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Virtually not a day has passed recently without some famous person declaring that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the key to solving all the problems of the Muslim world - from Kofi Annan ("As long as the Palestinians live under occupationâ€¦ so long will passions everywhere be inflamed") through Henry Kissinger ("a restarted Palestinian peace process should play a significant role" in resolving the Iranian nuclear crisis) to Tony Blair (an Israeli-Palestinian settlement is "the core" of any effort to resolve other Middle East problems and defeat "global extremism.")
It is astonishing that so many intelligent people could seriously espouse such an obvious falsehood. Do they really believe that Sunni Muslims and Shi'ite Muslims - whose views on Israel are identical - are slaughtering each other in Iraq because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Or that anti-Syrian politicians in Lebanon - who are no less anti-Israel than the pro-Syrian sort - are being assassinated by Syria and threatened with a coup by Hizbullah because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
That Arab Muslims are committing genocide against black Muslims in Sudan because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
That Taliban Muslims are murdering non-Taliban Muslims in Afghanistan because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
That Chechen Muslims took Russian schoolchildren hostage in Beslan because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
That Muslims and Hindus are killing each other in Kashmir because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
That Muslims worldwide rioted over Danish cartoons because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? The list could go on for pages.
But the theory of Israeli-Palestinian centrality is not only false, it is dangerous - because it prevents the world from addressing the real root cause of all these conflicts, including the Israeli-Palestinian one: a widespread culture in the Muslim world that views violence and threats of violence as legitimate means of resolving disputes.
THE CARTOON crisis is a particularly good example, because it is not obscured by entanglement with any local political conflict. After a Danish paper published satirical cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad last year, Muslims worldwide engaged in violent rioting for weeks, resulting in several deaths.
Compare this to Catholics' reactions to recent satirical assaults on the pope and the church in Italy. Two weeks ago, for instance, an Italian television show satirized Pope Benedict XVI as being jealous of his predecessor and therefore engaging in various degrading acts - tap-dancing, juggling oranges - while demanding: "Could Pope Wojtyla [John Paul II] do this?"
On another recent show, an Italian comedian joked about the Holy Trinity debating where to go on a trip: God the Father proposes Africa, Jesus proposes Palestine and the Holy Spirit proposes the Vatican. Asked why, the Holy Spirit responds: "I've never been there."
Clearly, such ridicule is no less offensive to devout Catholics than the Muhammad cartoons were to devout Muslims. But there have been no riots over these satires, nor have any Catholic clergy urged such riots, as many Muslim clerics did over the Danish cartoons. Catholics have confined themselves to oral and written protests - because in modern Western culture violence is not considered an acceptable response to offense.
DO REACTIONS to religious satire really have any bearing on political conflicts such as the Israeli-Palestinian one? Absolutely - for two reasons.
First, as long as the Muslim world considers violence an appropriate response to grievance, neither the Israeli-Palestinian conflict nor any other of the dozens of conflicts involving Muslims worldwide will be solvable. Indeed, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict amply demonstrates this point.
The Palestinians could have obtained a state in July 2000, had Yasser Arafat expressed his dissatisfaction with Israel's proposal at Camp David in "Western" fashion - by presenting a counterproposal. Ehud Barak's government was clearly willing to make further concessions; it did so at the subsequent Washington and Taba talks. But instead the Palestinians opted to express their dissatisfaction violently, by launching a terrorist war that killed over 1,000 Israelis (and some 4,000 Palestinians) over the next six years. As a result, Israelis kicked Barak out and began a military counteroffensive, and negotiations stopped.
The same happened last year after Israel left Gaza. Israelis subsequently elected Ehud Olmert on a platform of doing the same in most of the West Bank. But the Palestinians, instead of seizing this opening to declare a cease-fire and negotiate further concessions, opted for violence: They used evacuated Gaza as a launching pad for bombarding southern Israel with rockets, and then, for good measure, elected Hamas, which openly advocates Israel's destruction. As a result, not only are negotiations still on hold, so is Olmert's proposed West Bank withdrawal.
THE SECOND reason why addressing the culture of violence is crucial is that even if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could somehow be resolved without doing so, this would do nothing to solve other problems either within the Muslim world or between the Muslim world and the West - because the number of potential grievances is endless. These include cultural differences (the Danish cartoons), economic issues (last year's riots in France), foreign policy issues (Iraq, Afghanistan) and more.
The Blair-Annan-Kissinger idea seems to be that if Muslims were appeased over Israel they might abjure violence over other issues. But, in fact, history teaches the opposite: Just as Hitler, far from being appeased by the West's handover of Czechoslovakia, instead concluded that he could also grab Poland with impunity, thereby igniting World War II, so has every concession to Muslim terror simply encouraged Muslims to think that violence pays.
Israel's pullout from Gaza, which 84 percent of Palestinians attributed to terror, was a major factor in both their election of Hamas, the leading Palestinian terrorist organization, and their ongoing majority support for terrorism. Spain's pullout from Iraq following the Madrid bombing encouraged al-Qaida to plan similar bombings in other countries. And Muslims worldwide credit Iraqi terror with America's expected pullout from Iraq.
If the West really wants to solve its Muslim problem, it must adopt the opposite approach - making it clear that violence, far from being rewarded, will be penalized. By instead seeking to appease the Muslim world in Israeli coin, it merely proves that violence pays.
And it will thereby reap more of the same.