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How the Paris attacks changed the world

[additional-authors]
November 16, 2015

Terrorism of the kind we saw in Paris last week tends to ignite a strong emotional response, but it does not always prompt a government, or its public, to strong, prolonged visible action.

Thus, any attempt to predict how France will act in the coming weeks and months is futile; it might decide to be more forceful in its fight against ISIS, or it might decide to withdraw and let others deal with the new devil. It might become more aggressive in dealing with local groups of radicalized Muslims, or it might decide to accommodate those groups in the hope that they will become less violent; it might push to a more coherent and well-coordinated European action, or it might deem such action unrealistic and go at it alone.

A lot depends on politics — on how the public reacts. A lot depends on the level of the threat: Was this an isolated rare incident, or will we see more attacks in the near future? The French are going to invest in intelligence gathering on ISIS and its supporters among people currently living in France. They are going to raise the level of security in public places, at least for a while. These are obvious moves. And sometimes, facing terrorism, all that countries do are the obvious things.

Terrorism of the abhorrent type we witnessed in Paris last weekend does not always result in a more hawkish foreign policy. It can prompt such policy — as happened in the wake of 9/11 — but it can also prompt the opposite: a decision to focus on internal security and to let the rest of the globe worry about itself.

The French have a history of being very active in places such as Libya. They still have their post-colonial affinity to Lebanon and Syria. Terrorism may make them rethink these investments in trying to bring order to an un-orderly, chaotic, region. It can lead them to a conclusion similar to the one the United States has reached after having tried the other route for 10 years in Iraq and elsewhere, and having lost its appetite for being the world’s policeman.

In fact, it is pretty clear that France alone cannot fix Syria. It definitely cannot fix the Middle East. It is hardly the country to be the leading force in fighting ISIS. So its options are few:

• It can try to be a leader, rather than the leader, in an international effort to defeat ISIS. This will involve heavy lifting, including taking into consideration the sensitivities and interests of many players (U.S., Russia, Syrian President Bashar Assad, Iran, Iraq, and so on and so forth).

• It can join the effort led by other countries — although we are not really seeing such an effort materializing yet. The world is trying to contain ISIS and stop it from spreading into certain territories, but it is not engaged in an effort to defeat it.

• Or France can make the calculation that, rather than defeating ISIS, its goal should be to divert it from targeting France, which means increased security and decreased friction.

ISIS is a menace. And over the last two weeks, it has proved that it is anything but a negligible nuisance. Taking down a Russian flight — no fear of mighty Vladimir Putin. Attacking a Hezbollah stronghold in Lebanon — no fear of the very strong (not long ago we were told that Hezbollah is stronger than all Arab militaries) Shiite militia. Targeting Paris — no fear of the international community and the world’s wrath.

ISIS proved that its ability to harm its enemies is real, along with its ability to coordinate and plan ahead, and that its intentions and seriousness cannot be dismissed. It hit three times within two weeks and is likely to hit again, who knows where.

The question remains as to what exactly is the calculation that the ISIS operatives and leaders are making.

Is it, “Let’s hit them hard, because we know they cannot stomach it and will eventually run away and leave us to advance our causes in this region”?

Is it, “Let’s hit them hard and force them to respond the way the Americans responded to al-Qaida, because only then will we have a chance to really exhaust them and make them pay a price”?

Is it, “We do not make strategic plans, we just kill whenever, wherever we can and see where the chips fall”?

Speaking to experts and reading all the available material on ISIS, I am still not certain that there exists a satisfactory answer to the question of ISIS’ long-term strategy. And when one’s enemy’s strategy is not clear, planning a proper response becomes more difficult.

Israelis viewed the events in Paris with horror and sympathy, but also with unfortunate yet unavoidable self-righteousness. Coming on the heels of Europe’s utterly idiotic decision to mark products that come from Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the attacks seemed to give credence to what Israelis generally think about European foreign policies: They are out of touch with reality.

These policies prioritize the unimportant — Israeli settlements — over the highly urgent — ISIS terrorism, Middle East radicalism, chaotic violence. They deal with the highly problematic, yet relatively benign, Israeli occupation of the West Bank, rather than focus on places where thousands of people are butchered in horrific ways on a daily basis.

These policies fail to take into account Middle East realities that make the idea of establishing a Palestinian state at this time of great regional crisis a much too dangerous idea. By the way, more Palestinians than you might think understand this. More of them than you might think, while disliking the settlements and remaining suspicious of Israel, and wanting to see more freedom for their children, understand that the Israel Defense Forces aren’t just occupying a land they claim to be theirs, it is also guarding them from the likes of Hamas or, much worse, ISIS.

Back to the obvious: internal security. This is where the French will have to invest. This is where many other countries in Europe and elsewhere — especially those with large populations of new immigrants from the Middle East — are going to have to make changes. Terrorism’s immediate repercussions are clear for the dead and the wounded and their families, but it has great implications for anyone who hopes to continue to live securely, for anyone who still wants to keep his or her family intact.

The changes, the new policies that are required, will be saddening. They will be a constant reminder that the world is dangerous. They will infringe on people’s sense of security. They will somewhat restrict freedom of movement and freedom of speech. They will target specific communities or groups. They will make people more self-aware and uncomfortable.

As some countries have learned the hard way, maintaining internal security in times of terror — even when done with great care and the highest sensitivity to human rights — is not a pretty sight. 

But there is a good chance that Europeans will nevertheless have to get used to more of it.

Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/Rosnersdomain.

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