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Anyone who heard Centcom commander David Petraeus' testimony before the U.S. Congress, or read his accompanying report, will have a hard time explaining this week's screaming headlines heralding a crisis in Israeli-American relations.

What Petraeus said is this: "The [Israeli-Arab] conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel. Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples ? and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world. Meanwhile, al-Qaida and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support. The conflict also gives Iran influence in the Arab world through its clients, Lebanese Hizballah and Hamas."

Which all sounds logical enough. But it goes very little way to justifying obituaries to Israel's U.S. alliance. Petraeus conspicuously avoided any hint that the conflict with the Palestinians and recent violent clashes are the result of Israeli policy. He made no mention of Israeli settlements; nor (disappointingly for some) did he make any reference to Israeli building in east Jerusalem.

The interpretation chosen by some is apparently this:

If Washington succeeds in forcing Israel to alter its position and respond to Palestinian demands, parts of the Arab and Muslim world will see the United States as more anti-Israeli - with the added implication that al-Qaida's operational and recruiting power will diminish.

Only that this is a wild exaggeration. A change in Israel's stance and even a peace deal with the Palestinians will do nothing to alter al-Qaida's combat strategy, to say nothing of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, or Iraqi militants. Even were the U.S. to announce a total military and economic boycott of Israel tomorrow, nothing would induce radical Islamists to lay down arms against America.

Moreover, and much to the chagrin of those Americans who favor an unashamedly anti-Israeli foreign policy, not even if America joined the global jihad and offered to fight shoulder to shoulder with al-Qaida would the extremists accept the offer and give up their attacks against U.S. targets.

For the militant groups, as for extremist regimes like Iran, Israel is a secondary target. Their main problem is the Western world and its leader, the United States.

Not for nothing did Iran's Revolutionary Guard label Israel the 'Little Satan' and the United States the 'Great Satan'. America's problems in this part of the world don't begin and end with Israel. It is far too glib, even disingenuous, to suggest that they do.

It is essential to stress that it is not just the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is damaging America's status in the Muslim world. It is also the West's permissive culture that angers Muslims. All that the United States stands for is anathema to extremist Islam. Ever wondered why it is that when senior U.S. officials visit Ramallah, the streets are never hung with stars and stripes? Is it just because the U.S. backs Israel? There is more behind America's declining fortunes in the Arab world than just that.

There are several likely reasons why Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and even the Palestinians continue to interpret the Obama administrations policies as weakness:

Attempts at reconciliation with Syria, for example, and the return of a U.S. envoy to Damascus, even as Syrian leaders spit in America's face and parade their alliance with Tehran.

Or the apparent decision to pull back from crippling sanctions on Iran, and America's seeming resignation to Iran becoming a nuclear power. From the moment America announced its intention to "extend a hand" to Syria and Iran, the moderate Arab world's derision was palpable.

Or perhaps the fact that America is becoming increasingly bogged down in Afghanistan and Iraq.

These things aside, the decline of the 'moderate' powers in the Arab world relative to the 'Axis of Evil' has much to do with factors wholly unconnected with either Israel or the United States. Struggling economies, income inequalities, poor education, democratic deficit, rampant corruption - issues to which General Petraeus made at least passing reference in his testimony.

But let's take a few steps forward in time. Let's presume that Israel gives in to the U.S. demand to freeze construction in east Jerusalem. It will no doubt improve Obama's standing with several Arab governments (Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, the Palestinian Authority). But will it lead to a let-up for even a moment in the efforts of Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, Syria and al-Qaida? It is fair to presume that the opposite is true. I am sorry if this shatters any illusion that all of America's problems in the Muslim world will disappear if Israel does.

Extremist Islam was a problem long before Israel even existed. The ideas around which the Muslim Brotherhood and its Shi'a equivalents took shape first sprang up at the beginning of the 20th century when an Indian extremist, Abu Allah Ali Mawdudi, exported them to what is now Pakistan and from there to Iran and the Middle East. Founding fathers of the Brotherhood such as Hassan al-Banna first became active in Egypt in 1928 - two decades before Israeli independence and 39 years before the occupation of the West Bank. Banna's heir and the scion of modern global jihad, Said Qutb, started his campaign long before 1967 - in 1951, in fact, shortly after returning disgusted by the decadence he encountered during his studies in... yes, the United States.

It seems that those who rushed to interpret Petraeus's comments as a hint that Israeli settlements are the root of America's woes should think again - and check the historical record. Settlement building is certainly a threat to the Palestinians and, in my view, to the future of the State of Israel itself. But Centcom has bigger threats to deal with.

Posted by Avi Issacharoff, March 21 2010

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