n the weeks after September 11, there was a debate over whether the war on terrorism would be more like the Cold War or World War II, whether our enemy was more like the Communists or the Nazis (our David Pryce-Jones weighed in on the Cold War side). Neither analogy is exactly apt, of course.
The current conflict between Israelis and the Palestinians, as Thomas Friedman pointed out in the New York Times a few weeks ago, raises another imperfect, but still telling historical analogy — the Spanish Civil War.
From its beginning in 1936, the Spanish Civil War was a proxy for the budding struggle over the future of all of Europe, between fascism and communism. In the same way, today’s war in the West Bank and Israel is a rehearsal for the struggle over the future of the Middle East, between Arab rejectionism and American power, between terrorism and a more realistic Arab politics.
As in the Spanish Civil War, both sides are armed (or at least try to be armed) by the rival powers. Israel has its American M-16s and Cobra helicopters, the Palestinians sophisticated arms from murky sources, probably related to Syria and Iran. We know that an intercepted 50-ton shipment of arms to the Palestinians came from Iran, and that America’s chief enemies in the region, Iran and Iraq, provide financial support to the suicide bombings.
As in the Spanish Civil War, the arguments over this conflict mirror the larger arguments to come. Is terrorism and the related Islamic extremism something to be negotiated with and accepted like any other political phenomenon, or should it be shunned, and if necessary, fought? Should the Arab street, with a few protests, be able to determine U.S. policy in the region? Is U.S. policy racist and anti-Arab, or simply determined to root out terrorism?
As in the Spanish Civil War, the side portrayed by the elite and the Left as the virtuous Davids staring down a brutal Goliath is tainted with a ruthless political ideology and cynical violence. It took decades, and the recent publication of Spain Betrayed: The Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War, to demonstrate that the idealistic leftist fighters in the Spanish Civil War were the pawns of a brutal Soviet policy. The evidence in the current case is much more immediate and undeniable: To see that the Palestinians are beholden to hideous political ideology you need look no further than the doctrines of Hamas; to see how the Palestinian cause been captured by the romance of violence you need look no further than the Al Aqsa Brigades; to see that the intifada is a tool in a much larger geopolitical game you need do nothing more than follow the money back to Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia.
As in the Spanish Civil War, whoever wins will have momentum in the coming wider struggle. As David Pryce-Jones has written, in the Spanish Civil War, “the Fascist victory meant that there was no chance to put Communism into practice in Western Europe, and no chance either to stop Hitler in his tracks.” Similarly, if the U.S. bends to the Palestinian/Iranian/Iraqi forces in this current conflict, it seems there will be little chance to begin to roll them back in earnest with an invasion of Iraq, culminating in the toppling of Saddam Hussein.
So, watch events closely in the West Bank and Israel in coming weeks and months. They are as fraught with meaning, and as telling about the future, as those battles fought 70 years ago in Spain.