Middle East after the 9/11 attacks: an Israeli view
Daily Star - Lebanon, Lebanon
By Yossi Alpher
The events of September 11, 2001, altered the
Israeli-Palestinian equation both directly and indirectly.
Directly, because Israeli Prime Minister
Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat fairly quickly sorted
themselves out into the two dichotomous camps that emerged in the Bush
administration's view of the Middle East after 9/11: good guys and bad guys;
those who supported the American war on terror and those who (accurately or not)
were deemed to be against it.
With regard to terrorism, this development
dramatically upgraded the Israeli-American alliance. Yet, this was hardly an
automatic outcome of 9/11. After all, Arafat also condemned the Al-Qaeda attacks
(though the Palestinian "street" seemingly did not). And Israel initially dealt
with the ramifications of 9/11 clumsily. Sharon briefly angered the United
States by comparing Bush to Chamberlain. I recall a senior American official
telling a senior Israeli, to the latter's consternation, that for the US 9/11
was the equivalent of the Holocaust, thereby implying that its ramifications
were not open to Israeli interpretation or manipulation - as in comparing Arafat
to Osama bin Laden or equating the Palestinians with the Al-Qaeda terrorists.
Ultimately it was the Karine-A affair - the attempt by Arafat to import
sophisticated weaponry from Iran in January 2002, several months after 9/11 -
that sealed Arafat's fate in American eyes by allying him with the "axis of
Israelis, in the midst of the intifada, felt
a huge sense of relief: They were no longer alone in the struggle against ...
radical Arab terrorism; they had a mega-power ally. They would be supported in
taking increasingly extreme measures against Palestinian militants and their
Yet it is questionable whether the Bush
administration's approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself (as opposed
to Israel's struggle against Palestinian terrorism) would have been appreciably
different without 9/11. Even before that tragic day, Bush showed little
inclination to become actively involved in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Even after it, he endorsed a two-state solution and the "road map." Karine-A
would probably have happened without 9/11. It was the European attitude toward
the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that changed measurably to Israel's advantage
Indirectly, 9/11 triggered a chain of
American actions and reactions in the greater Middle East region that have
profoundly affected the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The conquest and
occupation of Iraq was, at least in the rhetoric, intended to implant democracy
in the region as an antidote to terrorism, reduce the danger of weapons of mass
destruction and eliminate a state supporter of terrorism. It did indeed remove a
key supporter of Palestinian terrorism, Saddam Hussein, from the arena. It
placed nearly 150,000 American troops in the heart of the Middle East, thereby
affecting the regional military balance. And it eliminated any near-term
prospect of a coalition of Arab countries making war against Israel. This
further freed Israel's hand in its dealings with the Palestinians, both
militarily and in terms of political risk-taking, as in the August 2005
unilateral withdrawal from Gaza.
But the occupation of Iraq and the earlier
occupation of Afghanistan also had the unintended effect of strengthening Iran,
a major supporter of Hizbullah and Palestinian Islamist organizations, by
removing its neighboring enemies from power and elevating the Iraqi Shiites to
dominance. America inadvertently turned Iraq into a hotbed of terrorism that
affects the entire region. And the misguided American attempt to foster instant
electoral democracy in Iraq, Palestine and elsewhere, without heed to the armed
and radical nature of Islamist parties, helped enfranchise Hamas and legitimize
its rule in Palestine.
Hamas' approach to the conflict, in turn, has
to an extent moved the Israeli-Palestinian conflict out of the realm of a mere
territorial dispute and into the "clash of civilizations" between Islam and the
West. The current fighting with Hamas and the recent war with Hizbullah in
Lebanon and indirectly with Iran and Syria have galvanized an initial degree of
Egyptian, Jordanian and Saudi support for Israel that is unprecedented in the
history of the Arab-Israel conflict and that reflects the emergence of a
Western-oriented anti-Islamist camp in the region.
On balance, the American role in the Middle
East since the invasion of Iraq has, from Israel's standpoint, contributed to a
dangerous escalation of the confrontation with militant Islam, including in the
Palestinian sphere. The US certainly bears part of the blame. For that matter,
so does Israel, for not supporting and aiding Palestinian President Mahmoud
Abbas when that support might have made a difference.
But the primary blame for the current state
of affairs between Israel and the Palestinians, and in a larger sense between
Israel and the radical Islamist camp, both Arab and Iranian, is ... Arab and
Iranian. It did not begin on 9/11. But 9/11 was definitely a turning point.
Yossi Alpher was
director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and
was senior adviser to former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. This commentary
is taken from bitterlemons.org, an online newsletter that publishes contending
views of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.