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Is Middle East History About to Repeat Itself?

Fifty years ago, Syrian President Hafiz al-Assad hosted U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger at a late night meeting. Al-Assad, a man who took history seriously, seated Kissinger opposite a massive canvas of the Battle of Hattin, the victory of Syria’s national hero Saladin over the Crusaders. Saladin’s victory quickly led to the recapture of Jerusalem and the end of the Crusader Kingdom. Al-Assad told Kissinger it took the Arabs 100 years to defeat the Crusaders. The Arabs have the patience to do so again with the Israelis. Assad asserted that Israel was the 20th century’s Crusader Kingdom and given enough time it too will fall. Now, we might ask, might the Gaza War be the 21st century version of Hattin by undermining the Jewish state internally as well as destroying its reputation internationally.

Western mythology paints a romantic picture of the Crusades. The Arabs saw the Crusaders from a different viewpoint: the first western European attempt at colonizing the Middle East. The Crusaders failed because they never acclimated to the lands they conquered. To Arab historians, both Christian and Muslim, the Crusaders had only a veneer of religious motivation; their real motivation was to conquer new fiefdoms for younger sons rendered landless by European primogenitor laws. The Crusaders attempted to transplant their feudal system on an alien landscape. The transplant failed to take, and the Crusaders were expelled.

Middle Easterners see Israel as the modern colonial reincarnation of the Crusades. All but one modern Arab state, Saudi Arabia, freed themselves from western colonialism within living memory. They know colonialism when they see it. Israel, like the Crusaders, has failed to adapt to the region and convince its inhabitants of its willingness to live peacefully within secure and recognized boundaries. Its founders, such as Golda Meir and David Ben Gurion, saw Israel as a modern secular state modeled on European political values, but one reserved for people of a single religion and ethnicity. The Arabs see that Israel survives and flourishes because the western world, especially the United States, provides the financial and military support Israel needs to dominate the region. In their eyes, this is the very definition of a colonial enterprise. The Arab view that Israel is a colonial venture, like the Crusader state, is shared by the overwhelming majority of other formerly colonized countries, as reflected in the lopsided majorities in favor of Palestine at the UN General Assembly.

The savagery of Israel’s attack on Gaza reminds other ex-colonial countries of what they suffered at the hands of their colonial masters. Indians, for example, still recall the 1919 Amritsar massacre. Sympathy for Israel’s valid outrage following the loss of 1,139 Israelis has been drowned out by the 35,000 plus dead Gazans, many of whom have succumbed to hunger, thirst, and the destruction of medical facilities at the hands of the IDF. Turning the whole of Gaza into a rubble-strewn wasteland added to the callous withholding of food and water has badly stained Israel ‘s reputation worldwide. For the first time, Israeli leaders face possible international indictments for war crimes and even genocide. (Israelis take scant comfort from the fact that Hamas’ leadership probably also faces indictment.)

To make Israel’s future even bleaker, its announced determination to eradicate Hamas will fail. The IDF has not defeated Hamas; it keeps popping up in areas the IDF claimed it had cleared. Israel faces a long bloody, expensive, insurgency. The Gaza War threatens to alienate the one people that have sustained Israel for nearly three generations: the Americans. American kids, including many young Jews, demonstrating for Palestine but derided as ‘privileged elites’ are the ones who will be running this country in twenty years. If, and this is a big if, Israel’s current leaders have a long term vision, they should worry.

More importantly the Gaza War has strained, perhaps beyond the breaking point, the possibility that the Jewish state will ever find a home in the region. Even authoritarian leaders cannot ignore popular outrage that this war has caused. Egypt, the original stakeholder in peace with Israel, has now joined South Africa’s petition at the International Court of Justice demanding Israel’s campaign be declared a genocide.

The Gaza War has not only damaged Israel in the eyes of the world and of its immediate neighbors, but it has also exacerbated a potentially deadly internal strife. It now faces the enormous economic burden of sustaining the lives of the 2.4 million Gazans stranded in the moonscape it created. No Arab state will finance the reconstruction absent an irreversible Israeli acceptance of a Palestinian state, nor will Uncle Sam pick up the tab in an election year. The crisis has enabled a far-right wing of the Israeli government to brutalize Jewish protestors as they once did only Arabs. Closing down Al Jazeera removed the most-watched cable news program in the region. Adding in the fact that half its population has used the war to advance theocracy, the secular liberal Israelis who created Israel find themselves living in a country that has no place for them (and their tech companies).

Diplomats recognize that there is never a ‘last chance’. The U.S. alone (no one else counts) has a brief moment to persuade Israel and its leaders to recognize that its future can be guaranteed only if it adapts itself to the region and accepts that peace can come only through diplomacy and not military coercion. Otherwise, it will follow the 12th century Crusader state into oblivion.

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