Beware the Islamic Caliphate in the Middle East
In his poem "The Geography of the House," W.H. Auden advised, “[L]eave the dead concerns of yesterday behind us: face with all our courage what is now to be.” A major contribution would be made towards peace in the Middle East if the Western world emphasized the necessity for the two Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, to heed this advice after their public reconciliation on April 23, 2014 after seven years of animosity.
After attempts at reconciliation failed in Mecca in 2007, in Cairo in 2011, and in Doha in 2012, the two factions agreed on an arrangement for the Palestinian Authority to set up a new government for a six-month period, after which elections for the president and a legislative body would follow. This government of technocrats, seventeen ministers not professionally affiliated with any political group, is headed as prime minister by Rami Hamdallah, the 55-year-old former president of An-Najah National University, the largest institution of higher learning in the West Bank.
The new government was immediately faced with practical problems: the need for residents of Gaza to pay taxes and electricity bills, the payment of the more than 40,000 employees of the former Hamas regime in Gaza, or the problem of the 70,000 employees of the Palestinian Authority in Gaza who are paid but do no work. What is most important is that the government has no policy to disarm the terrorist factions in Gaza or to integrate the security forces of Fatah and Hamas. Though the Hamdallah government appears to have agreed to recognize the State of Israel and to renounce violence, it does not appear to have any real control over Hamas forces in Gaza or ability to prevent rockets being fired from Gaza into Israeli areas.
There are two key underlying problems: whether the ultimate objectives of Fatah and Hamas differ in any real way and whether Hamas has renounced, or modified, its determination to eliminate the State of Israel. Fatah is heralded as the moderate, less extreme face of Palestinian yearning, willing under certain conditions to enter into peace talks, with an apparent policy in which Islam is only one aspect of national identity, compared with Hamas, with its stress on the primacy of its Islamic identity.
It may be that Fatah, in its mixture of religious and national symbols, only uses Islam and religious imagery to motivate its members to fight. Yet caution is necessary. Fatah spokespersons speak of the “beautiful Islamic land of Palestine” and the “pure soil” that it will recover. More downright, Mahmoud Zahar, co-founder of Hamas and a leading figure, has made clear his position of no negotiation or recognition of Israel, elaborating that it is impossible to take part in any peace process. Yet his position may not be dissimilar to that of the commander of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades of Fatah in the Jenin area, who receives funds from Hezb'allah, dedicated to the destruction of Israel.
The Sixth Congress of Fatah of August 2009 laid down, among other issues, that “there must be absolute opposition to recognizing Israel as a Jewish state,” in order to protect the refugees’ rights, and “the rights of our people on the other side of the Green Line (i.e., Israel).” It asserted there will not be peace if Jerusalem is not restored as the eternal capital of the Palestinian state. The Fatah Declaration speaks of Jerusalem as the eternal spiritual capital of Palestine.
In a letter to David Ben-Gurion in 1935, Vladimir Jabotinsky wrote of his anxiety to create a state: “I can vouch for there being a type of Zionist who doesn’t care what kind of society our 'state' will have (secular, religious Orthodox, Yiddish speaking). I am that person.” The essential problem now is whether the Palestinians are similarly seeking any kind of state, or one that is to be based on Islamic principles, and sharia law.
This lack of clarity, and the deliberate obfuscation about ultimate Palestinian objectives, especially the Islamic nature of any future Palestinian state, is fundamentally important in view of the debacle in Iraq resulting from the fanaticism and military success of ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), an affiliate of al-Qaeda. This success, along with the capture of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city with a population of 1.4 million; Tikrit; and the oil refining town of Baiji, has been accompanied by assassinations, suicide bombers, and shameful treatment of women. The looting of Mosul’s central bank, to the effect of $429 million and large amounts of gold bullion, has made ISIS the richest terrorist force in the world.
There may be meaningful reasons for opposition to the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal Al-Maliki, a government deficient both politically and militarily, that has wasted much of the $25 billion given by the U.S. to train and equip Iraq’s security forces. The Iraqi army of 900,000 disintegrated into thin air. Iraq cannot solve its own problems, which have worsened since December 2011, when the U.S. left the area and was unable to reach a security agreement with the Iraqis that would have left some U.S. forces in the country for a limited period.
The Obama administration confronts a difficult problem of what role to play in the context of the success of ISIS, civil war in both Iraq and Syria, and sectarian conflict between Shiites and Sunnis. The administration was wrong when the chief of staff, Denis McDonough, declared in 2011 that the U.S. had helped bring about a secure, stable, self-reliant Iraq. No one is presently calling for American troops to fight on Iraqi soil. But should the U.S. now supply drones and manned aircraft, strengthen intelligence capabilities, and aid in more training exercises? Can the administration and U.S. citizens in general forget the American sacrifices and losses in the battles for Mosul and Fallujah? The Obama belief that the tide of war was receding and therefore that the U.S. could reduce its forces abroad, and concentrate on “nation-building,” was always arguable, if popular in public opinion, and now resembles a policy of appeasement. It was unhelpful that Obama suggested to Congress that it repeal the 2001 Authorization to use military force against al-Qaeda.
American refusal or hesitation in helping to control the Islamic threat in Iraq is even more unacceptable because the objective of ISIS is clear. It is fighting to establish an Islamic caliphate in the Persian Gulf area, and to become the leader of global jihad. ISIS has declared that “we are soldiers of Islam and took on our responsibility to bring back the glory of the Islamic Caliphate."
Whatever the decisions made by President Obama on the increasingly perilous situation in Iraq, and the regional instability caused by the ambitions of ISIS, he has to take into account two other facts: the decision for total withdrawal in 2016 from Afghanistan, a country menaced by the Taliban, and the interest of some Palestinians to create another version of the Islamic caliphate surrounding or replacing the State of Israel. Will the U.S. and the European Union face with all their courage the fight against Islamic tyranny and the support for Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East?
Michael Curtis is author of Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East.