The Baghdad restaurant grew silent, all eyes on the television. It was January 29, 2004. Every Arabic news channel had its cameras trained on a Beirut runway, where a German transport plane was due to land. Israel had just released Sheikh Abdel Karim Obeid, once leader of Hezbollah's southern Lebanon operations, after almost 15 years in an Israeli prison. The group of largely pro-Western Iraqis had tears in their eyes. "The first Arab victory over Israel was [the withdrawal from Lebanon] in May 2000. This is the second," an Iraqi professor explained.
Six weeks earlier, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had announced plans to withdraw unilaterally from the Gaza Strip. A broad range of Israeli politicians cautiously endorsed the move. While European diplomats wrung their hands nervously, President George W. Bush called Sharon's plan "historic and courageous."
Nothing could be more untrue. While Israelis might fear civil and political strife if settlers are forced from their homes, Sharon's plan will reinvigorate terrorism not only in Israel, but as an international tactic of choice.
The power of television is tremendous across the Middle East. Arabic satellite stations like the Qatar-based Al Jazeera, Hezbollah's Al-Manar, and Iran's Al-Alam deluge their audiences with images of American defeat: the 1983 U.S. withdrawal from Beirut, and the flight from Mogadishu a decade later. Watching television on any Baghdad evening, I would see American diplomats fleeing Vietnam. To the Iraqi audience the message was clear: Bush may say America has staying power, but it is weak. Al Jazeera mastered has information warfare. On days without American casualties, the station simply rebroadcasts images of the previous day's roadside bomb.
The Iranian government primes its audience with similar messages. While critics rave about the latest Iranian art films, the normal fare for ordinary Iranians is far different. Sitting among Iranian soldiers packed into a Shiraz movie theater, I watched a Rambo-type film pitting Hezbollah characters against hapless Israeli soldiers. I tried to be inconspicuous as the crowd began to shout "kill the Jew" in anticipation of events on screen. The message to the soldiers was clear: Violence works.
Imagery can be equally powerful on Israeli television. More than 20 years later, older Israelis remember television pictures of residents of Yamit battling soldiers during that settlement's 1982 evacuation. But while such images will have a profound impact on the Israeli electorate and their replication may cause some government ministers to reconsider their support for Sharon's plan, far more damaging to Israel and the United States would be the subsequent pictures. Images of Hezbollah and Hamas flags flying over Jewish settlements like Netzarim and Kfar Yam will torpedo hope not only of a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace, but also of an end to terrorism in Iraq, Turkey, Kashmir and against the West in general.
Israelis and some in the Palestinian Authority may be sincere in a desire for peace, but rejectionists abound, not only in Lebanese and Syrian refugee camps, but also in Iraq's Sunni Triangle, Iran's Revolutionary Guard bases and Pakistani seminaries. A Hamas flag over Netzarim will justify 37 years of terrorism. The reasons for Israel's withdrawal will be irrelevant on the streets of the Islamic world. If terrorism can free Gaza, why not the West Bank, the Galilee, Indian Kashmir or democratic Iraq? Why compromise if terrorism obviates the need for concession? There is a limit to the West's stamina. Neither Israelis nor Americans should assume their opponents would be unwilling to pay the price of continued violence. As the Shi'ite commemoration of `Ashura approaches, millions will commemorate the 680 martyrdom of Imam Husayn, ritually cursing Sunni leaders of the day, as if Husayn's death was yesterday.
The price of continued terrorism and insurgency might be high, but terror masters themselves often do not pay the price. Earlier this month in Baghdad, I interviewed Iraqis fleeing violence in the northern city of Mosul. Without exception, each said that the insurgents who invaded the city were in their mid to late teens; they complained that the insurgent leaders were using impressionable youth as cannon fodder. But so long as oil-rich Arab states and Iran are willing to subsidize incitement on television, in schools and in mosques, there will be no shortage of recruits. Not only Israelis, but also Iraqis, Indians, Turks, Americans and Europeans will pay the price.
Seeking peace is honorable, but Sharon is gambling. Whether motivated by a sincere desire for peace or for an egotistical need to rewrite his place in history is irrelevant. Unilateral withdrawal is irresponsible. Should Gaza be part of a comprehensive deal, pictures of Hamas flags over Gaza will be immaterial, for they can be counterbalanced with images of Israeli embassies hoisting flags in Damascus, Riyadh and Tehran. But if Sharon goes ahead with Gaza disengagement, generations both inside and outside Israel will be sacrificed upon the alter of his legacy.
Michael Rubin, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is editor of the Middle East Quarterly.