Irony of ironies, on the morning of September 11, 2001, I was in London’s Charing Cross Road, browsing the shelves of a modest Islamic book shop.
There were only a few people in the store. And I noticed that the counter clerk seemed to be smiling enigmatically as he listened to what I assumed was a weird tape-recording of a man who sounded like ABC News anchorman Peter Jennings. Jennings was describing a fantastic occurrence; something about a plane having smashed into one of the World Trade Center towers.
Curiosity got the better of me and I asked the clerk what he was listening to. “The radio – a plane has gone into the World Trade Center,” he politely replied.
I left the shop and hurried to the tube station feeling discombobulated. Given that I had spent several decades of my work life in the vicinity of the WTC, it would have been easier emotionally, at that moment, to have been back in New York City where I grew up, or at home in Jerusalem.
Watching events unfold in London only added to my sense of surrealism.
FIVE YEARS and a day later, the debate about how 9/11 should be understood rages on. From my Jerusalem perch, here’s how this native New Yorker thinks we should conceptualize 9/11:
President George W. Bush isn’t the problem. Progressive Europe’s punching-bag may have exacerbated matters by mishandling the “war on terror,” but obsessive Bush-bashing is an extravagance conscientious folks really can’t afford.
The real problem is the Islamist threat.
It’s this generation’s misfortune that Islamic civilization has been co-opted by those who would exploit its imperialistic and chauvinistic values rather than its more enlightened and reformist traits.
Muslim civilization today is violently catalyzed by antipathy to Western modernity. It’s taken Bush a while to identify the character of the conflict. He still slips back into blurred talk about the “war on terror.” Yet as we all appreciate, “terror” is a strategy – not the enemy itself.
The enemy is militant, rapacious Islam.
Bush sidetracked the war against militant Islam with the ill-conceived, poorly conducted campaign in Iraq. Because of it the West has almost allowed Afghanistan to slip back into Taliban hands.
Bush’s continuing failure to recognize that Iraq was the wrong war at the wrong time; that until he made it so, Iraq was not a pillar of the Islamist threat, is lamentable.
So too, are America’s losses, and the administration’s misguided obsession with “democratizing” the Middle East. This is a region where popular support invariably flows to the radicals, not to Western-oriented reformers.
But at the end of the day, Bush mishandled the Islamist threat; he didn’t create it. And it will not go away when America elects its next president, or when British Prime Minister Tony Blair leaves 10 Downing Street.
WE MUST NOT give the enemy the rope with which to hang us. We need to find the right balance between the rights we as citizens of the West enjoy versus giving our government the capacity to win. Only a wise, accountable and enlightened political – and judicial – leadership can navigate such a ground-breaking course.
It is essential, for the morale of Western society as well as for the effectiveness of our struggle, that peacetime notions of civil liberties be adapted to meet the crisis we face.
At airports, for instance, such an approach translates into profiling: We need to admit that an elderly African American grandmother from Harlem is less likely to pose a security threat to international aviation than a 20-something British-born Muslim of Pakistani heritage who’s just come back from a year of religious studies in Peshawar. In failing to connect the simplest of dots we are sacrificing enduring values of liberty and tolerance for fleeting political correctness.
JUST BECAUSE there’s a war of civilizations doesn’t mean that every regional conflict involving Muslims can be subsumed under it.
We should avoid self-fulfilling prophesies. Any steps that can be taken to lessen the religious aspect of confrontations with Muslim society should be pursued – not to delude ourselves, but as a tactic in conflict management.
Militant Islam is heterogenous. Iranian and Wahhabi Islamists share an antipathy for the West – and for each other.
We’ve already seen the Palestinian Arab conflict turned into a religious struggle with the emergence of Hamas – making it even more intractable. Now we’re witnessing the Kurdish struggle in Turkey (and elsewhere) becoming transformed into a religious endeavor. That’s bad for the Jews (and not so great for the Kurds, either).
As much as we need to recognize the war of civilizations, we must not so relish the paradigm that we become blinded to alternative forms of conflict analysis.
Palestinian religious fundamentalism, for instance, is plainly part of the larger Islamist struggle. But for practical purposes, operating purely within that framework is counter-productive.
