A religious war with multiple fronts

Posted: Aug 10, 2006 12:01 AM

In fall 2001, then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon delivered an impassioned and, some believed, ill-considered speech aimed at America. "In 1938, enlightened Europe sacrificed Czechoslovakia for the sake of a temporary, convenient solution," Sharon said. "Don't try to appease the Arabs at our expense. ... Israel will not be Czechoslovakia. Israel will fight terrorism."

At the time, President Bush was attempting to rally Middle Eastern support for the "war on terror," and Sharon was apparently worried that Israel would get thrown over the side. The Bush White House was livid - and rightly so - over Sharon's attempt to paint Bush as Neville Chamberlain.

Sharon's concern was understandable. Indeed, shortly after 9/11, Sharon made some unsuccessful attempts to unite Israel and America in a common struggle. For example, he called Yasser Arafat "our bin Laden."

But the analogy was off. Arafat, a murderous carbuncle of a human, was nonetheless no Osama bin Laden. He was a secular leader claiming to lead a national liberation movement that aimed to take or retake a specific piece of real estate. Arafat won a Nobel Peace Prize, proving that such prizes have as much worth as an expired car-wash coupon. He was feted in European capitals. He was Bill Clinton's peace partner.

In his book "Red Horizons," Ion Pacepa, the former deputy chief of Romania's intelligence agency, recounts KGB evidence of Arafat's homosexual trysts with his East German bodyguards.

The prudish bin Laden, holed up in the wilds of Afghanistan, may be a mountain terrorist, but he's not a "Brokeback Mountain" terrorist.

Bin Laden also represents something different. He isn't an Arab nationalist, or even a pan-Arab nationalist. He's a jihadi, an Islamist, an Islamo-fascist or whatever label we're using this week. Arafat certainly paid lip service to Islamic extremism, but at the end of the day that wasn't his bag.

Things are different now. Israel is in its first war against bin Ladenism. Hezbollah's defenders continue to paint its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, as an Arafat, not a bin Laden. But that argument doesn't fly, since Israel has no legitimate border dispute with Lebanon. The so-called Shebaa Farms issue was manufactured by Syria and Hezbollah in order to give the terrorist group an excuse to keep fighting. But the simple fact is that Hezbollah is openly, avowedly, passionately committed to Israel's complete destruction. And so is the leader of Iran, Hezbollah's primary sponsor.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seems convinced that the End Times are about to dawn and Israel's destruction is the eschatological alarm clock. He doesn't care about Arab nationalism - Iranians aren't even Arab, save for about 3 percent of them. Land for Peace? That's for heretics. Israel could withdraw to its pre-1967 borders and these guys would declare a partial victory, high-five, and then redouble their efforts to destroy the "Zionist entity."

A popular way of thinking about all this is to believe we are at the dawn of a new religious war between the West and the Middle East. One side has launched it, Israel is fighting back, and the rest of the West is bickering about what to do and how to do it.

But this is too simplistic. At minimum, we've got two religious wars on our hands. Al-Qaida is Sunni. Hezbollah is Shiite. And relations between the two sides are growing chilly. Shiites, led by Iran, see this as their moment in the sun. Meanwhile, Sunnis - who often see nothing wrong with slipping a few bucks to al-Qaida or Hamas - are suddenly horrified by the terror threat from Hezbollah, which is why some "moderate" regimes are said to be quietly supporting Israel's effort to destroy Iran's proxy in the region. Indeed, al-Qaida-affiliated Sunni insurgents in Iraq have made it their mission to slaughter Shiites, and Shiite death squads are returning fire.

It was telling that when the Hezbollah-Israel war started, al-Qaida announced that it, too, would set its sights on Israel. Not only did this demonstrate once again that Israel isn't the "root cause" behind al-Qaida, but it also showed that two faces of the same totalitarian threat - Shia radicalism and Sunni radicalism - understand that Israel is the focal point of a new global battle between the West and its enemies.

It's clear that Israel isn't going to be a Czechoslovakia thrown over the side by the West. What's less clear is whether it might eventually become a Poland, a nation carved up under a temporary truce between twin evils (the so-called Hitler-Stalin pact) before they went at each other's throats.