The Muslim world is mystified as to why Americans support the existence of Israel. Some critics in the Middle East excuse "the American people," while castigating our government. In their eyes, our official policy could not really reflect grassroots opinion. Others misinformed spin elaborate conspiracy theories involving the power of joint Mossad-CIA plots, Old Testament fundamentalists, international bankers, and Jewish control of Hollywood, the media, and the U.S. Congress. But why does an overwhelming majority of Americans (according to most polls, between 60 and 70% of the electorate) support Israel — and more rather than less so after September 11?
The answer is found in values — not in brainwashing or because of innate affinity for a particular race or creed. Israel is a democracy. Its opponents are not. Much misinformation abounds on this issue. Libya, Syria, and Iraq are dictatorships, far more brutal than even those in Egypt or Pakistan. But even "parliaments" in Iran, Morocco, Jordan, and on the West Bank are not truly and freely democratic. In all of them, candidates are either screened, preselected, or under coercion. Daily television and newspapers are subject to restrictions and censorship; "elected" leaders are not open to public audit and censure. There is a reason, after all, why in the last decade Americans have dealt with Mr. Netanyahu, Barak, and Sharon — and no one other than Mr. Arafat, the Husseins in Jordan, the Assads in Syria, Mr. Mubarak, and who knows what in Lebanon, Algeria, and Afghanistan. Death, not voters, brings changes of rule in the Arab world.
The Arab street pronounces that it is the responsibility of the United States — who gives money to Egypt, Palestine, Jordan, Afghanistan and others, has troops stationed in the Gulf, and buys oil from the Muslim world — to use its influence to instill democracies. They forget that sadly these days we rarely have such power to engineer sweeping constitutional reform; that true freedom requires the blood and courage of native patriots — a Washington, Jefferson, or Thomas Paine — not outside nations; and that democracy demands some prior traditions of cultural tolerance, widespread literacy, and free markets. Moreover, we give Israel billions as well — but have little control whether they wish to elect a Rabin or a Sharon.
Israel is also secular. The ultra-Orthodox do not run the government unless they can garner a majority of voters. Americans have always harbored suspicion of anyone who nods violently when reading Holy Scripture — whether in madrassas, near the Wailing Wall, or in the local Church of the Redeemer down the street. In Israel, however, Americans detect that free speech and liberality of custom and religion are more ubiquitous than, say, in Saudi Arabia, Iran, or Palestine — and so surmise that the Jewish state is more the creation of European émigrés than of indigenous Middle-Eastern fundamentalists.
Pluralism exists in Israel, rarely so in the Arabic world. We see an Israeli peace party, spirited debate between Left and Right, and both homegrown damnation and advocacy for the settlers outside the 1967 borders. Judaism is fissured by a variety of splinter orthodoxies without gunfights. There are openly agnostic and atheistic Israeli Jews who enjoy influence in Israeli culture and politics. In theory, such parallels exist in the Arab world, but in actuality rarely so. We know that heretical mullahs are heretical more often in London, Paris, or New York — not in Teheran or among the Taliban. No Palestinian politician would go on CNN and call for Mr. Arafat's resignation; his opposition rests among bombers, not in raucous televised debates.
Israeli newspapers and television reflect a diversity of views, from rabid Zionism to almost suicidal pacifism. There are Arab-Israeli legislators — and plenty of Jewish intellectuals who openly write and broadcast in opposition to the particular government of the day. Is that liberality ever really true in Palestine? Could a Palestinian, Egyptian, or Syrian novelist write something favorable about Golda Meir, hostile to Mr. Assad or Mubarak, or craft a systematic satire about Islam? Past experience suggests such iconoclasts and would-be critics might suffer stones and fatwas rather than mere ripostes in the letters to the editor of the local newspapers. Palestinian spokesmen are quite vocal and unbridled on American television, but most of us — who ourselves instinctively welcome self-criticism and reflection — sense that such garrulousness and freewheeling invective are is reserved only for us, rarely for Mr. Arafat's authority.
Americans also see ingenuity from Israel, both technological and cultural — achievement that is not reflective of genes, but rather of the culture of freedom. There are thousands of brilliant and highly educated Palestinians. But in the conditions of the Middle East, they have little opportunity for free expression or to open a business without government bribe or tribal payoff. The result is that even American farmers in strange places like central California are always amazed by drip-irrigation products, sophisticated water pumps, and ingenious agricultural appurtenances that are created and produced in Israel. So far we have seen few trademarked in Algeria, Afghanistan, or Qatar.
