encouraging vicious anti-American propaganda in his controlled popular press, still understands the reality of American power and the unchallengeable ties between Washington and Jerusalem.

Muslim militants and fundamentalists, who see culture and religion in crystal clear terms, have never had any difficulty discerning this indissoluble power nexus. The fundamentalists understand that the United States will not become "evenhanded" toward the Arab Muslim world since liberal democracies align naturally with each other. And Arab Muslim states (so fundamentalists fervently pray) can never become liberal democracies. For the militants and fundamentalists in Islamic Jihad, Hamas, and no doubt in many of the security and paramilitary organizations of the Palestinian Authority, Israel is the cutting edge of liberal Western civilization. It's America's base camp in the Muslim umma, the social, religious, and geographic sphere of Muslim sovereignty, where non-Muslims must be subordinated to a Muslim-controlled political system.