One of the great advantages of the digitalization of communications is that today, everyone who has a computer has access to information about events occurring all over the globe. A person sitting in their home in say, Jerusalem, can read everything from the Washington Post to the Bellingham Herald from Bellingham, Washington. Sitting anywhere in the world that has an Internet hook-up, a person today can be clued into events taking place from Paris to Timbuktu.
There can be no doubt that this accessibility has democratized communications. Private citizens have gained independence from the editorial preferences of the editors of their local newspapers. But the vastly expanded availability of information has caused a new problem. An individual who follows a public debate in a foreign country may think that he understands what is happening there by reading that country's local papers or popular Web sites every day. And yet, because he is thousands of miles away, he may well misunderstand the significance of what he is reading. Almost like a child's game of "Telephone," the information he accesses from his computer may be misleading because it is written for the locals, who in addition to reading their newspapers, also breathe the same air as their local reporters.
An example would be an Israeli who, sitting in his apartment in Tiberias, kept abreast of events in the US by reading The New York Times on-line. From such a reading, that Israeli could conclude that the US was losing the war against the jihadists in Iraq and was on the verge of retreating. He might also be under the impression that President George W. Bush was about to be impeached by Congress for having "lied" about the threat that Saddam Hussein constituted to the US in March 2003. Finally, such a reader might have the impression that the US economy was sliding into a recession because of the sharp rise in gasoline prices.
If that person were not a private individual, but say, the government of Britain, the assessment that the US was about to bail out of Iraq and impeach Bush would necessarily lead to certain conclusions about how Britain ought to be thinking about its foreign policy.
The problem, of course, is that a reading of The New York Times does not provide an individual or government with a clear understanding of what is happening in the US or of the significance of various debates now raging in the media. For a person to understand what he is reading in the Times, he needs to be able to understand the cultural context in which the articles are being published. Without a cultural awareness of the US, he will be incapable of assessing the value of the information he now accesses on the Internet.
The same, of course, is true of Israel. Israel's political debate is consistently hyperbolic. Israelis who listen to statements by their leaders know that they have to discount much of what they hear as exaggerated showmanship. For instance, from 1982 up until Ariel Sharon became prime minister in 2001, the Israeli Left routinely called him a warmonger, a right-wing extremist and a murderer. But no one really thought that any of this was true. Israelis understood this to be par for the course for the Israeli political debate.
Yet, for foreigners watching events in Israel and listening to this internal dialogue, it couldn't have come as more of a shock when, as prime minister, Sharon suddenly began calling for Israeli withdrawals from Judea, Samaria and Gaza and carried out the withdrawal and expulsion plan from Gaza and northern Samaria last summer. After all, for years they had been reading of Israelis calling Sharon a clone of Genghis Khan. So here, as with the foreigner watching America, the familiarity afforded by access to local debates can lead to greater misunderstandings.
Because of this, it is important for all countries, when assessing what others are doing, to think first and foremost about how various moves can impact their interests. The domestic policy debates carried out in foreign countries should not form the basis of their decision-making.
IT IS important to note our propensity to misunderstand other peoples' national debates today because in three weeks, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will arrive in Washington, DC to present his plan to withdraw Israeli civilians and military forces from much of Judea and Samaria with the hopes of securing American support and funding for his plan.
Olmert's planned withdrawal presents a dilemma for Washington. On the one hand, the US traditionally has supported Israeli withdrawals from territories that Israel took over in the Six Day War, and Olmert's plan aligns with this customary preference. On the other hand, the US is now fighting a war against the global jihad and one of its primary goals is to prevent the establishment of new bases for jihadist forces. Israel's withdrawal from Gaza this past summer fomented Hamas's rise to power in the Palestinian Authority and enabled the transformation of Gaza into a base for al-Qaida, Hizbullah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. An Israeli withdrawal from Judea and Samaria will exacerbate the current situation exponentially.
Were the Americans to base their policies on what they hear in the Israeli media, they might conclude that Israel will be destroyed if it doesn't vacate Judea and Samaria tomorrow. What they would miss is that the debate in Israel about retaining control over Judea and Samaria or relinquishing control of the areas to Hamas has nothing to do with Hamas, Hizbullah, al-Qaida, or any other consideration that might be called strategic.
What is hard to understand from reading Israel's media is that the country is in the midst of a culture war. Leftist secular messianists, who have replaced their peace god which Yasser Arafat destroyed six years ago with a withdrawal god, are pushing for the Judea and Samaria withdrawal as part of their offensive against religious Zionism which is headquartered in the Israeli settlements of Judea and Samaria that Olmert's plan will destroy.
