Israelis awoke yesterday to the news that the gates to Gaza had been ceremoniously shut, and that the Palestinians' joyous burning of Gush Katif's synagogues, which the cabinet had voted not to destroy, had begun. We were also informed that the US State Department had criticized the cabinet decision not to destroy the synagogues because it "put the Palestinian Authority into a situation where it may be criticized for whatever it does."
It is never exactly clear when a State Department spokesman says something like this whether he or she is ad-libbing or whether a particular pearl has been cleared at the cabinet level. Either way, however, such statements are instructive because they either reflect a conscious, high-level decision or are considered so uncontroversial that a low-level official can say them without fear of contradiction.
In this case, the uncontroversial notion is evidently that the problem is not Palestinian savagery but Israel's refusal to spare the world images of it. Regardless of how Israeli decision makers expected the Palestinians to behave, Israel's decision not to destroy the synagogues gave the Palestinians the opportunity to exceed rock-bottom expectations.
Would the Palestinian Authority be "criticized" if it had decided to spare a single former synagogue from the raging mobs, perhaps for use as a library, or for some international aid agency? Is the idea of sparing a former place of worship of another religion so foreign that it cannot even be asked for, let alone expected?
The unwritten script here is that nothing more can be expected from the Palestinians because, after all, they are enraged by 38 years of Israeli presence in Gaza. This ignores both the questions of why Israel was there in the first place, and why Israel was targeted for destruction before it set foot in Gaza. But it also papers over the real source of Muslim rage: the reigning intolerant interpretation of Islam.
Despite attempts to explain it away as a benign form of striving, the Arab-Islamic notion of jihad remains essentially unchanged since Ibn Khaldun described it in 1406: "holy war is a religious duty ... to convert everybody to Islam either by persuasion or force." Only Islam, he added, "is under obligation to gain power over other nations."
This has been reflected in a "what's mine is mine, what's yours is mine" approach that we see dominates Palestinian thinking. It goes without saying that no Jew, building, or grave must remain in Gaza, as much as it does that Israel must treat its own million-strong Arab minority with utmost respect.
Yet if there is ever going to be peace between Arabs and Israelis, not to mention an end to the wider jihad against America, such attitudes must be broken. Far from criticizing Israel from having the temerity to hope that Palestinians might spare a synagogue, the US should be vocally rejecting the rampant intolerance in the Muslim world for non-Muslim power, freedom, and rights.
President George W. Bush has rightly played the democracy card in the Arab world generally and concerning Palestinians in particular. To his unending credit, he has sometimes done so much more boldly than Israel, leading to the irony that Natan Sharansky's ideas have been more influential in Washington than Jerusalem.
What the US has not done is confront Arab rejectionism of Israel and rampant anti-Semitism with equal moral clarity. Bush has not said, in so many words, that the source of the conflict is not just the Arab democracy deficit, or even the lack of a Palestinian state, but the still reigning idea among Arab governments, masses, and elites that Israel has no right to exist.
The State Department's revealing reaction to the synagogue decision and its consequences shows that attempts to triangulate around the real sources of the conflict remain entrenched in the foreign policy establishment, even in Washington.
Israel's withdrawal was not yet a day old when the first post-disengagement Palestinian mortar landed in Sderot. If Washington is not quick to hold the Palestinian Authority responsible for such attacks, and demand effective action, disengagement will have been for naught and terrorism will escalate again. Now is not the time for evenhandedness, but for holding the Palestinians accountable for their actions.