Denial and Hope in the Mideast

Mortimer B. Zuckerman on Iran's Campaign of Repudiation

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Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, came to America to stick his thumb in our eye and deliver a sanitized version of "Death to America!" and "The Holocaust Never Occurred." Lee Bollinger, the Columbia University president, described this as "astonishingly uneducated." True, but Ahmadinejad's use of the Goebbels technique of the Big Lie has a purpose: to undermine the legitimacy of the State of Israel. It is of a piece with the refusal of Palestinians to this day to acknowledge the right of Israel to exist, even though some acknowledge the fact that Israel does exist. It is also one of the main reasons that efforts to broker a peaceful outcome in the Middle East have thus far been futile. And it will likely overhang the newest peace initiative, which the Bush administration hopes to launch this fall.

This campaign of repudiation cuts deeply into the Israeli psyche. The Israelis know that the Jews have lived in the land of Israel without interruption for nearly 4,000 years. They know that, except for a short Crusader kingdom, they are the only people who have had independent sovereignty on this land. And they are the only people for whom Jerusalem has been their capital.

They are not a foreign occupier because the State of Israel is the child not of European colonialism but rather of Ottoman decolonialization. It was that Jewish historical bond that led the League of Nations 85 years ago to establish the right of the Jewish people to reconstitute a Jewish homeland on all the territories west of the Jordan River, all the way to the Mediterranean. That same right to a national home was sanctioned again 59 years ago by the new United Nations. After an Arab invasion 40 years ago, the U.N. passed a resolution affirming Israel's right to "secure and recognized boundaries." As Winston Churchill noted in 1922, "The Jews are in Palestine by right, not sufferance." The refusal of the Palestinians and of Ahmadinejad to recognize this has, for decades, undercut Israeli confidence in their true motives.

Subtle untruths. And when Yasser Arafat said there was no First or Second Temple in Jerusalem but only "an obelisk," he, too, was trying to deny the history of the Jewish people in Jerusalem. But this is the site of the binding of Isaac by Abraham, the place where David built the altar on the threshing floor of Aravna to halt the plague. The Temple Mount was where Jesus was brought as an infant and where he later chased away the money-changers. Mentioned 20 times in the New Testament, the Temple Mount is one of the cornerstones of the Judeo-Christian ethical tradition of the West. Yet it is all denied by the Palestinians. This obduracy, combined with waves of terrorism, has shattered the Israeli-Palestinian relationship.

The Bush administration, with the help of Tony Blair, is seeking to build a partnership by convening a meeting between the Palestinians and Israelis this fall, tentatively in November and most likely in the United States. It is hoped that this meeting will be joined by other Arab countries. What can be expected from it?

One reason for caution about it is that there has been a shift in Palestinian society from the focus on nationalism to a focus on religion—an Arafat legacy. It was Arafat who invoked the Islamic terms of jihad and shahada; it was Arafat who described "all of Palestine," which includes all of Israel, as a "holy wakf," i.e., an Islamic trust that cannot be given away; it was Arafat who introduced children to radical Islamic thinking so that they could become terrorists and suicide bombers. The name that Arafat gave to the violence that began in the year 2000 was not the "West Bank intifada" but the "al-Aqsa intifada," making it clear that religion was an integral part of the struggle. When suicide bombers blow up Israelis, they don't yell, "Free Nablus!" They yell, "Allahu Akbar!" The backdrop is Islamic and not territorial.

That is why the Middle East is so different from Northern Ireland, which is sometimes falsely used as a comparison. The basic goal of the Irish Republican Army was to create a united Ireland, to bring Ireland to Ulster, not to London. Their goal was never to replace England with Ireland, unlike the Palestinians who wish to rule not just in the West Bank and Gaza but in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa. The IRA struggle was primarily a political one, its violence not supported by the Roman Catholic Church. At its core the conflict was over borders, whereas in the Middle East the conflict has become not just a territorial conflict but much more of a religious one.