Of three or four in a room
there is always one who stands at
He must see the injustice among the
and the fires on the hill.
So wrote Yehuda Amichai in 1958, and I have been feeling rather like the morbid observer who has wandered away from the warm company. The glass through which I gaze is far from the place that I lovingly and disquietedly see; I have to squint past the coercions of the media, and correct also for the distortions of solidarity. But in Israel now I see fires on the hill. I have a sickened feeling about the recent campaign in Gaza.
No sovereign state can accept regular aggressions across its border, but Operation Cast Lead seems to have accomplished nothing. Hamas is again firing its rockets, Israel is again retaliating against them, and Israeli politicians are again making virile promises to finish the job. The suffering of the people of Gaza during the war was partly the responsibility of their own astoundingly callous leaders, but not entirely. Israel's choice of tactics and strategies was its own; and when it chose blunt instruments, it guaranteed harsh consequences. Even the most exquisite code of military ethics cannot morally secure a massive air and ground assault upon a densely populated city. The revelations in Haaretz last week did not surprise me. There is a climate of dread and anger in Israel now. In the old days, Israeli soldiers boasted about "purity of arms." Now they boast that ba'al ha-bayit hishtage'a, which in the Hebrew vernacular is like saying that the country went postal. I do not mean to improve the past: "purity of arms" was sometimes dishonored, and it is a mistake to regard self-defense sentimentally. No just war was ever fought only justly. No state was ever innocent, but not all states are evil. Yet in the Jewish state now I detect a coarsening of conscience--for example, in the commonly heard extenuation that Hamas hides its murderers behind children. So it does; but this means only that another way at them, another course of action, must be found. It cannot mean that children may be killed. Morality is a restraining consideration. Will Hamas therefore have exploited the finer sensibilities of Israel? Absolutely; but Israel can hardly repudiate the very qualities for which it asks to be admired. In the struggle between Hamas and Israel, it is Hamas that is the party of dehumanization. In its sad way, the recent controversy about Israel's conduct in Gaza was a beautiful thing, because the truest test of the moral condition of a society is its willingness to examine its moral condition.
Israel's desire to find a military solution to a military problem is understandable. But the Palestinians are not a military problem; and insofar as Hamas holds sway over a large part of Palestinian life, it too cannot be regarded as just a job for the army. I expect to hear more and more calls for Israel to talk to Hamas. But about what, precisely? Surely not about peace. Hamas's view of peace is loud and plain, and only a meretricious credulity can suggest otherwise. And communications about prisoner exchanges and cease-fires and other practicalities already occur. Anyway, why should Israel do for Hamas what Hamas cannot do for itself, which is to destroy Abu Mazen? The departure of Salam Fayyad was discouraging enough. And yet this is not all that needs to be said. Perhaps the most troubling development in Israel now is the collapse of its diplomatic imagination. Its faith in itself seems almost entirely a faith in its force. This is itself a strategic failure. The most perfect representative of this hopelessness is Benjamin Netanyahu, who cannot bring himself to say a good word about a two-state solution, which is the sole solution there can be, now or ever. He is for Palestinian economic development, which is fine but evasive. He warns about Iran, which is right but also evasive. The only peace process that interests Netanyahu is the one with Washington. Otherwise he and the rest of Israel's intellectually paralyzed leadership are quite relieved to intone that there is "no partner," as if the insistence that there is no partner is not also a way of insuring that there is no partner; and soon, yet again, at a late hour, and mainly for the Americans, an Israeli government will try to shore up the weak but real partner it had all along in Ramallah. And there are significant steps that Israel can take that require no partner, and may provide some assurances to Palestinians. (The settlements are not the obstacle to peace, but they are an obstacle to peace. They defy reason.) Without such assurances, the terrifying polarization, the ominous alienation of the communities, will continue. But can people who need assurances give assurances?
The truth is that Netanyahu's fears are not all fantasies. The window shows also other injustices, other fires. Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Islamic Republic of Iran are sworn enemies of Israel's existence, and they are flourishing. Is this really a trifling matter? There are racist rabbis in Israel, and may their matzah rise before their very eyes; but there are many more racist mullahs in Palestine and beyond. Why is it so hard to think humanely about the entirety of this conflict? Israel's critics, who are having the time of their life, have forgotten, or have chosen to forget, that unless sympathy for the predicament of the Palestinians is attended by sympathy for the predicament of the Israelis, it is not sympathy for peace. Anti-Zionism is not a contribution to the future. But here is Richard Falk, reporting to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva that Israel's use of force in Gaza was "potentially a crime against peace." A crime against peace! This is not the idea of a war crime, but the idea that war is a crime: is there any other state in the world that is arraigned for a want of pacifism? And those rockets from Gaza? Crimes against love, perhaps. And here is Roger Cohen in The New York Times, reporting glowingly and gullibly from Iran that its Jews are happy. He was there, so he knows. After all, they told him so. This is not quite of the same magnitude as, say, Owen Lattimore's report on the merry workers of Kolyma, but it is of the same tradition of willing dupes, and ideological tourists, and politically inspired pseudo-empiricism. All this is not decent and not helpful. I am reminded of David Ben-Gurion's old prescription for meeting a multiplicity of dangers, and so I propose to fight Avigdor Lieberman as if there is no Richard Falk and Richard Falk as if there is no Avigdor Lieberman.
Leon Wieseltier is The New Republic's literary editor.