Matters have flared to a thoroughgoing boil in the Middle East, and it is important that we sort out the players and the prospects.
The overarching fact is the war against the Western world that radical Islamists began waging nearly two decades ago, and that was declared officially by Osama bin Laden’s attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. Since then, and by virtue of its dramatic impact, hundreds of thousands and perhaps even millions of Muslims have joined the battle, and — as Winston Churchill said of our enemies in World War II in his speech to Congress in December 1941 — "a quarrel is opened, which can only end in their overthrow or yours." The war is global: There have been attacks in Britain, Italy, Spain, Indonesia, India and elsewhere, as well as in the United States.
The American counterattacks in Afghanistan and Iraq, and our occupation of those countries, are only fronts in this global war with militant Islam. The enemy has no assailable state or capital; his soldiers wear no uniform; and his tactics include insurgencies that specialize in suicide bombings, beheadings and the mass murder of innocent civilians. His strategy is not to defeat the West on the battlefield (which he could not possibly do) but to wear down resistance, and especially American resistance, until his foes give up the fight.
All this would be bad enough, but — as William Kristol has pointed out in The Weekly Standard — it is made infinitely worse when a genuine state or states offer their aid to the Islamist terrorists. That is what Iran and Syria have recently begun doing on a significant scale, and it represents a major escalation of the war.
To all this, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict constitutes little more than a footnote. But it is an important footnote, because it pits Israel against a subset of Islamic society, and thus helps to inflame Muslims everywhere against Israel and its great supporter, the United States.
Every three years or so, I find it necessary to write a column repeating my contention there is no possible peaceful solution to the quarrel between Israel and the Palestinians. As Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., said, "Between two groups of people who want to make inconsistent kinds of worlds, I see no remedy but force." The Israelis — mostly refugees from the European Holocaust — proclaimed a Jewish state in their historic homeland, Palestine, in 1948. Rightly or wrongly, the Palestinian Arabs believe they were simply ousted from a region in which many of them had lived for centuries, and they are determined to regain it. In this, they have the full backing of the Arab world, and many observers in Europe and elsewhere.
Neither side will ever give up its basic demand: for the Palestinians, the return of the land; and for the Israelis, the survival of their state. The Camp David Accords, the Oslo Agreement, the American "road-map" and the interminable "peace process" have never gotten anywhere, and never will. Richard Cohen may have been right to argue recently, in The Washington Post, that establishing a Jewish state in the midst of the Arab Middle East was a "mistake"; but, if so, it was a mistake made 58 years ago, and there is no undoing it now.
What the festering controversy between Israel and the Palestinians can do, however, is serve as a useful distraction from other issues — as Iran is clearly using it now (by encouraging Hezbollah to attack Israel) to draw attention away from its own defiant aim of becoming a nuclear power.
That is the general state of play in the Middle East today, and to call it a "mess" is to understate the case. If it doesn’t escalate into a more general conflict, complete with nuclear bombs, it will be only because none of the world’s major powers who possess such weapons have a serious stake in the victory the militant Islamists are seeking to achieve.