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Al Qaeda’s Kindness

Events in the Middle East frequently defy logic, but rarely is a development as unexpected as the recent broadside by Al Qaeda against Iran and its Shi’ite allies for — of all things — spreading the “lie” that Israel was responsible for the September 11 attacks.

Ayman al-Zawahiri, the deputy commander of Al Qaeda, made the accusation in a two-hour videotaped speech released earlier this month. He said the notion that Israel was responsible for the attacks was concocted by Al Manar, a Hezbollah-owned television station in Lebanon, and promptly picked up and spread by Iran. “The purpose of this lie is clear,” he was quoted as saying. It is meant to suggest “that there are no heroes among the Sunnis who can hurt America as no one else did in history. Iranian media snapped up this lie and repeated it.”

The goal of Zawahiri’s speech was not to defend Israel’s good name. In fact, he went on to call for Israel’s destruction, lambasted Hamas for considering a cease-fire and urged Muslims to attack Israeli and Jewish interests everywhere.

No, his main purpose was to defend his organization against the libelous charge that it may not be a bunch of mass murderers. Secondarily, he was adding tinder to the growing hostility between the Sunni Islam of Al Qaeda and the Shi’ite Islam dominant in Iran and south Lebanon. Still, he did put himself on the line to discredit the alarming spread of an antisemitic slur. It’s worth a mention.

It’s significant, too, because it reminds us that the threat to Israel from Islamic terrorism is neither seamless nor immutable. There are countless factions, each with its own agenda. For many of them, including Al Qaeda, their feuds with other Muslims overshadow their hostility toward Israel. Hamas, Israel’s most immediate threat, this week repeated its call for a long-term cease-fire, and Israel for the first time acknowledged that it was interested in following up.

Syria, commonly seen as a client of Iran and sworn enemy of Israel, announced this week that it was ready to accept Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s proposal for renewed peace talks. The announcement was made by Syria’s foreign minister immediately after he met with the visiting foreign minister of Iran. The Iranian stood by silently, listening politely.

It’s foolish to overstate such signals and ignore the ongoing hostility and continuing threats these extremist forces pose. But it’s equally foolish to paint extremist Muslims — or any Muslims — with a single brush. Smart diplomacy means avoiding fights, keeping the other side worrying and encouraging your enemies to pick on each other, not on you.

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