Something radically new is emerging in the Middle East: the century-old Arab-Israeli dispute has been transmuted from a nationalist to a religious war. And as a result, the Arab-Israeli wars are now merging into the global conflict between radical Islam and the West.
The transformation was swift in coming. Hamas' electoral landslide in Palestine just six months ago marked the political death of Yasser Arafat and the secular, vaguely socialist and entirely nationalist movement he represented. Hamas is fighting not to create a 23rd Arab state but, as its charter explains, to recover "an Islamic Waqf." Meaning? Territory claimed under the Islamic precept that "any land the Muslims have conquered by force ... during the times of [Islamic] conquests" more than a millennium ago belongs to Muslims forever because "the Muslims consecrated these lands to Muslim generations until the Day of Judgment."
In the first period of the Arab-Israeli dispute, Israel was at war with pan-Arabism, the idea of essential Arab unity across states and the rejection of any non-Arab state in their region. Pan-Arabism was humiliated by Israel's six-day victory in the 1967 war. The subsequent death of Egyptian President Nasser, who instigated that disaster, accelerated pan-Arabism's decline. Its final collapse occurred when its last great proponent, Saddam Hussein, was swept away in 2003. The successor Arab rulers no longer dream of a single Arab state and have grudgingly come to accept a small Jewish state in part of Palestine. Hence the peace treaties that Egypt and Jordan signed with Israel.
As pan-Arabism declined, pan-Islamism rose in its place. Hence Islamist Hizballah--client of Islamist Iran, ally of Islamist Hamas--provokes a war with Israel. Hizballah's motivation has nothing to do with Arab nationalism. Israel withdrew from every square meter of Lebanese territory six years ago. But legal obligation means nothing to Hizballah. Like Hamas and Iran, Hizballah views the destruction of Israel as a religious obligation.
Moreover, Hizballah times its attack on Israel to suit the needs of its Iranian patron, about to be subject to sanctions by the West for its nuclear ambitions. Those ambitions, in turn, are meant to serve Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's even larger Islamist vision of a cataclysmic showdown with the infidel West as a harbinger of the return of the 12th Imam and the End of Days.
But it gets more complicated still. The Iran-Hizballah-Hamas axis is not the only church of Islamism. Enter Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda's No. 2, rushing to keep up with the mob, the mob that is now scandalously led by Persian and Shi'ite Iran. On behalf of Sunni and Arab al-Qaeda--just yesterday the champion of all things radically Muslim and anti-Western--al-Zawahiri last week issued a call for all Muslims to rise up against Israel.
Now Palestine was never at the top of al-Qaeda's list of grievances. In al-Qaeda's 1998 declaration of war on the U.S., Palestine is a distant third. But with Iran, through Hamas and Hizballah, having seized leadership of the jihad against the Jews, al-Qaeda could not stand by and allow its Islamist primacy to be eclipsed by the mullahs of Tehran.