Averting a war between civilizations

March 13, 2002|By Thomas L. Friedman

WASHINGTON - There is something about this new, intensely violent stage of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that is starting to feel like the fuse for a much larger war of civilizations.

You can smell it in the incredibly foul wind blowing through the Arab-Muslim world these days.

It is a wind that is fed by many sources: the (one-sided) Arab TV images of Israelis brutalizing Palestinians, the Arab resentment of America's support for Israel and its threat against Iraq, the frustrations of young Arabs with their own lack of freedom and jobs. But once these forces are all bundled together, they express themselves in the most heated anti-Israeli and anti-American sentiments that I've ever felt.

This is dangerous.

The notion is taking hold - it started with Osama bin Laden, was refined by Palestinian suicide bombers and is cheered on by Hezbollah, Iran and other radicals - that with a combination of demographics (a baby boom) and terrorism, the Arabs can actually destroy Israel. Some radicals even fantasize that they can undermine America.

A visiting Egyptian official told me that he was recently speaking to Arab students about Middle East peace and one of them interrupted to say that with just "eight small, suitcase-size nuclear bombs," the whole problem of Israel could be eliminated.

"The question is whether Palestinian extremists will do what bin Laden could not: trigger a civilizational war," said Middle East analyst Stephen P. Cohen.

"If you are willing to give up your own life and those of thousands of your own people, the overwhelming power of America and Israel does not deter you anymore. We are now on the cusp of the extremists' realizing this destructive power, before the majority is mobilized for an alternative.

"That's why this Israeli-Palestinian war is not just a local ethnic conflict that we can ignore. It resonates with too many millions of people, connected by too many satellite TVs, with too many dangerous weapons."

I still believe that a majority of Israelis and Palestinians, Americans and Muslims, do not want this war. But until the passive majorities are ready to act against the energetic minorities, the minorities will have their way.

That's why our choices are becoming clear: Either we have civil wars within the communities - with Israel uprooting most of the Jewish settlements, the Palestinians uprooting Hamas and the Arab regimes dealing with their fundamentalists - or we could end up in a war of civilizations, between communities, with America also being pulled in.

It doesn't have to end this way. In the mid-1990s, Yitzhak Rabin was ready to take on the Jewish settlers, and he paid for it with his life. But that was the same period when Yasser Arafat took on Hamas and eight Arab countries opened trade or diplomatic ties with the Jewish state.

For a brief moment, we saw Israeli and Arab moderates working against Israeli and Arab extremists.

The recent peace overture by Crown Prince Abdullah was intended to improve Saudi Arabia's badly sullied post-Sept. 11 image. But it wasn't only that. My sense was that Prince Abdullah understood that if the Arab moderates didn't step up with a peace idea of their own, they were going to be dragged into a collision with America. His statement was the opening shot in what could be a post-Sept. 11 inter-Arab struggle.

We have a huge interest in that struggle's being fought and won by moderates. That will depend in part on how much courage the Saudis and others display, and in part on what the United States and Israel do. With all the passive support shown for bin Laden in the Arab-Muslim world, it's not so easy anymore to understand who is a moderate or who is an extremist out there. But if we don't force ourselves, and Arab moderates, to make that distinction and live by it, we're heading for a war of civilizations.

Some in Israel and in the American Jewish right argue that it is already a war of civilizations and that the only thing to do is kill Palestinians until they say "uncle." That is called "realism."

Well, let me tell you something else that is real: If this uncompromising view becomes dominant in Israel and among American Jews, then cash in your Israel Bonds right now - the country is doomed.

Because there are so many more Muslims than Jews to be killed, and weapons of mass destruction are becoming so much smaller and so much cheaper, it won't be long before the student in my Egyptian friend's story gets one of his eight bombs and wipes Israel off the map.

Is that real enough for you?

Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times.

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