Once can imagine Hamas reaching a point where it decides that the Palestinian interest dictates the movement enter into a long-term hudna with Israel. Clergy could easily be found to provide the necessary religious imprimatur.
Operationally, we need to de-link our struggle from the larger civilizational war, and exploit those Palestinian religious (and political) sensibilities that would allow a long-term cease-fire.
Pragmatically, we need to find ways to bridge the religious gap, using the language of religion to find ways of accommodation.
LET’S NOT frighten ourselves to death about the terrorist menace. It’s real and scary enough.
But for the most part, this is a slow-burn conflict. We’re going to need the stamina to confront it over the long haul.
Authorities in the West should not be afraid to expose probable terrorist plots, but they ought to temper such readiness with a recognition that their credibility is at stake. For instance, of the 417 people charged with terrorism in the US since 2001, only 143 have actually been indicted, and only 38 convicted.
If you cry wolf too often, folks might discount the genuine peril they face. On the other hand, if authorities fail to expose plots that are real, though hard to prove in court, they risk allowing the conspiracies to come to fruition.
The political system (and that includes the media) needs to adapt to the nature of this unique war in which subversive groups that support the enemy and engage in espionage or sabotage really are in our midst. And we must find a way to balance threat alertness with paralyzing fear-mongering.
FINALLY, WE need a united front and wise leaders. Militant Islam’s war against Western civilization is not aimed at Neo-cons or the Christian Right alone.
It also targets people who summer at Martha’s Vineyard, live in North London or on the Upper West Side, and subscribe to The New York Review and The Guardian. Its war is aimed at the entire range of Western values: from conservative to liberal, and from religious to secular.
We are all infidels.
Regrettably, the Muslim world is all too united in its battle against Judeo-Christian civilization. Only a brave Muslim minority opposes the Islamists outright. Such solidarity in the Muslim camp demands greater cohesion on the Western side.
As the war evolves, as Bush and Blair fade from the scene, the real essence of the struggle may become apparent for some of those now blinded by myopic hatred of Bush.
Thursday, September 07, 2006
For the good of the many
The headline in Sunday's mass-circulation Yediot Aharonot caught my eye: "800 prisoners to be released in exchange for Gilad Shalit."
Shalit was taken captive, and two IDF soldiers were killed, during a daring Hamas attack launched via a tunnel into Israel from Gaza on June 25.
While the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert denies it, there are reasons to believe that Jerusalem is planning to trade 800-1,000 Palestinian prisoners (excluding Marwan Barghouti, say some reports, including him, say others) for Shalit. The proposed exchange would take place over a period of three months. It's a deal being brokered by Fatah elements close to PA President Mahmoud Abbas and Egypt, acting as go-betweens for Hamas.
There are some 9,000 Palestinian inmates in Israeli prisons. I'm sure a handful are as pure as the driven snow, but most are heartless killers (or their facilitators). People like Amana Muna, who lured a naive Israeli teenager named Ofir Rahum via the Internet to a rendezvous with death in Ramallah; or Ahlam Tamimi, the guide of the suicide bomber who blew up Jerusalem's Sbarro restaurant in 2001, murdering 15 Israelis.
Days after Shalit's kidnapping, the prime minister said something that made me proud I voted for his Kadima Party: "Israel will not give in to extortion by the Palestinian Authority and the Hamas government, which are led by murderous terrorist organizations. We will not conduct any negotiations on the release of prisoners. The Palestinian Authority bears full responsibility for the welfare of Gilad Shalit, and for returning him safe and sound to Israel."
With that as a basis, Israel launched Operation Summer Rain, a series of military incursions into Gaza - the first since disengagement. In roughly three months the IDF has justifiably taken a heavy toll on Palestinian infrastructure (a power station, bridges, training camps and government offices - not to mention more than 200 Palestinians killed; mostly gunmen but, regrettably, civilians too).
True, the IDF has failed to track down Shalit - but we've made them pay dearly for the kidnapping and killings. The Hamas government is hurting; so is the Palestinian polity which elected it.
THEN, ON July 12, Hizbullah attacked across the Lebanese border, killing eight IDF soldiers and capturing Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev.
