By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, July 18, 2006; A19
The greatest mistake Israel could make at the moment is to forget that Israel itself is a mistake. It is an honest mistake, a well-intentioned mistake, a mistake for which no one is culpable, but the idea of creating a nation of European Jews in an area of Arab Muslims (and some Christians) has produced a century of warfare and terrorism of the sort we are seeing now. Israel fights Hezbollah in the north and Hamas in the south, but its most formidable enemy is history itself.
This is why the Israeli-Arab war, now transformed into the Israeli-Muslim war (Iran is not an Arab state), persists and widens. It is why the conflict mutates and festers. It is why Israel is now fighting an organization, Hezbollah, that did not exist 30 years ago and why Hezbollah is being supported by a nation, Iran, that was once a tacit ally of Israel's. The underlying, subterranean hatred of the Jewish state in the Islamic world just keeps bubbling to the surface. The leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and some other Arab countries may condemn Hezbollah, but I doubt the proverbial man in their street shares that view.
There is no point in condemning Hezbollah. Zealots are not amenable to reason. And there's not much point, either, in condemning Hamas. It is a fetid, anti-Semitic outfit whose organizing principle is hatred of Israel. There is, though, a point in cautioning Israel to exercise restraint -- not for the sake of its enemies but for itself. Whatever happens, Israel must not use its military might to win back what it has already chosen to lose: the buffer zone in southern Lebanon and the Gaza Strip itself.
Hard-line critics of Ariel Sharon, the now-comatose Israeli leader who initiated the pullout from Gaza, always said this would happen: Gaza would become a terrorist haven. They said that the moderate Palestinian Authority would not be able to control the militants and that Gaza would be used to fire rockets into Israel and to launch terrorist raids. This is precisely what has happened.
It is also true, as some critics warned, that Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon was seen by its enemies -- and claimed by Hezbollah -- as a defeat for the mighty Jewish state. Hezbollah took credit for this, as well it should. Its persistent attacks bled Israel. In the end, Israel got out and the United Nations promised it a secure border. The Lebanese army would see to that. (And the check is in the mail.)
All that the critics warned has come true. But worse than what is happening now would be a retaking of those territories. That would put Israel smack back to where it was, subjugating a restless, angry population and having the world look on as it committed the inevitable sins of an occupying power. The smart choice is to pull back to defensible -- but hardly impervious -- borders. That includes getting out of most of the West Bank -- and waiting (and hoping) that history will get distracted and move on to something else. This will take some time, and in the meantime terrorism and rocket attacks will continue.
In his forthcoming book, "The War of the World," the admirably readable British historian Niall Ferguson devotes considerable space to the horrific history of the Jews in 19th- and 20th-century Europe. Never mind the Holocaust. In 1905 there were pogroms in 660 different places in Russia, and more than 800 Jews were killed -- all this in a period of less than two weeks. This was the reality of life for many of Europe's Jews.
Little wonder so many of them emigrated to the United States, Canada, Argentina or South Africa. Little wonder others embraced the dream of Zionism and went to Palestine, first a colony of Turkey and later of Britain. They were in effect running for their lives. Most of those who remained -- 97.5 percent of Poland's Jews, for instance -- were murdered in the Holocaust.
Another gifted British historian, Tony Judt, wraps up his recent book "Postwar" with an epilogue on how the sine qua non of the modern civilized state is recognition of the Holocaust. Much of the Islamic world, notably Iran under its Holocaust-denying president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, stands outside that circle, refusing to make even a little space for the Jews of Europe and, later, those from the Islamic world. They see Israel not as a mistake but as a crime. Until they change their view, the longest war of the 20th century will persist deep into the 21st. It is best for Israel to hunker down.