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by David Pryce-Jones


Israel's enemies have always wished to destroy it, of course, but what's new this time is that they are avoiding the set-piece battles that lost them all previous wars, and are instead elaborating the tactics of terror. Islamist Iran has made itself the driving force. The terrorist movements Hezbollah and Hamas are both Iranian satellites, and their presence on Israel's borders ensures that Iran can already engage in terrorism on its own terms and at times of its own choosing. There's a civilizational dimension to it as well: Science and technology have hitherto given Western states their supremacy over the Muslim world. As Iran moves toward possession of the nuclear weapon, this historic advantage is neutralized. A nuclear-armed Iran will be able to promote terror at state level, changing the balance of forces as never before against the West in general and Israel in particular.

You don't have to be in Israel very long, or hold many conversations, to realize how the threat from Iran induces denial in some and fear in others. The well-known historian Benny Morris set an example in an essay last year with the haunting title "The Second Holocaust Is Looming." One bright morning not too long from now, he prophesied, the mullahs in Qom will meet in secret session under a portrait of the Ayatollah Khomeini and solemnly give the go-ahead to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has sworn to "wipe Israel off the map" and has been avidly pursuing the nuclear means of doing so. "With a country the size and shape of Israel probably four or five hits will suffice: no more Israel," Morris concluded. Never mind that thousands, perhaps millions, of Muslims would also die, because in the Islamist mindset, Allah would know his own. Never mind Israeli reprisal either: Iran would have turned itself into a suicide bomber.

Deterrence is difficult and dangerous. Last September, there was an Israeli strike against an installation deep in Syria. Secrets are not usually kept in Israel, but nobody has yet revealed what this operation was about, and Arab and Iranian sources are as mysteriously silent. The target had to be important enough to justify the risk, leading many to conclude that it had to do with weapons of mass destruction, implicating Iran. According to unconfirmed reports, Hercules aircraft also landed ground forces for the purpose of removing whatever was contained in that installation.

Further rumor among journalists has it that Ehud Barak, the minister of defense, has cleared his diary of engagements in order to chair a committee devoted to the question of Iran. As a military strategist with an intelligence background put it to me, "Israel isn't in the same league as Iran and can't deal with it." President Bush in the past has suggested he might take action to prevent Iran from going nuclear, but what with polls and the NIE report that whitewashed Iran, he seems instead to be consigning this issue to his successor.

According to the same strategist, containment through sanctions and diplomacy is therefore the last resort, but virtually hopeless.

In the new Cold War shaping up between Islamism and the democratic West, Israel holds the front line. Once again, the values of the opposing sides are irreconcilable. Israel, and behind it the United States, treats even the most intractable issues as open to negotiation and compromise. In the Arab and Muslim order, power is absolute and has to be victorious, so "negotiation" and "compromise" are euphemisms for shame and surrender.

THE PRESENT PLIGHT OF THE PALESTINIANS perfectly illustrates how the logic of absolute power dictates extreme behavior. For the past 50 or so years, Arab nationalism had been the dominant ideology in the Middle East. Fatah under Yasser Arafat, a typically absolute leader, was the Palestinian branch of Arab nationalism, but its failure to provide a decent life for the masses was total. Islamism appeared a viable alternative. The founding of Hamas in 1987 as an Islamist movement was thus a challenge to Fatah. Slowly but steadily, the conflict between Hamas and Fatah grew, and came to an inevitable head in the civil war in Gaza in 2005. This was small-scale, but still brutal enough to frighten the population into submission.

Civil war has divided the Palestinians ideologically and even geographically, with Hamas in Gaza and Fatah on the rump of the West Bank. The loser, Mahmoud Abbas, heir of Arafat as leader of Fatah, is a broken man. Nominally he governs from his office in Ramallah, but actually he is hardly more than a figurehead. Maj. Gen. Gadi Shamni, the general officer commanding the Israeli army's central command, makes the stark point that, without the Israeli presence on the West Bank, Hamas would take over within two days. Yet out of the blue, President Bush said that he expects the Palestinians to have a state of their own by the end of the year, and to guarantee Israeli security on top of it A so-called peace process regularly brings together Abbas and Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert, as well as other ministers and officials at lower levels; terrorist outrages regularly oblige them to break off meetings. Now and again Condoleezza Rice checks in to Tel Aviv and Ramallah to admonish the parties for backsliding. The Western powers have pledged $7.7 billion to Abbas, though how much of this will ever find its way to the people on the street is a very open question.