Once again Olmert made me proud when, in a seminal speech before the Knesset on July 17, he declared: "Citizens of Israel, there are moments in the life of a nation when it is compelled to look directly into the face of reality, and say: No more! And I say to everyone: No more! Israel will not be held hostage - not by terror gangs, or by a terrorist authority, or by any sovereign state."
What ensued was a month of difficult war in which 117 IDF soldiers were killed. Because we took a justifiably tough stance, Hizbullah launched 4,000 rockets against northern Israel. Forty-two civilians were killed and over 4,000 wounded. It will take the North years to recover from the damage to homes, farms and forests.
Hizbullah strongholds in Beirut and south Lebanon were decimated. Enemy reports claim that some 1,000 Lebanese non-combatants died in the war. Hundreds of Hizbullah gunmen were reportedly killed. Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah remains in hiding.
BUT NOW it turns out that negotiations are also under way, via a German intermediary, to ransom Regev and Goldwasser in return for 27 Lebanese prisoners held in Israeli jails, plus the bodies of a number of Hizbullah fighters killed in the war.
The Jerusalem Post reported on Monday that the government is not ruling out freeing Samir Kuntar - responsible for the brutal 1979 murders of three members of the Haran family in Nahariya, as well as policeman Eliahu Shahar - as part of the deal.
Shlomo Goldwasser argues that "anything is justified" to get his son released. That's an understandable position for a father. But it's not the position a prime minister should take.
How does Olmert plan to explain his about-face to the parents of the soldiers killed trying to free Goldwasser and Regev? What will he tell the Terror Victims Association, which has warned against a prisoner swap?
We've been down this road before. In 1985 Ahmed Jibril's PFLP-GC traded three Israeli soldiers captured in the 1982 Lebanon war for over 1,000 Palestinian terrorists. One of them was Ahmed Yassin. Many analysts believe that the Jibril release helped set the stage for the first intifada in 1988.
In 2004, in one of the murkier exchanges conducted, some 400 Arab terrorists (and the remains of 59 others) were exchanged for "businessman" Elhanan Tennenbaum and the bodies of three IDF soldiers.
IF OLMERT'S pledge that Israel would not be held hostage doesn't preclude ransoming our soldiers for terrorists - what exactly did it mean?
One could argue that an Israeli military retaliation (against Hamas and Hizbullah) was called for even if we planned to trade prisoners for kidnapped soldiers all along. In that case, however, our actions should have been more carefully calibrated. Instead we acted as if a new-found principle was at stake: that Kadima, unlike Likud and Labor, wouldn't cave in to terrorists. And on the basis of that principle a million Israelis stoically accepted a hellish summer.
One might also argue that both Hizbullah and Hamas have learned that although Israel does eventually cave in when faced with a ransom demand, Jerusalem will exact a heavy price before throwing in the towel. But couldn't such a deterrent message have been sent - especially on the northern front - with greater dexterity?
I have no problem with trading "fresh" Palestinian prisoners - taken since Gilad Shalit's capture, like members of the Hamas-led Palestine National Council; or Lebanese and Hizbullah POWs (and corpses) taken during the war itself. But anything beyond that would be a clear reversal of Olmert's principled, indeed revolutionary, stand.
THIS IS not one of those grey areas. Either we went to war because a principle was at stake, or it wasn't. Either we trade hostages for prisoners, or we don't.
History shows that every time we free killers, at least some of them go back to their line of work. And giving terrorists their liberty lifts the enemy's spirits. Arab society can more easily tolerate "martyrs" than the lengthy incarceration of husbands, sons, brothers and daughters.
Don't we want to undermine enemy morale - not bolster it?
Granted, we've meted out sufficient punishment to make Hizbullah and Hamas think twice before embarking on further cross-border hostage-taking attacks. But at the end of the day, the temptation to try again remains.
There's another principle at stake: Palestinians convicted of killing Israeli civilians are criminals. They should not be exchanged as prisoners of war.
It makes sense that Palestinians and Hizbullah Shi'ites want their kinfolk released. That desire should serve as an incentive for them to negotiate an end to the conflict. But releasing under duress Arab prisoners while the war is in progress only encourages the Palestinian "resistance."
As for the families of the captured IDF soldiers, they should be made to understand that the good of the many must outweigh the need - no matter how heartfelt and understandable - of the few.
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