Published on Wednesday, October 8, 2003 by CommonDreams.org
Once again American strategic interests in the Islamic world have been sucker-punched by the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and much of the U.S. body politic remains oblivious to the fact that they are even in the fight.
President Bush’s defense of Israel’s attack on Syria in the wake of Saturday’s suicide bombing in Haifa has strengthened the hand of the radicals and left Muslims who favor a dialogue with the West shaking their heads in disbelief.
The president’s declaration that Israel “must not feel constrained” in striking out at its enemies and Ariel Sharon’s promise that Israel will “hit its enemies any place and in any way” have been headlines across the Islamic world.
In the view of Muslims, the comments drive home what they already know: American policy is inextricably linked with that of Israel.
“Israel has started enjoying its strategic ‘gains’ from the American occupation of Iraq, initiating a game of expanding the confrontation in the region,” wrote one commentator in Lebanon’s Al-Hayat newspaper, reflecting a common perception.
For the past two years, Americans – and their president – have been asking the question, “Why do they hate us?” But they have not wanted to hear the answer, which lies, in part, in the blood-soaked soil of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
As I did the rounds of radio talk shows in the weeks after Sept. 11, I encountered a parade of hosts who either dismissed the notion that there might be a connection between terrorism and U.S. policy in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict or who violently objected to even suggesting such a thing. Little has changed since.
The issue is not who wears the black hats and who wears the white in a conflict painted in shades of gray, but rather, what the implications are for the security of Americans at home and abroad.
The Palestinian-Israeli conflict may not be what drives Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants, but it is what helps inflame the shock troops of the terror war. As far away as Indonesia – where America’s favorable rating has dropped to 15 percent – militants convicted in the Bali bombings cite their anger at televised scenes of Israeli tanks in the Occupied Territories as a key motive for the attack on what they thought was a gathering-place for Americans.
The critical role of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in the legacy of hate was acknowledged by a Congressional task force in an 80-page report on what the U.S. can do to improve its image in the Muslim world, which was issued this month.
“Surveys indicate that much of the resentment toward America stems from real conflicts and displeasure with policies, including those involving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and Iraq,” noted the Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy for the Arab and Muslim World.
The mandate of that task force was to recommend a series of initiatives to improve U.S. communications with the Islamic world. It was the eighth such government study in two years. But all the sophisticated public relations techniques in the world will not change Muslim perceptions as long as the United States pursues a set of policies seen as hostile to the Islamic world.
“America Fights Islam,” declared a headline in Malaysia’s Utusan newspaper at the onset of the Iraq war. Now, just weeks after the president reiterated his “us against them” dichotomy before the UN, the U.S. has reinforced the perception that “us” includes Israel and “them” is the Muslim world.
“The US is blessing Sharon’s actions which are meant to combat terrorism with the aim of achieving Israel’s interests,” the UAE’s Al-Ittihad observed this week, “even if that is at the expense of US interests and its relations with the countries of the region.
History is clearly not George W. Bush’s strong point, so a brief lesson might be in order. Ariel Sharon, whom the president has embraced as “a man of peace,” led the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which resulted in an 18-year occupation and the loss of thousands of lives. The then-general was found culpable by an Israeli board of inquiry for the 1982 massacre of hundreds of Palestinian and Lebanese Shi’ite civilians in Beirut. It was Sharon’s actions that drew U.S. forces into the Lebanese quagmire; a conflict that would ultimately give birth to modern Islamic terrorism and claim the lives of 243 Americans in the suicide bombing of the U.S. Marine Corps barracks 20 years ago this month.
Sharon cynically provoked the so-called “Al-Aksa Intifada” in order to sabotage the peace process and get himself elected prime minister; he heads a cabinet that has voted to “remove” Yassir Arafat; and he is known to favor the creation of a Palestinian state in what is now the kingdom of Jordan.
Now a president who authored a doctrine that calls for pre-emptive regime change has given Sharon the green light to strike at Israel’s enemies.
So why is it they hate us? Rather commissioning another government study the next time the president wonders that aloud, the White House might want to take a cue from Bush Senior’s re-election campaign and invest in a sign to hang in the Oval Office: “It’s the policy, stupid.”