The most recent audio missive from Osama bin Laden, claiming responsibility for the attempted Christmas bombing of Northwest Airlines flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit, rationalizes Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab’s act in the name of the suffering of the people of Gaza: "America will never dream of living in peace unless we live it in Palestine," avers the Muslim Pimpernel. "It is unfair that you enjoy a safe life while our brothers in Gaza suffer greatly. Therefore, with God’s will, our attacks on you will continue as long as you continue to support Israel."
This is even better public relations for the Israelis than the heroic feats of their medical teams in Haiti. This framing of the narrative – it’s the evil bin Laden versus Tel Aviv – serves the interests of both bin Laden, and Israel’s lobby in the US, albeit for quite different reasons.
Osama bin Laden and Israel’s ruling right-wing coalition government are the two Middle East players who have the most to lose from an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord and the establishment of a democratic Palestinian state in the occupied territories. The former because his whole world outlook is based on the idea of an unbreakable "Crusader-Zionist" alliance aimed at the destruction of Islam – and the latter because, absent American support for a Palestinian state, American and Israeli interests are joined into a single policy bundle.
The curious synchronicity doesn’t end there: both anchor their stances in religious doctrine, in what purports to be a literal interpretation of the will of God – the Israelis claim God gave them the land, and al-Qaeda says God commands them to wage jihad against the invasion and occupation of a Muslim country. Furthermore, in Palestine, both Israel and al-Qaeda have a deadly enemy in Hamas, the elected leadership of the Palestinian people – and herein lies the significance and timing of the Christmas attack, and bin Laden’s rhetorical intervention.
At the very moment when the Israelis press their demands, for the first time claiming the right to retain troops in the occupied territories even after the establishment of a Palestinian state, bin Laden’s statement is aimed as much at Hamas as it is at the US or the Israelis. Bin Laden’s task, after all, is to inspire and recruit Muslims, not Americans, and certainly not Israelis, to his cause, and al-Qaeda’s chief rival in Palestine is Hamas, which has recently been sending signals – albeit mixed – that they are at least willing to make some concessions if it will allow them to break out of their diplomatic and physical isolation and further their goal of creating a unified Palestinian state.
While various groups have surfaced, in the past, claiming al-Qaeda’s Palestinian franchise, they mostly turned out to be Israeli fronts – "false flag" operations designed to lure terrorists and wannabe terrorists into a trap. In Palestine, Bin Laden’s followers are few and far between. He considers Hamas a group of heretics, who are furthermore tainted by their association with various regional governments: Iran, Syria, and the sheikdoms of the Persian Gulf. The leadership of Hamas, for their part, have reacted to the presence of Salafist groups in their midst with unrestrained violence: e.g., the attack last year on a Salafist mosque in Gaza in which dozens were killed and many more wounded. This was in response to rhetorical attacks by al-Qaeda leaders, who accused Hamas of "betraying God" because its leaders visited Russia, "an atheist country," and also of having committed the crime of engaging in "dialogue." "Hamas," an al-Qaeda propaganda video complained, "is part of the conspiracy against Palestinians."
The Israelis, too, would like to get rid of Hamas, which could easily undercut Tel Aviv’s intransigent stand by softening its stance. Israel has spent a long time trying to convince the Americans, with an astonishing degree of success, that the dividing line between Israeli and American interests is nonexistent. However, the fight between Hamas and al-Qaeda clouds the simplistic portrayal of Islamic "terrorism" as a monolithic conspiracy, against which the Israelis and the Americans must present a united front.
The Israelis have always used the old imperial tactic of "divide and rule" to keep their enemies in check, which is why they encouraged the growth of Hamas in order to undermine the secular Palestinian Liberation Organization under Yasser Arafat. Having helped create a monster – much as our war against the Soviets in Afghanistan created the network that later morphed into al-Qaeda – their uncompromising militance is succeeding in repeating the same mistake and encouraging (whether intentionally or not) the growth of Salafist groups in Gaza, which, we are told, are the building blocks of a future al-Qaeda-in-Palestine.
Al Qaeda has long railed against the idea that the worldwide Islamist jihad against the US should be intermixed with nationalist or ethnic causes: bin Laden is the Leon Trotsky of the jihadist movement, a revolutionary internationalist who berates Hamas for selling out their Chechen brothers and holding out the possibility of coexistence with the West and the "Zionist entity." The Christmas bombing attempt, then, can be seen as directed at Hamas as well as the United States – which, al-Qaeda believes, are part of the same "conspiracy against the Palestinians."
As the US capitulates before each and every Israeli demand, and collaborates with them as they steal more land, commit fresh outrages, and generally lead their American patron around by the nose, bin Laden & Co. profit in terms of credibility and recruits. During the eight years of the Bush administration, there was very little space between the American and Israeli positions, although a crack or two appeared toward the end. With President Obama sitting in the Oval Office, and especially since the Cairo speech – and Obama’s stated intention of making the Israeli-Palestinian standoff a top priority – there was plenty of skepticism, and also plenty of hope.
Today, the skepticism has grown into the blackest pessimism, and all hope has fled, as even the President admits it’s a tougher nut to crack than even he imagined. What he really means, and dares not say, is that Israel’s lobby in the US is far too powerful for even a US President to challenge.
It may be a bit presumptuous of me to write of what the President really means to say, but in this case it’s not hard to imagine his thoughts on the issue: after all, the Israelis have defied him quite effectively, and have even upped the ante with this latest insistence on keeping their troops on Palestinian soil indefinitely. What has been his response?
Simply put, there hasn’t been one: tied up in the health-care quagmire, and preoccupied with a rapidly failing economy, President Obama has turned the execution of his foreign policy over to Hillary Rodham Clinton and the Washington establishment – hardly a source of innovation, not to mention hope, when it comes to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian issue. The "no new settlements" stance upheld earlier by the administration has long since gone by the wayside, and all efforts to bring both sides to the table are stalled. The reason is because the Americans refuse to exercise what leverage they have over the Israelis – and because most of the leverage being exercised is that of the Israelis over the Americans.
Israel’s lobby has dug deeply into the Democratic party: certainly a Democratic-controlled Congress qualifies as "Israeli-occupied territory," as Pat Buchanan famously put it – no less so than when the Republicans were in control. The pursuit of purely American interests in the Middle East is therefore, under current political conditions, nearly impossible, in spite of the presence of more reasonable elements in the Obama administration and its periphery.
Bin Laden will not stop attacking us if we suddenly withdraw our unconditional support for Israel’s every action, and yet certainly he would find fewer recruits such as Umar Farouk Mutallab willing to die at his command. A fairer, more evenhanded approach to the Palestinian question would take a lot of the air out of the tires of bin Laden’s jihad-mobile: for the first time since 9/11 the terrorists would be stalled and put on the defensive. Fortunately for both bin Laden, and the right-wing Likud-extremist government of Benjamin Netanyahu, this is unlikely to happen.
Instead, the symbiotic relationship between Israel and al-Qaeda – in effect, a de facto alliance of interests – will continue, with each needing the other to rationalize its intransigence and violence.