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Last Updated: 05/01/2006
Thinking the Unthinkable
Fraser Gray

The United States' own policies toward terrorism and Israel have caused more trouble than they have fixed. The tighter the grasp on influence in the Middle East, the more erratic - and dangerous - have been the reactions. Might it be time now to consider an unmentionable alternative?

Officially since 1967, and arguably before then, the US has considered Israel a key ally in the Middle East. As the primary, and by far the largest, recipient of US military aid and diplomatic support since that date, Israel has in turn offered the US little, if any, discernable strategic advantage in the region.(1) Instead, due to Israel’s often unlawful actions towards neighboring states (and internal Palestinian populations), the US has had to utilize it’s veto powers in the UN Security Council to suppress the will of the majority in the international community who wish to force Israel to obey international law.(2) This situation has not only created international sympathy for national jihads of resistance against Israel in Lebanon (Hizbollah and Amal) and the occupied Palestinian Territories (Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades), but has also formed the foundation of an international jihad against America itself.

Groups spawned from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and elsewhere began, after the success of the Afghan-Arabs(3) against the Soviets, to change their strategic thinking from targeting the ‘near enemy’ (Middle Eastern dictatorships which were perceived as de facto American puppets due to the strong military and diplomatic support they received) to the ‘far enemy’ (the American puppet-master). When Zawahiri and bin Laden formed al Qaeda in the mid-1990s, they were no longer satisfied that their goals could be achieved by striking at the puppets, and moved to strike the puppet-masters. The embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam were the first targets, but the attacks against key symbols of American power in the US on September 11th, 2001, were perceived as the turning point in the cosmic battle between good and evil, Islam and the west.

The US war on terror sought to eliminate this threat. It has not. In fact, according to many counter-terrorism experts, including those in the CIA and NSA, the Bush administration’s strategic maneuvers have empowered the enemy and escalated the threat. As a result, the Islamist threat has spread to America’s key allies in the Iraq war, as was seen in the attacks in (Aznar’s) Madrid in March 2004 and (Blair’s) London in July 2005. This threat continues to accumulate, and concerns are ever emerging in international security discourse and western intelligence communities that international jihadists may utilize WMD against western civilian targets in pursuit of their radical goals.

In light of these concerns, how can we stabilize the growing threat to our security? How can we diminish the threat of an Islamist attack against our civilian populations? With the conflict in Iraq deepening, the specter of a nuclear Iran rising, the fact of Hamas becoming the democratically elected government of the Palestinian territories, Hizbollah increasing in seats in Lebanese parliament (with the Shia demographic that support them growing much faster than other sects in the country), and the international Islamist movement led, or at least inspired by, al Qaeda increasing its power and reach exponentially on many fronts… perhaps it’s time to think what has previously been unthinkable in American national security, and by extension, international security.

Lets assume, despite the high improbability of success, that the next American president is able to overcome the power and influence of domestic obstacles such as pro-Israeli lobbies (a loose network described by Meirsheimer and Walt as the ‘Israeli Lobby’(4)) , and impose a solution on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As the International Crisis Group’s (ICG) joint survey project with the James Baker III Institute for Public Policy showed in 2003, “Majorities among both Israelis and Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza expressed their support for a peace proposal that would resolve the key issues of borders, Jerusalem, refugees and the role of the international community.”(5) A more recent UN report has cited similar findings.(6)

Armed with this knowledge, overwhelming international support, and the desire to truly combat terrorism against the US, Israel, and the west in general, the next President of the US could set in motion a series of events that could possibly resolve its primary security concerns through tough and even-handed diplomatic means.

It all begins with a question put to members and representatives of both Hizbollah and Hamas in interviews in 2004. If the US government enforced an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders and pledged UN Security Council protection of Lebanon and the fledging Palestinian state, alongside continued protection of Israel, would Hamas disarm and recognize Israel in peace and promise no more attacks if the Israeli’s did likewise? Would Hizbollah?

Both groups answered yes. In the Palestinian case, Hamas recognized that some more extreme elements of the resistance might refuse to accept any deal with Israel on ideological grounds, but also suggested that these elements would be dealt with internally and no further violence would occur from the Palestinian side. It was also noted that normal relations between a Palestinian state and an Israeli state would take some time, perhaps generations. This has recently been confirmed by sources close to Ismail Haniya, the new Palestinian Prime Minister, who suggested to al Jazeera on April 12th, 2006, that Hamas would recognize Israel if Israeli forces withdrew to the 1967 borders.

What effects would such an American approach have on regional security and stability? What effect would this have on the international Islamist movement, which is the primary threat to the West?

Of course, now that the US has moved down the new-conservative line/agenda, the issue is not only what to do with Israel/Palestine in resolving the underlying causes of Islamic-based terrorism. The current situation in Iraq is considered by many counter terrorism experts as a ‘breeding ground for terrorists’, policy with regard to Iranian nuclear ambitions remains not only ineffective, but appears to be encouraging military build-up and repression of moderate voices in that nation, and threats against Syria and Lebanon’s Hizbollah are only entrenching radical Islamic powerbases.

