Magazine article The New Yorker

The Talk of the Town: The Israeli Link

Magazine article The New Yorker

The Talk of the Town: The Israeli Link

Article excerpt

The war in Afghanistan is far from invisible. The image that has lingered longest from that otherworldly Sunday when the bombing began was not of the explosions as they played back to us on television--the neon streaks and sparks of green on a field of black--but, rather, a more distinct and chilling picture: a bearded man sitting in a cave and threatening the world with a state of constant terror.

When Osama bin Laden first issued a call for holy war several years ago, his priorities were clear: to eradicate the presence of American troops from the historical holy lands of Saudi Arabia and Iraq. The desire to drive Israel from the map of the Middle East was not quite an afterthought but it placed distinctly third in the hierarchy. In a videotaped message to the world that aired on October 7th, however, bin Laden seemed to decide that his call for a worldwide clash between "the camp of the faithful and the camp of infidels" would likely gain more passionate and immediate support if he put a heavier accent on the question of Israel and the Palestinians. He, more than anyone, has grasped that the nerve-racked autocrats in countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan (to say nothing of the tyrants in Syria and Iraq) have generally allowed their profoundly dissatisfied masses a single focus for their intense economic and political resentments: the existence of Israel. It is hard to make analogies between Hitler, who commanded the strongest army in Europe, and bin Laden, who commands "shadowy networks" that will take vast resources and infinite patience merely to define. But it is fair to say that they are joined by a sure instinct that hatred of the Jews is a timelessly convenient instrument of propaganda and cohesion. During the Second World War, the Prime Minister of Iraq and the Mufti of Jerusalem, among others, sympathized ardently with Berlin, despite a Nazi ideology that cast Arabs as inferior. Now, in cities from Cairo to Jakarta, newspaper analysts and street protesters assert that the Israelis are at the center of the murders of September 11th, that either they masterminded the hijackings or (a more genteel option) they are to blame because American support for Israel makes the United States a legitimate focus of Muslim fury.

On October 4th, the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, gave a feverish and ill-considered speech in which he criticized the Bush Administration for forging an alliance against terrorism that includes, to one degree or another, states that countenance or sponsor terrorism themselves. Raising the spectre of appeasement, Sharon made an enormous rhetorical blunder. He said that Israel would not stand by and be sacrificed the way Czechoslovakia was in 1938--an analogy that, drawn to its end, would put George W. Bush in the role of Neville Chamberlain. "We can only depend on ourselves," Sharon said. The Bush Administration, in turn, declared Sharon's remarks "unacceptable," and Colin Powell telephoned Sharon twice, it was reported, to "dress him down." Sharon soon apologized, and his Foreign Minister, the infinitely more nimble Shimon Peres, has been on CNN ever since, promising fealty to the White House.

Bush was right to be angry, yet it is a curious thing, a maddening thing, that September 11th and its anxious aftermath--the reports of anthrax infections in New York and Florida, the bomb scares, the security checks, the general atmosphere of apprehension--have not forged a greater sympathetic link with the Israeli condition. …

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