I was speaking the other day with Scott Pelley of CBS News’s “60 Minutes” about the mood in Iraq. He had just returned from filming a piece there and he told me something disturbing. Scott had gone around and asked Iraqis on the streets what they called American troops – wondering if they had nicknames for us in the way we used to call the Nazis “Krauts” or the Vietcong “Charlie.” And what did he find? “Many Iraqis have so much distrust for U.S. forces we found they’ve come up with a nickname for our troops,” Scott said. “They call American soldiers ‘The Jews,’ as in, ‘Don’t go down that street, the Jews set up a roadblock.’ ”
I have no idea how widespread this perception is, but it does not surprise me that some Iraqis would talk that way. Our communications in Iraq have been so inept since we arrived, many Iraqis still don’t know who America is or why it came. But such talk is also indicative of a trend in the Arab media, after a century of Arab-Jewish strife, where if you want to brand someone as illegitimate, just call him a “Jew.” Indeed, this trend has widened since 9/11. Now you find a steadily rising perception across the Arab-Muslim world that the great enemy of Islam is JIA – “Jews, Israel and America,” all lumped together in a single threat.
This wider trend has been fanned by Arab satellite TV stations, which deliberately show split-screen images of Israelis bashing Palestinians and U.S. forces bashing the Iraqi insurgents (It’s not been fanned by Arab satellite TV but reflected by them. Just as the mainstream US media have consistantly played down Israeli involvement in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. US forces tactics in Iraq are an exact copy of Israeli forces tactics in the occupied territories). The trend has also been encouraged by some mosque preachers looking to explain away all the Arab world’s ills by wrapping all the Satans together into JIA. This trend has been helped by the Bush team’s failed approach to the Arab-Israel problem, which is to tell the truth only to Yasir Arafat, while embracing Ariel Sharon so tightly that it’s impossible to know anymore where U.S. policy stops and Mr. Sharon’s begins.
This trend of JIA is now metastasizing from the core of the Arab-Israel conflict, across the Muslim world and into Europe (indeed). There is no quick fix. One thing that Israel can do is push harder to defuse the conflict with the Palestinians in order to deprive the Arab media of the raw images that help to feed this phenomenon, not because the continuing conflict is all Israel’s fault – it is not – but because Israel has such an overriding interest in forging a partnership with a legitimate Palestinian Authority, and getting this poisonous show off the air. A generation of Muslims raised on these images on the Internet is enormously dangerous for Jews, Israel and America.
This brings us to this week’s vote in the Israeli Parliament about whether to proceed with Mr. Sharon’s plan for a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Mr. Sharon, a man of the right, has finally realized the demographic threat posed by Gaza to Israel and wants to get out. He is being opposed by the Israeli far right – the Jewish Hezbollah. This includes settler rabbis who have urged soldiers to disobey orders and, with winks and nods, have let it be known that if someone were to eliminate Ariel Sharon he would be acting out God’s will. In this struggle between Jewish fanatics and Ariel Sharon, we must stand with Mr. Sharon. These settler rabbis are a blot on the Jewish people.
But in the struggle between Mr. Sharon and common sense, America should be with common sense. The late Yitzhak Rabin wanted to get out of Gaza to make peace with the Palestinians, because he understood the danger of “Jews, Israel and America” all getting melded together in the nuclear age. Mr. Rabin knew that no peace deal would resonate in the Arab-Muslim world if it did not have a legitimate Palestinian partner. Mr. Sharon seems to want to get out of Gaza to make peace with the Jews. His aides have made clear that he is getting out of Gaza in order to entrench Israel even more deeply in the West Bank and the Jewish settlements there.
In the face of this plan, the Bush team is silent. This is partly because the Palestinians continue to stick with Arafat as their leader, even though this bum has led them to ruin – so the U.S. has nothing to offer Israel. And it’s partly because the Bush team, which is so inept at diplomacy, has never had the energy or creativity to shape a better Palestinian alternative to Arafat. As a result, the Sharon vision of getting out of Gaza in order to take over the West Bank will probably win by default. If that happens, “Jews, Israel and America” will be bound together more tightly than ever as the enemies of Arabs and Muslims.