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Will the UK let May tackle Islamist terror?

Op-ed: The British prime minister plainly recognizes the nature of the struggle. Her opponent in Thursday’s elections, Jeremy Corbyn, equally plainly does not

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May delivers a statement outside 10 Downing Street in central London on June 4, 2017, following the June 3 terror attack. (AFP PHOTO / Justin TALLIS)
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May delivers a statement outside 10 Downing Street in central London on June 4, 2017, following the June 3 terror attack. (AFP PHOTO / Justin TALLIS)

With Britain battered by three terrorist attacks in three months, and its security services having thwarted five more in the same period, Prime Minister Theresa May on Sunday morning set out the specifics of her intended strategy “to take on and defeat our enemies.”

May’s succinct and determined statement, delivered hours after three terrorists killed at least seven people in a central London murder spree, raises two questions: Does her government have the will to fight back in the way she specified, and, with general elections on Thursday, will it be given the opportunity?

Watching her from Israel, which has for so long been forced to grapple with the Islamist death cult, May gave every indication of having internalized what she, Britain, and the rest of our free world are up against.

What “bound together” the stream of terror attacks in the UK, she declared, was “the single evil ideology of Islamist extremism.”

Terrorism was now breeding terrorism, copycat style. The situation had become intolerable. Enough was enough. “We cannot and must not pretend that things can continue as they are.”

Strikingly, she added: “There is, to be frank, far too much tolerance of extremism in our country, so we need to become far more robust in identifying it and stamping it out across the public sector and across society.”

To fight back, May called for an overhaul of Britain’s counter-terrorism strategy. She also demanded that terror groups be tackled on the ground in the Middle East. And she sought to battle them and their ideologues in cyberspace — to “turn people’s minds away from this violence.”

Police officers and emergency response vehicles are seen on the street outside Borough Market on June 04, 2017 the morning after a terror attack on London Bridge and the Borough area in London. (AFP PHOTO / CHRIS J RATCLIFFE)
Police officers and emergency response vehicles are seen on the street outside Borough Market on June 04, 2017 the morning after a terror attack on London Bridge and the Borough area in London. (AFP PHOTO / CHRIS J RATCLIFFE)

Has Britain been so shocked and bloodied as to embrace the kind of comprehensive strategy May set out? A more effective counter-terror strategy requires far greater resources; security precautions of the kind with which Israel has long been familiar; intelligence gathering and monitoring on an entirely different scale. The portents are not particularly encouraging. The July 7, 2005 attacks in central London — a coordinated series of bombings carried out by four homegrown terrorists in which more than 50 people were killed — self-evidently did not prompt the kind of rethink that May is today demanding. Many in Britain preferred to believe that they were being targeted because of then prime minister Tony Blair’s alliance with US president George W. Bush (just as May has lately been derided in certain British quarters for perceived deference to Donald Trump), and Blair became increasingly criticized, even ridiculed, for his relentless calls to face down Islamic extremism.

When it comes to intervention on the ground in the Middle East, meanwhile, it might be recalled, the British Parliament in August 2013 voted against any role in military action against Syria’s President Bashar Assad, who had just trampled president Barack Obama’s red line by gassing his own people. The British MPs’ insistence on staying out was a central factor in Obama’s subsequent decision to abort his promised punitive action against Assad — a show of Western weakness celebrated by terrorists and their emboldened state sponsors across the region.

As for battling against those who spread the ideology of terrorism, even if May’s declared strategy is implemented, it is inadequate. Stopping the dissemination of hatred in cyberspace is absolutely central to preventing the creation of the next waves of Islamist killers, but the ideology of terror must also be confronted in the education system, among spiritual leaders, and at the political level — and not only inside Britain, but all over the world. What’s needed for that is true global cooperation, with all partner nations using every iota of diplomatic, economic and any other leverage they can muster to marginalize extremism and empower moderation.

Nonetheless, May plainly recognizes the nature of the struggle. Her opponent in Thursday’s elections, Jeremy Corbyn, equally plainly does not.

Corbyn is notorious for having referred to his “friends” in Hamas and Hezbollah — terrorist organizations that kill civilians with impunity, and cynically place their own host civilian populations in harm’s way.

Britain's main opposition Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn delivers a general election campaign speech on leadership in London on April 29, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / Niklas HALLE'N)
Britain’s main opposition Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn delivers a general election campaign speech on leadership in London on April 29, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / Niklas HALLE’N)

His party’s communications director, Seamus Milne, asserted in 2014, as Hamas (which had seized Gaza after Israel withdrew from the Strip) fired thousands of rockets into Israel, that “it isn’t terrorism to fight back… The terrorism is the killing of citizens by Israel on an industrial scale.” Immediately after 9/11, Milne had declared that “Americans simply don’t get it… Perhaps it is too much to hope that, as rescue workers struggle to pull firefighters from the rubble, any but a small minority might make the connection between what has been visited upon them and what their government has visited upon large parts of the world.”

His party’s manifesto for this week’s elections demands an end to the blockade of Gaza — regarded by Israel as crucial to preventing Hamas from importing weaponry for its declared goal of destroying the Jewish state. The Labour manifesto also promises, without requiring negotiations to ensure Israel’s capacity to survive, that a “Labour government will immediately recognise the state of Palestine.”

There is no telling how Saturday night’s London terrorism will impact Thursday’s elections. Opinion polls are as correctly ridiculed in the UK as they are in the US and Israel these days; they misjudged the 2015 general elections and wrongly predicted that Britons would vote last year to stay in the European Union. May was deemed unbeatable when she called the elections in April; since then, the surveys have said Corbyn is gaining. She has fought a lousy campaign — appearing cowardly (in refusing to debate Corbyn), cynically expedient (in adjusting her position on Brexit), and wooden in her public appearances — while Corbyn has conveyed both his traditional conviction and a new affability.

Will Britons blame May, the former home secretary, for having failed to prevent the wave of terror, or conclude that Corbyn will be disinclined to effectively try to counter it? Will they consider the kind of strategic fightback May unveiled to be the minimal necessity, or prefer to believe that the answer lies in Corbyn-style greater tolerance and openness? The British are a wonderfully stoic people. One can only hope that their extraordinary resilience does not blind them to the root cause of the terrorism now blighting the country — and the imperative to fight back.

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