Since 9/11, there has been a lively debate about the extent to which Israel is or isn’t implicated in the struggle against Osama Bin Laden’s radical Islamic terrorists. (See, for example, “Israel Isn’t the Issue,” by Norman Podhoretz, in the Wall Street Journal and David and Richard Landes’ recent New Republic article.) At times, Bin Laden’s own failure to give the Palestinian grievance sufficient prominence has been cited as evidence that an Israeli-Palestinian peace wouldn’t reduce the Islamic terrorist threat.
Well, here is how Bin Laden ended the video released when the United States and its allies began attacking his bases in Afghanistan:
I swear to God that America will not live in peace before peace reigns in Palestine, and before all the army of infidels depart the land of Mohammad, peace be upon him.
Hmm. It looks as if Israel might be an issue, doesn’t it?
It makes little difference, in this regard, if Bin Laden is sincere in his apparent concern for the Palestinian cause or if he’s insincere (as former State Department spokesman James Rubin suggested on CNN). It makes little difference if, as several commentators have noted, Bin Laden’s interest in “Palestine” wasn’t much in evidence until recently. The point is that, cynically or uncynically, Bin Laden recognizes that the Palestinian issue is a powerful rallying cry and recruiting tool among Muslims who now see daily satellite images of violence on the West Bank and in Gaza. If Bin Laden feels he has to emphasize the Israel issue even though he doesn’t care about it personally, that only emphasizes what an effective rallying cry it is.
Take away that rallying cry, or weaken it with an Israel-PLO peace, and the appeal of Bin Laden’s organization will weaken as well.
When I made this non-outlandish point in an earlier item, my colleague Jodi Kantor suggested I read Bernard Lewis’ 1990 Atlantic article on the “Roots of Muslim Rage.” I followed instructions. It’s an excellent piece but doesn’t undermine the point. First, Lewis himself concedes that American support for Israel is “certainly a factor of importance” in causing anti-American feeling, though he thinks a general resentment at the success and disruptive influence of Western secularism and modernism is the ultimate source of discontent. If Israel’s American friends had been as forthright as Lewis is, instead of ducking and dodging to avoid admitting the obvious (i.e., that Israel is “a factor of importance”), this whole argument would not be necessary.
More important, toward the end of the piece (perhaps prodded by his editors to provide an upbeat conclusion) Lewis notes that “fundamentalism is not the only Islamic tradition. There are others, more tolerant, more open … and we may hope that these other traditions will in time prevail.” In other words, Lewis outlines a crucial, winnable long-term battle for the loyalties of the world’s vast Muslim population of exactly the sort the Israel-Isn’t-the-Issue caucus tends to deny. Lewis says he doubts the West can do much to affect the outcome of this battle, but why? If the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a “factor of importance,” and we can responsibly negate that factor by promoting a peace, isn’t that worth trying?
Note that Bin Laden himself, in his video, doesn’t say he wants to drive the Israelis out of the region. I have no doubt that’s what he thinks, but he (unlike his less-televised cohort, Ayman al-Zawahiri) chose to put his goal in terms of “peace … in Palestine.” Why did he choose this language? Maybe it’s because he knew that, whatever he thought, many of those to whom he wanted to appeal find the idea of “peace” more alluring than the idea of, say, “extinguishing the Jewish state.” In this, doesn’t Bin laden concede a key point–that a “peace” that allowed Israel to exist would indeed appeal to many of his potential supporters? And doesn’t he play into our hands since that’s precisely the sort of peace that we might be able to achieve, much as he would hate it?
Update: Smartertimes points out that the Washington Post translation of Bin Laden’s video contains several opening sentences omitted in the New York Times transcript on which I relied. These sentences contain a more stridently-phrased reference to Israel. (“We cannot accept that Palestine will become Jewish.”) The Post’s transcript reinforces the point that Bin Laden is emphasizing the Israel issue–it’s both his opening and closing theme! But the Post version does undermine the argument that Bin Laden is intentionally framing his opposition to Israel in moderate terms–although there are certainly more extreme forumulations he could have used. (The Post also translates the closing reference to Palestine differently, replacing the word “peace” with “security.”)
Photograph of Osama Bin Laden on Slate’s Table of Contents by Ho/Reuters.