Time and again, ultras have attacked moderates from opposing sides. During the early 1990s, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat pursued a peace process that resulted in the Oslo Accords and a famous handshake in 1993 at the White House. But rejectionists on both sides landed hammer blows that derailed the process. Hamas launched a wave of terror attacks, seeking in part to incite Israeli opinion against the deal. In 1995, Yigal Amir, an extremist Israeli and a supporter of Jewish settlements, shot Rabin dead, explicitly to prevent a peace deal.
Under the shadow of Hamas missiles, Israelis lurched to the right. During the last decade, rocket-fire from Gaza into Israel steadily expanded in range. One study found that after an Israeli city fell within Hamas’s target sights, that city saw a significant increase in support for right-wing parties. In turn, radical Israeli settlers launched “price tag” attacks on Palestinians, hitting symbolic targets like mosques to intimidate Palestinians, but also to provoke reprisals, force the Israeli military to send help, and ultimately protect settlements in the West Bank. Today, peace in the Holy Land seems as far away as ever.
It was a similar story between Israel and Iran. For Israeli hardliners, Iran’s previous president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was a useful enemy who could be relied upon to issue incendiary rhetoric, including Holocaust denial, that only aided the hawkish cause. Danny Ayalon, a right-wing Israeli politician and former ambassador to the U.S., described Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric as “the gift that keeps on giving.”
Iranian hardliners served much the same function in the United States during negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. In the lead-up to the deal, which hardliners in both countries opposed, Jamal Abdi, the policy director of the National Iranian American Council, cited a “symbiotic relationship” between them and said: “The hawkish rhetoric by Iranians feeds the rhetoric of hawkish Republicans.” The front page of the conservative Iranian paper Kayhan, he noted, “reads like the ticker on Fox News.”
In the United States, terrorist attacks like the one in San Bernardino heighten fears of immigration, boost support for Trump’s hardline message, and push him closer to the Republican nomination. “Every time things get worse,” Trump crowed after San Bernardino, “I do better.”
And the benefits go both ways. Trump’s emphasis on the “Islamic” nature of extremism legitimizes the opposing side’s message, and antagonizes Muslim moderates who naturally bristle at the implied association with terrorism. ISIS’s own propaganda spells out its strategy of “polarizing” Muslims by making life impossible for the moderates—a strategy that Trump, through his rhetoric, is abetting. If Trump actually turned this rhetoric into political reality, it would confirm the Islamists’ argument that the United States is implacably opposed to their religion. To, in Trump’s words, “take out” completely innocent civilians simply because they are the parents, siblings, or children of ISIS members is not only morally abhorrent—it would be a catastrophe for America’s global image.