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Israel’s New Islamist Neighborhood

Israel’s New Islamist Neighborhood

Reuel Marc Gerecht
29th January 2013 - The Wall Street Journal

Israel last week held parliamentary elections, and many in America and Europe are interpreting the results as a triumph for moderates that means new hope for the Middle East peace process. But further negotiations without elections first among the Palestinians—and where acceptance of the Jewish state is on the winning ballot—will only further empower Islamic fundamentalists. The rising Islamist wave that has accompanied the Arab Spring should end the illusion that the Jewish state can be integrated into the Middle East through territorial concessions to nondemocratic regimes.

Supposed Israeli intransigence on the peace process isn't what fueled the growth of Hamas, which today rules the Gaza Strip. The terror group grew strong, like Muslim fundamentalists elsewhere, because modernizing elites ran roughshod over society. Yasser Arafat, Mahmoud Abbas and the secular Palestine Liberation Organization's legions of heavy-handed cronies over time empowered the religious militants of Hamas.

The formula of land-for-peace was always an illusion because it did nothing but abet the growth of those most committed to destroying Israel. It is no coincidence that Hamas gained the most ground against Fatah (the dominant group within the PLO) in the 1990s, when peace-processing was all the rage. Hamas feeds off the peace process, both its perceived successes (Palestinian autonomy throughout Gaza and most of the West Bank) and failures (East Jerusalem remaining in Israeli hands).

Israel may one day be accepted by its Arab neighbors and by its most deadly foe, Iran—but only when Arab and Iranian Muslim identities allow for it. At best, that change is decades away. Modern Islam's great internal tug of war, between the search for authenticity and the love of modernity, must quiet before the Israeli-Palestinian clash can end.

Washington's bipartisan establishment has never wanted to appreciate the religious dimension to the Israeli-Arab collision, for it is a subset of an older struggle between secular and religious Muslims. It was always a dubious proposition that Palestinian Arab nationalism could accept a neighboring Jewish state because the molten core of the Palestinian identity is more Islamic than it is anything else.

For any Muslim with traditional sentiments—and especially for fundamentalists—the peace process is galling because it is premised on the faithful surrendering their God-given right to a land conquered in the golden age of the rightly guided caliphs (the Muslim rulers who immediately followed Muhammad in the seventh century). For Muslims, the great Jewish prophets are Muslim prophets whom the Jews either spurned or falsified. So accepting Israel's legitimacy, which means accepting the Jewish religious narrative in which Hebrew prophets bind their people to Israel, would be a revocation of the Quran and the foundational story of the Islamic faith.

But modernity can attenuate, as well as amplify, religious identity. Muslim fundamentalists have reared their heads so viciously in part because they know what modernity brings. They have seen their best and brightest seduced by the West. Many live in fear of democracy because it makes man, not God, the principal agent of history.

Most Israelis fear that the Arab Spring will see secular dictators replaced by religious ones. Understandably, they have little stomach for more representative government among Palestinians, which could expand Hamas's power and bring down the monarchy in Jordan, where Palestinians may now make up more than 70% of the population.

Yet if Western history is any guide, the growth of democracy slowly diminishes religious imperatives. Representative government demystifies politics and ethics, as the here-and-now takes precedence over abstract aspirations. It makes the mundane transcendent. It promotes healthy division because it puts competing visions, even competing fundamentalist visions, to the vote. It localizes ambitions and focuses people's passions on the national purse.

With the collapse of the peace process in 2000 amid Arafat's bloody second intifada, Palestinians began turning a more critical eye inward. When Arafat died in 2004, Palestinians began to have, however tepidly, a debate about leadership and political mores.

Jerusalem's decision to build a barrier between Israel and the West Bank limited the spread of suicidal fantasies among Palestinians. George W. Bush also helped by encouraging the Palestinians' first and only real elections, in 2005 and 2006, which ended in a split decision, with Hamas taking the parliament and Fatah the presidency. That government never got off the ground, and both parties now appear to fear new elections.

An electorally triumphant Hamas might be able to harness democracy to a total war against the Jews. Ditto for the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and its counterparts in Syria and Jordan. But we certainly know that Islamists untethered to elections spread the most extreme views at no cost. Secular authoritarians in Egypt, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan have gradually lost sway to fundamentalists partly because they have signed treaties with Israel that are blessed neither by elected governments nor referendums.

Although they are running against Islamic history, Arab secular democrats have some hope. Religious authoritarianism secularizes societies pretty quickly.

In 1979, religious millenarianism was a mass movement in Iran. But the hollowing of revolutionary fervor set in motion a popular re-evaluation of the Islamic Republic's hatred of the United States and Israel. In 2009, Iranian youths protesting for democracy pointedly mocked the Palestinian cause as not their own. The Iranian people, if their votes could rule, would surely restore diplomatic relations with Washington and possibly even with Israel.

A similar process is likely among the Arabs, where democracy will probably produce majoritarian governments ruled by authoritarian Islamists. Their attempts to enforce certain Islamic values through legislation will inevitably produce faction and fatigue. Secularists will grow stronger. And unlike their great liberal forbearers of the 19th and early-20th centuries, Muslim secularists who win at the ballot box will be much less inclined to kowtow to orthodox Islamic sentiments. Accepting Israel, though still unpleasant, will seem less a dastardly, Western-imposed act.

The age of Islamism and democracy has just arrived. The interplay may be long, arduous and ugly. But it is conceivable that Israelis, Arabs and Iranians will finally find a modus vivendi based on something more profound than land-for-peace. It will be based on free men voting.

Mr. Gerecht, a former Middle East specialist at the CIA, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the author of "The Wave: Man, God, and the Ballot Box in the Middle East" (Hoover Institution Press, 2011).

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arab-spring, democratic-movements, hamas, iran, islamism, israel, muslim-brotherhood, palestinians, religious-freedom