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Political volcanoes remapping Middle East

After Saddam Hussein seized neighboring Kuwait in 1990, the historian David Fromkin published an essay in the Smithsonian journal recalling how the modern Middle East was formed, in which he wrote: "In 1922, Churchill succeeded in mapping out the Arab Middle East along lines suitable to the needs of the British civilian and military administrations. T.E. Lawrence "Lawrence of Arabia" would later brag that he, Churchill and a few others had designed the modern Middle East over dinner. Seventy years later the question is whether the peoples of the Middle East are willing or able to continue living with that design."

That same question is still on the table today _ but even more so. What is happening right now in Iraq, Israel and Palestine is a new Churchillian moment. The contours and contents of these core Middle East regions are up for grabs, only this time these contours are not being redrawn by an imperial pen from above _ and will not be. This time they are being shaped by three civilian conflicts bubbling up from below _ among Palestinians, Israelis and Iraqis. As the Israeli political theorist Yaron Ezrahi puts it, "Three volcanoes are erupting at the same time. Lava is pouring out of each of them, and we are all waiting to see how it cools and into what forms."

Like the recent tsunami, this sort of tectonic movement of geopolitical plates happens only once a century. This is a remarkable political moment that you don't want to miss or see go badly. But that's what's scary; when borders and states emerge from volcanic activity, anything can happen. What all three of these cases have in common is that they pit theocratic, fascist and messianic forces on one side, claiming to be acting on the will of God or in the name of the primordial aspirations of "the nation," against more moderate, tolerant, democratizing majorities.

In Israel the theocratic-nationalist settler movement has already begun to make its move. Last Thursday, four battalion commanders and 30 other officers, all residents of West Bank Jewish settlements, published a statement in the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot, declaring that they would not obey any orders to evacuate Jewish enclaves in Gaza or the West Bank. This is an open rebuke of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Cabinet-approved plan to withdraw all Israeli forces and settlements from Gaza and a small part of the West Bank.

The Israeli daily Haaretz also reported that the main council of West Bank and Gaza rabbis issued a statement on Thursday urging all Israeli soldiers to openly defy the state and declare their opposition to the disengagement plan, saying: "The order to dismantle settlements goes against the laws of the Torah and human morality. One should not assist this act." The Haaretz columnist Akiva Eldar reported that thousands of Jewish zealots _ and Christians, too _ are waiting in the United States for the call to join the struggle alongside the settlers in Gaza.

Sound familiar? It should. The week before, the Muslim militant group Ansar al-Sunna in Iraq called for all Iraqi Muslims to boycott Iraq's voting booths, decrying them as "centers of atheism," and added the warning that "the Mujahedeen will be attacking polling stations." Hamas and Islamic Jihad boycotted Sunday's Palestinian election, just as the main Sunni political movement in Iraq, the Iraqi Islamic Party, has vowed to do there. Osama bin Laden, for his part, declared that the laws of Iraq are "infidel" laws, and "therefore everyone who participates in this election will be considered infidels."

I do not believe that these militant messianists can actually win, but they can prevent the majorities in each country from forging any new pragmatic, tolerant power-sharing arrangements _ and in the case of Israelis and Palestinians, new borders. Sharon is the strongest prime minister Israel could have right now, but even he is having problems pulling off this self-amputation of the Gaza Strip.

The contours of the Middle East in the 21st century are at stake here, much as they were in 1922. If the pragmatic forces can dominate in Israel, Iraq and Palestine, it will establish positive examples that will give others in the region the incentive and confidence to try to emulate them. If all three remain roiling volcanoes, slowly devouring themselves, the social contract among Jews that the state of Israel was built upon will start to come unstuck, and Iraq and Palestine will be held up as exhibits A and B for the case that in the Arab world, states can only be stabilized by despotism, never democracy.

Thomas L. Friedman is a New York Times columnist.

New York Times News Service