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Eyeless in Gaza’: An Exchange

In response to:

Eyeless in Gaza from the February 12, 2009 issue

To the Editors:

Roger Cohen is morally anguished by recent events in Gaza and in Israel [“Eyeless in Gaza,” NYR, February 12]. So am I.

The bulk of his anger is directed at Israel, at whose actions he is “so despondent” and “so shamed.” I come to different conclusions, as I am deeply concerned by three important factors absent from Mr. Cohen’s essay.

First, Iran. It is impossible to talk about Hamas-ruled Gaza today without acknowledging the Tehran connection. Both Egypt and Israel face an Iranian proxy on their borders. Without the financial, logistical, and military support of Iran, Hamas would be a shadow of its current self. Instead, it has benefited from a steady flow of increasingly deadly weapons smuggled into Gaza.

Second, while referring to the Hamas Charter and acknowledging its “vile annihilationist language,” Mr. Cohen treats it as one in a series of each side’s complaints against the other. But is it possible that Hamas is sincere in its open calls for Israel’s disappearance? And given Iran’s fiery rhetoric of a world without Israel, is the threat to Israel not exponentially heightened by Iran’s full-throttled nuclear, missile, and satellite programs?

Mr. Cohen suggests that Hamas could evolve as the PLO did. But Norway, Russia, South Africa, and Turkey, among others, have all tried and failed to facilitate that evolution.

A political struggle can be resolved with a two-state compromise that satisfies both parties’ minimal needs. But if the struggle is existential, which it is in Hamas’s eyes, then the goal must be to weaken Hamas while strengthening its more moderate Palestinian foes. With the support of several moderate Arab countries that similarly fear Iran’s tentacles, Israel has sought to do precisely that, however difficult the process might be.

Third, while I share Mr. Cohen’s despair over the loss of innocent life, it is not clear what he would have had Israel do under the circumstances.

Rather than focus on construction in Gaza, Hamas has concentrated on destruction in Israel. It has educated its children in martyrdom. It has fired thousands of missiles and mortars at Israel. If some of them have not struck their targets, it has not been for lack of trying. And it has callously instrumentalized civilians, including children, as human shields. What other options were available to Israel to defend its citizens?

Anguish is an all-too-familiar concept for Israelis, who have endured sixty years without peace. Unfortunately, as a jihadist Iranian proxy, Hamas is hardly a partner for the coexistence they seek.

David A. Harris
Executive Director American Jewish Committee New York City

Roger Cohen replies:

David Harris commends the policy that has delivered the current Middle Eastern impasse when he writes that “the goal must be to weaken Hamas while strengthening its more moderate Palestinian foes.” He uses this argument to defend the disastrous Israeli attack on Gaza, yet by any estimate the chief loser from the debacle has been Mahmoud Abbas, the Fatah leader and president of the Palestinian National Authority, whose name has become a byword for fecklessness. Hamas, by contrast, has seen its image burnished throughout the Arab world and beyond.

Beyond this tactical consideration lies the more important question of strategy. Mr. Harris, in his conventional thinking, has it wrong again. He asks: “Is it possible that Hamas is sincere in its open calls for Israel’s disappearance?” Yes, it’s possible, just as it’s possible that Israel is determined—through its continued expansion of settlements, Gaza blockade, West Bank walling-in, and wanton high-tech force—to bludgeon, undermine, and otherwise humiliate the Palestinian people until their dreams of statehood and dignity evaporate. But these possibilities are not the point; they are distractions.

The argument over recognition, that is to say over accepting and seeing the other, is in the end a form of evasion designed to perpetuate the conflict. Would it be desirable for Hamas to recognize Israel’s right to exist prior to negotiations? Yes. Is it essential? No. A strong supporter of Israel like Mr. Harris should have no problem putting facts before metaphysics, for such hardheadedness was the basis on which, from 1948, Israel built its power, before, of late, overplaying its hand, first in Lebanon and then in Gaza.

What is essential, with the arrival of the Obama administration and a governmental transition (however apparently inauspicious) in Israel, is to begin to view Hamas as an authentic, resilient, and many-faceted political expression of Palestinian frustration rather than through the sole prism of terrorism. America has been practicing Green-Zoneism in Israel-Palestine, a policy based on the construction of imaginary worlds. Not surprisingly, this has led nowhere.

Hamas is here to stay. It is, like Hezbollah, a broad-based political movement. It has prospered through Israeli intransigence. In January 2006 it won the free and fair elections for the Legislative Council of the Palestinian Authority, only to discover that Middle Eastern democracy is only democracy if it produces the right result. A two-state peace without Hamas is inconceivable. It is time, through direct diplomacy and with the help of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, to make a Hamas–Fatah reconciliation, such as was briefly achieved at Mecca in 2007, a core priority of US policy. It is time also to recognize that the terrorist label for Hamas is inadequate and self-defeating.

Many members of the current Israeli leadership have been on wondrous political odysseys—Tzipi Livni, for example, from Eretz-Israel Likudnik dogma (her father was operations chief of what would now be called the terrorist Irgun) and rejection of Oslo to acceptance that some division of the land is inescapable. Yet the current fruitless policy toward Hamas that Mr. Harris endorses is based on the assumption that the organization is at once static and irrevocably absolutist. I believe Hamas leaders are no less capable of pragmatic political calculation than Israelis.

What, Mr. Harris, asks, would I have Israel do, given Hamas rockets on Sderot? I would not have Israel kill upward of 1,300 people, many of them women and children; cause damages estimated at $1.9 billion; destroy 40 percent of Gaza homes and 80 percent of crops; deprive people of food, water, and medicine; perpetuate a radicalizing blockade on 1.5 million people squeezed into a narrow strip of land; needlessly harm its image across the world; and, at this not inconsiderable human, material, and moral price, achieve nothing beyond (perhaps) some marginal impact on its own election results. As I wrote, Israel has the right to hit back when attacked, but any response should be proportional and, above all, based on sober political calculation rather than violence for its own sake.

Mr. Harris brings up Iran more than once. He calls Hamas a “jihadist Iranian proxy,” forgetting that Iran and Hamas represent two different branches of Islam—Shiite and Sunni. (Tehran’s bonds with Hezbollah are far more profound.) That, however, is not the main point. In essence, Mr. Harris buys into the mad-mullah (and madder-Ahmadinejad) theory of an Iran bent on Israel’s destruction. I have just spent several weeks in Iran and I am convinced he’s wrong.

Such superficial and self-serving views of Iran ignore, beyond inflammatory rhetoric, much evidence of an Iranian pragmatism that has enabled a thirty-year-old revolution to survive. Mr. Harris ignores Iranian history: the country has not waged an aggressive war for 250 years. He ignores the fact that the proven nuclear proliferators in the region are Israel, Pakistan, and India. He ignores the sophistication of a highly educated, globally aware nation most of whose population is under thirty. Most importantly, he ignores all the ways in which Iran, a non-Arab power whose people are broadly sympathetic to the United States, could, if approached with something other than an axis-of-evil sledgehammer, prove central to the resolution of conflict from Israel-Palestine to Afghanistan. The “Tehran connection,” like Hamas, needs revisiting with constructive sobriety rather than slogan-hurling hysteria.

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