There is also an affinity between the Israeli and Western militaries that transcends mere official exchanges and arms sales. We do not see goose-stepping soldiers in Haifa as we do in Baghdad. Nor are there in Tel-Aviv hooded troops with plastic bombs strapped to their sides on parade. Nor do Israeli presidents wear plastic sunglasses, carry pistols to the U.N., or have chests full of cheap and tawdry metals. Young rank-and-file Israeli men and women enjoy a familiarity among one another, and their officers are more akin to our own army than to the Republican Guard, Hamas, or Islamic Jihad.
The Israelis also far better reflect the abject lethality of the Western way of war. Here perhaps lies the greatest misunderstanding of military history on the part of the Arab world. The so-called Islamic street believes that sheer numbers and territory — a billion Muslims, a century of oil reserves, and millions of square miles — should mysteriously result in lethal armies. History teaches us that war is rarely that simple. Instead, the degree militaries are westernized — technology that is a fruit of secular research, group discipline arising from consensual societies, logistical efficiency that derives from capitalism, and flexibility that is the dividend from constant public audit and private individualism — determines victory, despite disadvantages in numbers, natural resources, individual genius, or logistics.
We hear a quite boring refrain from enraged Palestinians of "Apache helicopters" and "F-16s". But in the Lebanese war of the early 1980s we saw what happens in dogfights between advanced Israel and Syrian jets in the same manner Saddam's sophisticated weapons were rendered junk in days by our counterparts. So Israel's power is more the result of a system, not merely of imported hardware. The Arab world does not have a creative arms industry; Israel does — whether that be ingenious footpads to wear while detecting mines or drone aircraft that fly at night over Mr. Arafat's house. If the Palestinians truly wished military parity, then the Arab world should create their own research programs immune to religious or political censure, and ensure that students are mastering calculus rather than the Koran.
Nor are Americans ignorant of the recent past. The United States was not a colonial power in the Middle East, but developed ties there as a reaction to, not as a catalyst of, its complex history. Israel was instead both created and abandoned by Europeans. The 20th century taught Americans that some Europeans would annihilate millions of Jews — and others prove unwilling or unable to stop such a holocaust. We sensed that the first three wars in the Middle East were not fought to return the West Bank, but to finish off what Hitler could not. And we suspect now that, while hundreds of millions of Arabs would accept a permanent Israel inside its 1967 borders, a few million would not — and those few would not necessarily be restrained by those who did accept the Jewish state.
Somehow we in the American heartland sense that Israel — whether its GNP, free society, or liberal press — is a wound to the psyche, not a threat to the material condition, of the Arab world. Israel did not murder the Kurds or Shiites. It does not butcher Islam's children in Algeria. Nor did it kill over a million on the Iranian-Iraqi border — much less blow apart Afghanistan, erase from the face of the earth entire villages and their living inhabitants in Syria, or turn parts of Cairo into literal sewers. Yet both the victims and the perpetrators of those crimes against Muslims answer "Israel" to every problem. But Americans, more than any people in history, live in the present and future, not the past, loath scapegoating and the cult of victimization, and are tired of those, here and abroad, who increasingly blame others for their own self-induced pathologies.
The Europeans are quite cynical about all this. Tel Aviv, much better than Cairo or Damascus, reflects the liberal values of Paris or London. Yet the Europeans rarely these days do anything that is not calibrated in terms of gaining money or avoiding trouble — and in that sense for them Israel is simply a very bad deal. All the sophisticated op-eds about the shuffling of Mr. Jack Straw about Islamic liberalism cannot hide the fact that Europe's policy in the Middle East is based on little more than naked self-interest. If Israel were wiped out tomorrow, Europeans would ask for a brief minute of silence, then sigh relief, and without a blink roll up their sleeves to get down to trade and business.
Our seemingly idiosyncratic support for Israel, then, also says something about ourselves rather than just our ally. In brutal Realpolitik, the Europeans are right that there is nothing much to gain from aiding Israel. Helping a few million costs us the friendship of nearly a billion. An offended Israel will snub us; but some in an irate Muslim world engineered slaughter in Manhattan. Despite our periodic tiffs, we don't fear that any frenzied Israelis will hijack an American plane or murder Marines in their sleep. No Jews are screaming at us on the evening news that we give billions collectively to Mubarak, the Jordanians, and Mr. Arafat. And Israelis lack the cash reserves of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and they do not go on buying sprees in the U.S. or import whole industries from America. So the reason we each support whom we do says something about both Europe and the United States.
Instead of railing at America, Palestinians should instead see in our policy toward Israel their future hope, rather than present despair — since it is based on disinterested values that can evolve, rather than on race, religion, or language that often cannot. If the Palestinians really wished to even the score with the Israelis in American eyes, then regular elections, a free press, an open and honest economy, and religious tolerance alone would do what suicide bombers and a duplicitous terrorist leader could not.Victor Davis Hanson, author most recently of Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power.
©2002 - The National Review