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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 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.

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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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