While the greatest threat posed by terrorism against western targets comes from the international Islamist jihadists following the al Qaeda method, the current US government has focused instead on states it perceives to be supporting these terrorists. As far as states are concerned, Iraq and Iran are perceived as the primary problems; one for its responsibility for forcing an evolution in the international jihadist movements like al Qaeda which encourages aspirations for a global caliphate, the other for its emerging nuclear build-up and anti-American posturing. But to solve these primary problems, a secondary set of obstacles to peace in the region must be tackled first; national jihads of resistance to occupation.

With Hamas and much of the resistance committed to peace with Israel, Palestinians could work internally to eliminate the hard core of Islamists who refuse to recognize Israel on ideological grounds. Who better to prevent Palestinian ‘terrorism’ than reformed Palestinian ‘terrorists’, protecting the security of their newly achieved state? This takes responsibility of counter-terror operations away from Israel and the US, whose efforts thus far have had the reverse effects intended by empowering extremist elements and expanding their influence.

It would perhaps be more difficult to convince Hizbollah of assurances of peace. However, it is possible. If the Golan Heights and the Shebba farms were given fair solutions, border security were ensured completely and without exceptions, and a Palestinian state were created (in which Palestinians in Lebanon were extended the right to return), then Hizbollah would possibly make peace with Israel. Let’s not forget, Hizbollah only came into existence after a few years of brutal Israeli occupation of Lebanon, and if the above were resolved, Hizbollah’s primary raison d’etre (in a military rather than a political sense) would cease to exist. Such a process would ensure not only Israeli security, but also Lebanese, Palestinian, Syrian, Jordanian, and Egyptian security. With such a grouping of new allies, the US’s problems in Iraq would be more thoroughly contained.

This would also be a major blow against the growing threat of Islamist jihad internationally, crippling its support base, recruiting ability, and, perhaps most importantly, its value as a vehicle for achieving the Islamist goals of the implementation of Sharia laws in Islamic countries. With the entire eastern Mediterranean secured, peaceful, and democratic, Iran may not feel so compelled to pursue nuclear capabilities to protect itself against Israel, or the US.

Iraq, unfortunately, has become a quagmire of the US’s own making in which the Bush administration, and certainly the next occupant of the White House, will be ensnared for some time to come. In many ways, Iraq has become the global war on terrorism’s ‘marsh of Camarina’. It appears, at this stage of the conflict, lamentably too late for the US to implement a more humane occupation, and withdrawal would certainly encourage further escalation of the emerging sectarian violence into a full blown civil war. Also, withdrawal would likely be painted by the global Islamist movement as a major success for al Qaeda, like September 11th or the jihadist victory over the Soviet’s in Afghanistan, the latter of which bin Laden and other Afghan-Arab Islamists perceive as the primary cause for the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. The perception of an American defeat and retreat from Al Qaeda in Iraq might encourage further attacks against the American homeland or other western targets.

Perhaps moves to settle the Israel/Palestine/Lebanon/Syria quadrangle – which would logically be done simultaneously – first, before withdrawing from Iraq, would create the sort of regional environment where withdrawal would be seen more as a comprehensive settlement of outstanding Arab-Israeli disputes rather than America giving into international jihadist terrorism. This would also give the US a reason to maintain a large military presence in the region - a presence that would be seen as security for Arabs and Israelis, rather than a threat to Arabs and a veto for Israelis. Unraveling the national jihads of resistance against occupation (both Israeli and American) would further isolate international jihadists like bin Laden by refuting their currently legitimate claims to unjust treatment by the duo, thus taking away a large portion of its grass roots support.

As in many cases of terrorism, both Islamic and non-Islamic, violence is utilized when diplomatic avenues for addressing an issue or a conflict have been effectively cut off. For educated men like the surgeon Ayman al Zawahiri, ideological mentor and right hand man of bin Laden’s al Qaeda network, violence only became an option when legitimate diplomatic debate for the attainment of Sharia law in Egypt was denied and brutal state-violence was used to destroy what was essentially a peaceful civilian movement lobbying its government.

The greatest threat to western security is not from national jihads of resistance such as Hizbollah and Hamas, but rather from the immanent threat of WMD and suicide attacks carried out against the west by international jihadists like al Qaeda. However, if the al Qaeda threat is being founded upon the national resistance jihads, than by implementing the above strategy the US may be able to severely weaken the international threat while maintaining relative influence in the region with America’s new found credibility.

Of course, this article isn’t titled ‘thinking the unthinkable’ for nothing. The strategy proposed would mean the decline of US control over Middle Eastern governments, and by extension the vital oil resources of the region. Yet, if executed properly, this move could trigger the sort of Arab nationalism that would empower moderate Muslim majorities, and make them the greatest ally in combating the west’s primary terrorist threat, al Qaeda.

Fraser Gray is a Doctoral Candidate at the Centre for Peace & Conflict Studies at the University of Limerick, Ireland.