Tony Blair has been a rare beacon of light in the global war on terrorism, and his clarity of thought is especially important now after the British have come under repeated terrorist attack. But the British prime minister has one flaw in his analysis of the current situation that unfortunately comes up far too often. Looking to explain to the British public the “deep roots” of the terrorist attacks on London last month, Blair first pointed to “the critical issues in the Middle East” that need to be “dealt with and sorted out.”
The diplomatic code didn’t need much deciphering: Just after President Bush’s 2004 election victory, Blair offered congratulations and added that the allies now must pursue the war on terrorism by nonmilitary means and make an effort to revitalize the Middle East peace process, which Blair defined as “the single most pressing political challenge in our world today.”
In other words, it wasn’t Iran’s pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, the fragility of the new Afghan government or Pakistan’s failure to dismantle its madrassas, or radical Islamic schools, that needed to be addressed urgently, but rather the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
On July 13, during questions to the prime minister in the British Parliament, Blair characterized Saudi Arabia — which backed the Taliban in Afghanistan and from which come most of the volunteers in the Sunni insurgency in Iraq — as a state seeking to recapture moderate Islam.
Blair updated these statements three days later when he specified that “what we are dealing with is an evil ideology,” but he never corrected the impression he has been giving that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a root cause of the wave of Islamist terrorism.
Advancing a true peace between Israel and the Palestinians is a worthy cause. And Israel indeed is one of many international grievances cited in the Islamic world today. But the purported link between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Al-Qaida’s rage is patently groundless.
Historically, Al-Qaida was not born in 1948, 1967 or 1973, in response to any of the Arab-Israeli wars. It was established in 1989, at the time of the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan.
Its ideological fathers, like Abdullah Azzam, saw their struggle in global terms: Just as the armies of early Islam defeated the great powers of the seventh century, Byzantium and Persia, they had begun the long march to defeat the Soviet Union and then the United States and its allies. Israel was not a part of the calculus and — as the great Middle East historian Bernard Lewis pointed out — Israel was at best a distant third in Osama bin Laden’s declared priorities.
Moreover, throughout the 1990s, when Israel actually did make concessions in the peace process to Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization, starting in 1993 with the Oslo agreements, it didn’t affect Al-Qaida’s rage against the West.
Israel and the PLO signed the Gaza-Jericho agreement in 1994, the Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in 1995, the Hebron Agreement in 1997, and the Wye agreement in 1998, while the government of Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered unprecedented concessions at Camp David and Taba in 2000 and early 2001.
Yet Al-Qaida pursued Western targets in the very same period. After the first World Trade Center attack, in 1993, U.S. citizens were bombed in Saudi Arabia in 1995, followed by the U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998 and the USS Cole in 2000.
For nearly a decade, Blair’s formula for ameliorating the rage of global terrorism through Israeli concessions was shown not to work. There is simply no correlation between the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and Al-Qaida’s terror campaign against the West.
If pressure is now placed on Israel, what form might it take? Israel is about to withdraw unilaterally from the Gaza Strip, yet there are voices in the international community that will want Israel to open up air, land, and sea access to Gaza, without first defeating terrorism there.
What could result, if such advice is followed, is a “Hamas-stan” on the shores of the Mediterranean, where Middle Eastern and North African terrorist groups will find an ideologically compatible asylum — Al-Qaida clerics, after all, appear on the Hamas Web site.
Under such conditions, with Israeli forces told to stay out of Gaza and Egyptian, U.S., and European forces seeking to stay away, the very logic that might be used to reduce the rage of militant Islamist movements could create its newest sanctuary.
It would not be surprising if some European leaders try to recruit President Bush to seek new Israeli territorial concessions after the Gaza pullout, with the argument that this somehow will help the war on terrorism.
Indeed, European Union diplomats, such as EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, believe Israel should be forced back to the pre-1967 lines. They do not acknowledge Israel’s right to defensible borders that was granted by President Bush in a letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on April 14, 2004. If their recommendations were followed, Israel’s heavily populated coastal plane would become vulnerable to a new terrorist threat as insurgents and weapons would pour into the West Bank hills to help Hamas and its allies.
The London attacks are rooted in a militant Islamist ideology with an organizational network that has declared a global war of annihilation on all “infidels.” This is not part of a limited political struggle over a disputed piece of territory in the Middle East, and it certainly goes far deeper than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Witness how Al-Qaida jihadists regularly target Shiite mosques in Iraq and Pakistan, sites that have nothing to do with Israel or the Palestinians.
Blair would be well served by avoiding false linkages between the new wave of global terrorism and the Israeli-Palestinian issue, which only divert international energies away from the real centers promoting the terrorism that actually led to the London attacks.
Should the terrorists sense that they are able to alter Western policies on Israel and the Palestinians — even if that wasn’t their intent — they will only conclude that terrorism works. The fury of the current wave of global attacks will not lessen but will escalate with newfound motivation.
Dore Gold served as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations from 1997 to 1999. His book “Hatred’s Kingdom” surveys the rise of Islamic militancy in Saudi Arabia. He heads the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.