The Washington Post Column

How the World Has Changed, Part 2

Has the world changed since Sept. 11? As I’ve said, it’s difficult to give a straight answer—and if you are staring hard at the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, it’s almost impossible. I doubt very much whether ordinary people living in Israel or the Palestinian territories are much more frightened or more worried now, going about their daily lives, than they were three weeks ago. Suicide bombers are a well-known phenomenon in that part of the world, and sudden outbursts of violence of the sort that turn average workdays into tragedy are horrifyingly common.
But terrorism in the United States has, among other things, suddenly shuffled diplomatic and media priorities. As a result, fairly or unfairly, Israel and Palestine are once again placed squarely in the central spotlight. Quite a lot of people who haven’t thought much about the Middle East recently are suddenly interested again. Because this conflict was internationalized long ago, all the relevant leaders instantly realized what was happening and adjusted their rhetoric. Yasser Arafat—horrified by the public relations implications of the widely televised pictures of young Palestinians celebrating in the streets—condemned the terror with more fervor than he has ever deployed to condemn terror closer to home. “Unbelievable, unbelievable, unbelievable” were the words everyone heard him use just before everyone saw him giving blood to help the victims. Ariel Sharon, on the other hand, stated that “Arafat is our Bin Laden,” squarely equating the Palestinian suicide bombers who attack Jerusalem shopping malls with the Islamic suicide bombers who organized the attacks on Washington and New York.

But although it might have initially appeared as if Israel and the United States were suddenly in the same boat, I’m not so sure whether this sort of sentiment will last. For the record, I note that Sharon has suddenly started pulling away from outright condemnations of Arafat. On Monday he even gave a radio interview, “nonplussing allies and enemies alike,” in the words of Ha’aretz, advocating, for the first time ever, a Palestinian state. “We are not fighting the Palestinians, we are fighting terrorism,” he said. “The state of Israel wants to give the Palestinians what no one else has heretofore given them—the possibility of establishing a state. … All that Israel has asked—and Arafat has also committed himself to this—is to stop the terrorism, to live in peace, to live in calm.”

Whatever you think of the man, Ariel Sharon did not get to be where he is by lacking keen political instincts. And what I suspect he sees coming is the debate begun in Slate by Jacob Weisberg and Mickey Kaus and continued this week in “The Breakfast Table”: Is the Palestinian-Israel conflict at the root of some of the Islamic hatred of the West, or is it not? I also suspect that he knows that, outside of the United States—and I mean everywhere outside of the United States—this debate is over. Its conclusion, as a British politician described it privately last weekend, is that while Israel may not be the direct cause of the World Trade Center attack and is certainly in no way to blame, its conflict with Palestine is part of the “sea in which the fishes swim.” Jack Straw, the British foreign minister, put it less poetically in a statement picked up by the Israeli press on the eve of his visit to Jerusalem: “I understand that one of the factors contributing to the growth of terror is the anger of many people in the region about the incidents in recent years in Palestine.” The French foreign minister, Hubert Védrine, who is also in the Middle East, also told Le Monde that Israel’s “implacable struggle against terrorism must be accompanied by political engagement.” This sort of point was made before Sept. 11, but now you will hear it made more often, and louder.

Even inside the United States, others, although not yet a vocal majority, are reaching this same conclusion. I have so far heard or read similar statements from a senior middle-of-the-road State Department official, a Republican activist with close ties to the administration, and a former Democratic statesman (OK, it was Zbigniew Brzezinski). None are part of the traditional anti-Israel lobby, and what they are talking about is not withdrawing support for Israel but, in the short term, pressuring Israel to return to the negotiating table (as indeed the administration is already quietly doing) and, in the long term, increasing pressure on Israel to settle its borders with Palestine and—very specifically—to roll back the settlements.

I cannot predict how Israel will react to this newly charged international climate. Sharon’s sudden enthusiasm for a Palestinian state, although it may have been intended to deflect some of this pressure, did not stop him from angrily canceling his planned meeting with Jack Straw. (Ha’aretz reported that Sharon later reversed this decision after Tony Blair asked him to reconsider.) Nor has it prevented the Jerusalem Post from printing one furious op-ed calling the British “appeasers” and another titled “Against Israel, Terrorism Is Kosher.” In the past, the Israelis have never bothered to listen to Europeans, whom they consider to be fundamentally anti-Israeli, if not fundamentally anti-Semitic. There is no particular reason why they should start now—unless the United States itself, under the influence of its European allies in the war against terrorism, begins to change its tune as well.