In June, Fatah power broker Marwan Barghouti wrote a note from his Israeli jail cell to Khaled Mashal, Hamas’s negotiator in Damascus, urging a cease-fire with Israel. Barghouti, who despite being on trial for the murder of 26 Israelis, passes for a “moderate” in the lethal caldron of Palestinian politics, observed that since the September 11 attacks, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, among other events, “have destroyed countries and movements.” The Islamic militants risked the same fate, Barghouti warned.
These mostly overlooked yet critical five words — “have destroyed countries and movements” — vindicate the Bush-Blair anti-terrorism strategy, as well as Prime Minister Sharon’s proactive approach to Palestinian terrorism. As the American army searches for enough weapons of mass destruction to justify anti-war critics, while the media harps on 16 words which may have been inaccurate during the verbal avalanche preceding the war, these five words prove that three decades of Western appeasement have ended — and the message is resonating in Damascus, Ramallah, Tehran and Baghdad, if not yet in London, New York and northern Tel Aviv.
After September 11 — and only because of September 11 — the Bush administration launched an ambitious campaign against Islamic terrorism. The first challenge was to end the 30-year multinational, bipartisan approach of undermining harsh anti-terrorist rhetoric with defensive symbolic reactions. After Jimmy Carter appeased Iranian kidnappers, Ronald Reagan retreated from Lebanese suicide bombers, the elder George Bush prematurely ended the Gulf War to please the Saudis and Bill Clinton postured when Al Qaeda attacked, terrorists assumed that Western powers lacked spine.
The fact that for years leading up to September 11, 2001, the American government and the other Western powers had satellite photographs of the Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan — let alone other terrorist camps in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon — and did not destroy these lethal laboratories constitutes one of the greatest betrayals by those governments of their people. What were these leaders worried about, the Taliban’s sensibilities? No wonder Osama Bin Laden and his devotees felt emboldened to launch ever-more aggressive attacks on a seemingly decadent power.
Fortunately, both President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, among others, learned the right lessons on September 11. Rather than being stymied by the asymmetry between phantom, chaotic terrorists and musclebound superpowers, the Bush Doctrine chased terrorists wherever infrastructure could be found. Bush understood that the fight had to be aggressive, proactive and fundamental — rooting out terrorist support in financial networks and Arab capitals, hitting them where they had friends and bankers, if you could not hit them directly.
Moreover, in viewing Islamic terrorism as an integrated phenomenon, rather than a series of isolated problems, Bush showed that he learned from billiards the value of a good bank shot — that if you target Afghanistan, Pakistan will notice; that if you destroy Saddam’s Iraq, Hamas, Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia might fall in line. Now, thanks to the Afghani and Iraqi wars, for the first time in decades, terrorists see — as Barghouti recognized — that American power can be applied systematically to crush terrorist movements and host states.
Just as Americans learned to stop the one-way war in which they simply waited for terrorists to strike, then reacted half-heartedly, Israelis stopped being handcuffed by their power vis á vis the Palestinians.
For too long, Israelis have been imprisoned in the “Bontsha Schweig” mentality, as in the Yiddish story “Bontsha the Silent,” where all the little Jew demanded after a lifetime of humiliations was a hot buttered roll. For too long, the negotiating dynamic with the Palestinians and the other Arabs has been that Israelis make only one request, for an undefined “peace,” even as the other side imposes multiple and mounting demands. The Palestinians have pushed this to another level, providing a new definition for chutzpah: when you start a war, lose a war, then make outlandish and shifting demands rather than suing for peace.
Not only did Sharon, finally, belatedly, take the fight against Palestinian terrorism to Palestinian neighborhoods, George Bush style, but Israel made specific demands: to end incitement, to root out terrorists.
For too long, Palestinians have specialized in selling Israelis pieces of their own “Brooklyn Bridge” again and again — exemplified most recently by the new demand from nowhere, once the cease-fire began, that Israel release prisoners to prop up the new Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, and appease the extremists. Even the “road map” does not mention this issue, although the diplomatic quartet and the media dutifully accepted it once the Palestinians repeated it enough times.
So far, both Sharon and Bush have demonstrated great skill in changing long-established conflict dynamics and pressuring the aggressors rather than the victims. Crediting them for that achievement does not suggest that either is perfect, nor does it preclude the need for bold peacemaking as well as creative war-making.
But both Sharon and Bush can take solace in the fact that regardless of what their own countries’ naysayers may say, the “right” people have heard the right message: that the asymmetry which terrorists have exploited for so long will not inhibit these leaders who will do whatever is necessary to protect their citizens.
The terrorists have learned. These proactive tactics “have destroyed countries and movements” — and will do so again, if necessary.
The second printing of Gil Troy’s latest book, “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today” (Bronfman Jewish Education Centre), was recently released.
Gil Troy is the author of The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s. His forthcoming book, The Zionist Ideas, which updates Arthur Hertzberg’s classic work, will be published by The Jewish Publication Society in Spring 2018. He is a Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University. Follow on Twitter @GilTroy