Similarly hidden from the view of an outside observer of Israel's political scene is the fact that religious Zionists are responding to these attacks by pouting and threatening to take their anger out on the IDF. They threaten not to serve in the army or volunteer for officer training just to show the messianic leftists that they are nobody's fools. They can endanger the country just as well as the Left can.
ISRAEL HAS had next to no debate either on the strategic consequences of the Gaza withdrawal or on the likely security consequences of a withdrawal from Judea and Samaria. Such a debate would note that the Gaza withdrawal was a failure on every level. It would also raise the likelihood that an Israeli withdrawal from Judea and Samaria will cause an inflow of terrorists and missiles that will place all of Israel's major cities as well as its major highways, seaports and Ben-Gurion Airport within missile range from Hizbullah forces in Lebanon and Palestinian forces in Gaza, Judea and Samaria.
Aside from that, such a debate would no doubt draw attention to the fact that a jihadist takeover of Judea and Samaria would cause an immediate danger to the Hashemite regime in Jordan. To date, Israeli military control of Judea and Samaria has made it difficult for Palestinian jihadists to threaten Jordan. But if Israel retreats, there will be no one stopping them from joining forces with their counterparts on the east bank of the Jordan River.
And so, an Israeli withdrawal from Judea and Samaria would cause the destabilization of America's two most stable and reliable allies in the Middle East. Fuel and other vital materiel for US forces in Iraq would no longer be able to be safely transported overland from Israeli ports through Jordan into Iraq due to the instability of both Israel and Jordan. This would increase American dependence on ports in the Persian Gulf. This increased American dependence would embolden Iran to cause the US Navy repeated headaches in the Straits of Hormuz. Judea and Samaria would be used as a terror training base for jihadists who would go on to fight not only Israel, but US forces in Iraq.
Aside from that, just as Israel's retreat from Gaza convinced the Palestinians that terror pays and so brought Hamas to power, an Israeli retreat from Judea and Samaria leading to the destabilization of both Israel and Jordan will be perceived by the Arab and Islamic worlds as a strategic victory for the forces of jihad. From Paris to Haifa to Islamabad to Baghdad, to Dearborn, thousands will answer the call to jihad.
By the same token, with the momentum on the side of the jihadists, the US and its allies will experience unprecedented difficulty in attempting to convince Arab and Muslim governments, opinion makers, intellectuals and activists to support them. Political and cultural leaders who today support the US's strategic goal of bringing democracy and liberalism to the Arabs and Muslims worldwide will be cowed into silence. After all, whether the US likes it or not, the Arab and Muslim worlds perceive Israel as an American client state and as a result, an Israeli retreat is seen as an American retreat. If Israel is weakened, America is weakened.
OLMERT HAS put a price tag of $10 billion on his withdrawal plan. Many Israeli economists have claimed that this is a gross underestimate of the actual cost of the massive withdrawals he has planned and the dislocation of between 50,000-100,000 Israeli civilians. Nonetheless, Israel's new prime minister is hoping that the Congress will agree to have US taxpayers cover the bill. Olmert is also hoping that the Bush administration will recognize the lines of his proposed retreat as Israel's political borders.
America has not hesitated to force Israel to change course in everything from building settlements, to not responding to unprovoked missile attacks during the 1991 Gulf War, to cancelling weapons sales to places like China when the US believed that its national security interests were harmed by Israel's action. Generally, Israel's leaders have abided by American requests. Sometimes, when they felt that Israel's national well-being or their political fortunes were at stake, they did not.
While listening to the Israeli media's coverage of Israel's political debate could lead a foreigner to believe that retreating from Judea and Samaria is necessary for Israel's future, in fact what they are hearing is one side of a domestic culture war. And Israel's culture wars should be of little interest to foreign governments trying to assess their own interests, just as what The Nation or Mother Jones thinks about al-Qaida should have no bearing on how foreign governments perceive the threat that the global jihad constitutes for their nations.
Olmert's withdrawal plan will be devastating for Israel's national security. But that's Israel's problem to deal with. We elected this government and we will pay the price.
The US has no reason to support this plan that harms its most important interests in the region, and in the war against the global jihad. When Olmert comes to Washington, the first question his hosts should ask him is how can he expect them to support a plan that advances the cause of global jihad?
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