Whatever could have prompted them all to take so rash and unrealistic a position? It is hallucinating. Fatah, Hamas, and Israel are engaged in a three-cornered contest for power, and it is crassly Eurocentric to think that this can be negotiated to any conclusion.

IRAN EVIDENTLY HAS THE OPPOSITE, ISLAMO-CENTRIC BELIEF that power is indeed absolute, and that the conquest of Israel is not only desirable but achievable.

As the ayatollahs see it, the fighting launched by Hezbollah in 2005 led to a temporary stalemate, and with a lot more arms and money they will do better next time. Hamas operates identically. The borders of the Gaza Strip with Israel and with Egypt are fortified and closed. Hamas activists have been smuggling arms through tunnels dug under the border with Egypt.

Over the last 18 months, Hamas and affiliated Islamist groups have fired some 8,000 rockets and other missiles to a depth of about twelve miles into the Israeli territory adjoining the Gaza Strip, and especially the small town of Sderot, with a population of 20,000, many of them immigrants. Known as Qassams, these rockets are erratic, and have killed only about a dozen people, though maiming many more, and driving out of their homes hundreds of others. The rockets are fired from behind a screen of civilians so that Israeli countermeasures are liable to kill innocent women and children, prompting an international outcry that the response is "disproportionate" and thus handing Hamas a propaganda victory. As a constant needling challenge to Israeli sovereignty, yet not one so damaging as to merit serious reprisal, the Hamas tactic displays undoubted imagination and innovation, however callous. The shaping of the conflict remains with them.

Lately Hamas organized a mass breakout through the fortified barrier with Egypt, and used this occasion to bring into Gaza Iranian-made Grad missiles with a heavier payload and a longer range than the Qassams. (They also brought in a number of men, possibly from al-Qaeda, trained in Iran.) At the beginning of March, several of these Grads hit the city of Ashkelon, which has a population of 120,000 and much industrial capacity. At the same moment, a barrage of some 50 Qassams was fired daily. Here was an escalation of the ongoing test of strength. An Israeli armored column then entered Gaza and killed about 120 Palestinians, most of them from Hamas, only to have to withdraw to the usual worldwide clamor about "disproportion." Olmert made it plain that if Hamas desisted from violence he would accept a truce. "We don't have a policy of operations, but rather one of systematic fighting, over time, every place there is terror," he said, or, in plain language: He has no idea what to do. As if to prove Olmert's helplessness, a Hamas gunman shot dead eight teenage students in a religious seminary in Jerusalem.

The military strategist with whom I talked argues that there are no solutions. A truce only allows Hamas to rearm. In his view there is no alternative to a local version of the Petraeus surge, an occupation of Gaza in great force, and a clearing-out of Hamas. As the terrorists can't easily be identified and separated out from civilians, the operation would be "like punching air," both necessary and futile. Which is the problem in a nutshell.

Throughout Israel you see evidence of normality, an expanding economy with construction and cranes everywhere, art exhibitions, prizewinning films, crowded cafes. But it is abnormal for the country to be inextricably caught in the Arab and Muslim crisis of identity, to be obliged to enter into a test of strength alien to its own cultural values, and which casts the shadow of a nuclear holocaust. It's more comfortable for everyone to deny the reality of this unexpected new Cold War, and pretend to believe that democracy and absolutism can settle their differences in a peace process.

David Pryce-Jones is a British author and commentator. He is senior editor at the National Review magazine and a contributor to The New Criterion and Commentary. He writes on the Arab character, current events in the Middle East and on its history.

This article was published April 07, 2008 in the National Review It is also archived at today's+Israel.-a0177402143 Dead+end%3a+the+heartbreaking+realities+of+today's+Israel.-a0177402143


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