Walter Rodgers

Crusades redux: Will Jerusalem soon be surrounded by hostile Islamists?

In 1187, Jerusalem was engulfed by an angry, surging Muslim sea. Today, revolution in the Arab world – particularly in Egypt – is making Israel anxious.

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The other night I found myself dreaming, drifting simultaneously through two parallel worlds, 800 years apart.

In the first vision, I was on the ramparts of the Kingdom of Jerusalem in July 1187. News came in from Galilee that the Crusader Armies had been decimated by the overwhelming Muslim forces of the great Sultan Saladin at the Battle of Hattin. Jerusalem, already an island in an angry, surging Muslim sea, was about to be totally engulfed.

My second dream was in the same place, but I was witnessing a 21st-century Islamic encirclement of modern-day Israel. This second trance was apparently shared by some Israeli columnists who openly fear Egypt’s chaotic regime could be followed by an extremist Islamic government, reinforcing that nightmare Crusader scenario of encirclement.

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has already asked the United States and other countries to make it clear that any new Egyptian government must not be allowed to abrogate its longstanding peace treaty with Israel. Although Egypt's Army has said it will uphold the accord with Israel, a worrying sign came this week from opposition politician Ayman Nour. Dr. Nour, who is planning to run for president as head of the liberal, secular Party of Tomorrow, declared the Camp David agreement to be "over" and urged Egypt to renegotiate its terms.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, hailed events in Egypt as an Islamic “awakening” spawned by Iran’s earlier revolution. He cheered the events in Cairo, saying they could spark an “irreparable defeat for the United States.”

Not just a nightmare

Whatever scenario emerges in Egypt, a serious rethink in Tel Aviv’s Defense Ministry is now certain. Encirclement by angry Islamists is no longer the nightmare of a few Jewish paranoids.

It is not the fear of Muslim democracies that is so alarming. The trouble is that when they have emerged, in places like Gaza, Lebanon, and Iran, they become bloody and look so undemocratic.

Those who believe they can do business with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, or that it is not a threat, should read Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon’s “The Age of Sacred Terror.” They remind us that the Brotherhood’s party credo is “God is our objective; the Quran is our constitution; the Prophet is our leader; Struggle is our way; and death for the sake of God is the highest of our aspirations.” Well before the events in Cairo, the authors suggest, “the [Egyptian] founders of the Brotherhood had more in mind than an Islamic society within a secular state.”

The Jewish state is not yet encircled, but some analysts believe that is Iran’s grand strategy. To the north in Lebanon (the direction from which Saladin marched), the Iranian-dominated Hezbollah reportedly has 50,000 conventional missiles that can blanket much of Israel. Along with Hamas, in Gaza to the south, both of those dominant Islamist groups remain committed to the destruction of the Jewish state.

There’s no peace with Syria. And Jordan, once thought to be Israel’s strategic depth, has experienced potentially destabilizing demonstrations.

Sampson Option

Some Israelis reassure themselves with the knowledge that their possession of the region’s only nukes gives them a security ace card. But the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, which loathes Israel, has not been reluctant to share its nuclear technology. If a new, more pugnacious Egypt or Saudi Arabia were to suddenly join the nuclear club, Israel’s “Sampson Option” – a supposed willingness to nuke its neighbors if attacked – would be less convincing.

About a decade ago in Damascus, I was lectured by a renowned Islamic scholar who, with serene confidence, reminded me that the Arab world was patient, content to methodically wage war for 200 years to evict the Christian Crusaders. He then pointedly asked, “You don’t believe we can’t wait another 200 years to get rid of the Israelis?”

For pious 12th-century Muslims as well as many Muslims today, it remains intolerable and scandalous that non-Muslims – especially Jews – should ever dominate lands once held by Islam.

The best possible outcome in Cairo would be emergence of a tolerant, democratic Egypt. It is not impossible but it seems like another dream, because the conclusion of this matter lies in the hands of the Egyptians, not Americans.

History tends to play dirty tricks in the Middle East. Egypt may yet become democratic, but it would be more reassuring if freedom were preached consistently from mosques, rather than erupting sporadically on the mercurial Arab street.

Israel’s (and America’s) hope is that Egypt follows Turkey’s model, not Iran’s. The Islamic Republic of Iran, born of strife similar to that in Egypt, has only a pretend democracy suffocated by religious rule and damned by draconian security that makes a mockery of elections. By contrast, the Turks have shown that an Islamic democracy – indeed, one with close ties to the West – is possible in the region. For decades, Turkey’s secular-minded Army kept the country from slipping over a religious precipice. Today, Turks generally seem set on a path of moderation and modernity.

Neither country is Arabic, so Egyptians must blaze their own trail. Like Turkey’s, Egypt’s Army is a conservative institution that might spare its people the ravages of Iranian extremism. But in such cases, there is a knife’s edge to be walked between two bad alternatives, religious or military autocracy.

Walter Rodgers, a former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a biweekly column.

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