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Israel Continues to Fuel the Conflict

The historical parallels in the evolution of the U.S. and Israel help explain the affinity between citizens of the two nations. Americans seldom focus on those similarities.
Published on Monday, December 10, 2001 in the Chicago Tribune

Israel Continues to Fuel the Conflict

Sharon consciously pushes all the right buttons

by Salim Muwakkil

Fleeing religious persecution, European colonialists seized the land that became the United States of America from its original inhabitants. The colonialists systematically subdued all opposition and enslaved Africans to do their dirty work. In less than 250 years, the U.S.A. has become the world's most powerful nation.

Israel occupies land obtained from its original inhabitants by European colonialists also fleeing religious persecution. With lavish assistance from the West, Israel has squashed most of its opposition and become the most powerful nation in the region.

The historical parallels in the evolution of the U.S. and Israel help explain the affinity between citizens of the two nations. Americans seldom focus on those similarities. But many Israelis are quick to note the links when pressed to surrender land they seized through conquest. For example, they ask, are Americans willing to surrender sovereignty of Texas to Mexico?

Since Sept. 11, Israel has been stressing those parallels more strenuously. But, along with the other dislocations triggered by the kamikaze hijackings, the U.S.-Israeli dialectic has been reversed. Rather than following the evolutionary lead of the U.S., Israel now is leading the way. As a nation wizened by years of the kind of terrorism we now fear, Israel has experience the U.S. sorely needs.

Where Israel once looked to Washington for a role model, the U.S. now is taking its cue from Israeli policy.

Canny politician that he is, Israel Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has perceived this shift and added another level of complexity to the situation by adopting the U.S. language of "war on terrorism" to describe Israel's continuing conflict with the Palestinians.

Sharon is using this opportunity to link his government's attempt to crush Palestinian resistance to Israel's illegal occupation of their land to the current anti-terrorist campaign. He's attempting to hijack the rationale of the anti-terror coalition. Thus any action the U.S. takes in pursuing Osama bin Laden, or whatever terrorist it deems worthy of pursuit, can also be justified by Israel in prosecuting its own war on terrorists.

So far, this strategy has worked well in muting criticism of Israel. When a Hamas-sponsored suicide bomber recently murdered 25 people in Jerusalem and Haifa, Sharon unleashed a furious military assault. How could the U.S. object, when it has used such overwhelming military force in Afghanistan in response to suicide-bomb attackers?

The answer to this rhetorical question may hearten Israeli hardliners, for now. And the current attempt by the Sharon government to equate Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority to Afghanistan's Taliban regime is an example of how this strategy will be employed. But, I predict, this approach soon will backfire.

Rather than drawing the U.S. closer to the world-view of Israel, this current conflict more likely will stimulate increased discussion of our differences and, especially, how those differences demand the Palestinians be given justice.

Although this nation has yet to fully address the legacies of its brutal history, it has made attempts. Not that it volunteered these efforts; vigorous movements for the abolition of slavery, women's suffrage, Native American reparations, civil and worker rights forced this nation to adopt social policies more attuned to social justice.

Israel also has made some efforts in this direction. Before the second (Al Aqsa) intifada erupted, Israeli citizens had gone further than ever in accepting the need for a Palestinian state. As long as their security was assured many were willing to risk a step into the unknown.

Sharon triggered the Al-Aqua intifada with his 1999 visit to Haram al-Sharif or Temple Mount, a visit many Muslims interpreted as a subtle desecration. By introducing the element of religion, the man who later became the prime minister enlarged the secular Palestinian resistance against Israeli occupation into an Islamic struggle.

By inflaming religious passions, Sharon helped diminish the influence of Arafat's secular Palestinian Authority and increase the profile of radical Islamic groups like Hamas (the Islamic Resistance Movement) and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. And, as prime minister, Sharon now condemns Arafat's PA for its impotence and compares it to the Taliban.

But by making such strong comparisons, Sharon unwittingly is exposing the differences as well.

In a Dec. 4 column, titled "Israel is not America, Arafat is not the Taliban," writer Tony Karon noted, "the remnants of Israel's `peace camp' know that first step to eradicating Palestinian terror attacks is recognizing that they are a response --however morally abhorrent and politically senseless--to Israel's continued occupation of the West Bank and Gaza."

As the U.S. gets drawn further into this morass, American citizens will begin to focus more on those differences. And then maybe Israel can get back to emulating America instead of the other way around.

Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor at In These Times. E-mail: salim4x (at)




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