A TRIFLE ONE-SIDED*
By Barry Rubin
David Grossman, an Israeli writer, penned an essay entitled “Israel’s success in Gaza only proves it is strong, not right.” Aside from the irony of his being Israeli, Grossman’s ideas are the ultimate expression of Western reaction to the terrorist extremist challenge.
To his credit, Grossman notes there have been Palestinian “crimes and mistakes,” that the other side prefers violence, and that ignoring this “would be tantamount to belittling and condescending to them, as if they were not mature adults with minds of their own, responsible for their own decisions and failures.”
But, he concludes, since Israel is stronger, it somehow controls the conflict’s level of violence, able to be “calming it down and even bringing it to an end.” How, he asks, will peace “ever come if we fail to comprehend just how grave is the responsibility that lies on our shoulders” for achieving it?
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Grossman is upset that Israelis feel united and confident, complaining about, “Those who have taught us over the years to scoff at belief in peace and any hope for change in our relations with the Arabs. Those who have convinced us that the Arabs understand only force, and therefore that is the only language we can use in our dealings with them.”
He adds, “And because we have spoken to them for so long in that language…we have forgotten that there are other languages for speaking to human beings, even to enemies, even bitter foes like Hamas” not just “the language of planes and tanks.”
The reason why almost everyone in Israel disagrees with Grossman, however, isn’t that they have forgotten anything but that they remember so accurately. It is no accident that Grossman’s article is so vague and ahistorical because for him to cite specific examples must raise the sad fact that “those who have taught us over the years to scoff at belief in peace and any hope for change in our relations with the Arabs,” are the Palestinians themselves.
Why doesn’t he mention the 1993-2000 peace process experience? Why not one word about radical Islamism? Because what undercuts his claims are two realities he won’t face and a psychological crutch that he and some others understandably cannot do without.
The first reality is that Israel remembers the Palestinian and Syrian rejection of peace. From 1993 to 2000, Israel made deep concessions and took great risks. The Palestinian leadership and Syria turned down a plan which included returning the entire Golan Heights and establishing an independent Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital.
Grossman and those thinking like him forget that Palestinian rejection of peace makes Israelis conclude logically that Palestinians aren’t ready to make peace. Even Fatah forces in Gaza—the “moderates”—brag not only about firing more than 100 rockets at Israel but also of fighting alongside Islamic Jihad, a group even more extreme than Hamas!
The second reality he ignores is radical Islamism’s rise. Hamas and Hizballah, Iran, Muslim Brotherhoods, and even Islamist impersonator Syria, aren’t persuadable through dialogue. They reject all lessons of the Middle East’s last 60 years. They want to fight for decades; they expect total victory.
Israelis know these forces won’t be moderated by Israeli words or deeds. Grossman’s good will doesn’t interest the other side. Nice well-meaning people who oppose violence, advocate compromise, and offer huge concessions face those wanting to wipe them off the map, rejecting compromise, and interpreting other’s concessions as surrender.
It’s no accident that Grossman and those who talk like him know little of Middle East politics and have less contact with Arabs or Muslims than those disagreeing with them. Hamas has no difficulty believing such people exist because they embody the Islamists’ stereotype of a weak West fearing violence, begging for mercy, and being easily beaten. Indeed, Grossman’s piece has already been translated into Arabic and cited as proof that Israel suffered a defeat in Gaza.
Part of dialogue is to hear what the other side says. Do so with Hamas and Iran; see if you still believe in dialogue. Here is what key Hamas leader Ismail Radwan said in a post-war victory rally: “Gaza is not our goal. The liberation of all of Palestine, from the [Jordan] river to the [Mediterranean] sea, God willing, will be achieved.” Sorry, David, I don’t think you are going to make him change his mind.
That brings us to the psychological crutch: wishful thinking. It’s hard to face a life-long confrontation with evil forces seeking your utter destruction. It’s unpleasant to admit there’s no alternative to waging that struggle.
In contrast, it’s empowering to say: We can solve this with words and sensitivity. That’s why Grossman sounds sensible to outsiders knowing little and irrelevant to those understanding the specific situation:
“We must initiate speech,” says Grossman, “insist on speech, let no one put us off.” It doesn’t matter if “dialogue seems hopeless from the start” because it will protect us far more than “hundreds of planes dropping bombs.” Why is that? Because we will all come to our senses once we understand how much harm we do to each other and how “utterly senseless” is violence.
Talk is cheap. How strange is the assumption that once both sides grasp the horror of killing their enemies they’ll be repelled. But Hamas isn’t repelled it’s thrilled. As for the idea that violence is “senseless,” Hamas thinks it a glorious and sensible means to achieve its goal.
There is, of course, an alternative dialogue with Palestinians and Arabs. Deal with the Palestinian Authority— without illusions—for minimum violence and maximum mutual benefit. Cooperate with Arab states that hate Hamas, the Islamists, and Iran because of their own interests. But this requires intimidating, deterring, weakening, and discrediting Hamas. Which is why the Gaza war was imperative and concessions to Hamas are disastrous.
Beyond strategic considerations is a profound trauma, a bewildering contradiction to everything the Western intellectual, artist or policymaker holds dear. Enlightenment Man meets the Dark Ages’ advocate who sneers at reason; Realpolitik Man meets those indifferent to interests; Materialistic Man meets those repelled by materialism; and Humanistic Man meets those who glory in death and destruction. .
When one talks of such dialogue I think of the U.S. official who, interrogating captured al-Qaida men in Afghanistan in 2003, asked one, “Why did you come here?” The terrorist answered: “To kill you.” And he did. End of dialogue.
* A reference to the film “Casablanca.” When Rick wants to speak to a prisoner the Germans have already killed, he is told that you are welcome to speak with him but, says Captain Renard, “I’m afraid you’d find the conversation a trifle one-sided.”
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center in Herzliya, Israel, and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His books include The Truth About Syria; The Tragedy of the Middle East; and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East.