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These are terrible days for those of us who long to see Israel finally accepted by its neighbors. At a time when all 22 Arab states have offered Israel peace and normalization in exchange for the '67 territories, this war could destroy that possibility once and for all.
No, that does not mean that I question Israel's right to respond to the rocket onslaught from Gaza. Of course, it has that right. Any country has the right, even the obligation, to respond militarily to thugs who rain down thousands of rockets on its people, leaving its children quaking in terror. The question is not whether Israel has the right, but whether exercising it this way is right.
For Israel, the only right response is the one that will bring it closer to the security it will only have when it is accepted by its neighbors. Some argue that this attack on Hamas will indeed accomplish that. Eliminate the fanatics, they say, and Israel can make peace with the moderates.
But, Israel is incapable of even dealing with its own crazies. Under conditions infinitely more comfortable than those of Gaza, Israeli lunatics - settlers who attack children and burn down olive groves - have become significant political players. In Israel, it is impossible to form a government without the crazies. How can anyone imagine it possible to bomb Hamas into moderation?
Of course, it would be sufficient if this war could eliminate Hamas' ability to attack Israel. Even that is a long shot with few Israelis predicting this assault will accomplish that for long.
BUT ONE thing is certain - this war is unlikely to bring peace any closer. In fact, I believe that the pictures Arabs and Muslims worldwide are seeing of the attacks on Gaza may push that day so far into the future that none of us will see it.
The other day The Washington Post put a photo of the family of five young sisters killed in a single attack on its front page. Imagine how that played in the Arab world or in the world at large. Imagine how long it will take for the memory, the stain, of those five little girls to fade.
And, no, it's not relevant that Hamas kills children too or that it does it intentionally and Israel does it by accident. Hamas is a terror organization. The standard that applies to Hamas is not the one to apply to a civilized state, a member of the United Nations, and an ally of the US and the West. Israel is not Libya, but the state created by Jewish idealists and humanists seeking not regional domination but a Jewish refuge. It is that refuge that is now compromised.
In The New York Times the other day, the conservative Israeli historian Benny Morris wrote that Israelis feel that "the walls - and history - are closing in on their 60-year-old state."
He specifically refers to Iran's nuclear program, the growing power of Hizbullah and Hamas, and the disaffection of Israeli Arabs.
"Public opinion in the West (and in democracies, governments can't be far behind) is gradually reducing its support for Israel as the West looks askance at the Jewish state's treatment of its Palestinian neighbors and wards. The Holocaust is increasingly becoming a faint and ineffectual memory and the Arab states are increasingly powerful and assertive," he writes.
JUST A few years ago, Israel's situation was entirely different. It was close to achieving virtually universal acceptance.
Some of Israel's most vocal supporters want us to forget that. They cling to the idea that "the world has always hated Israel" (and the Jews), rejecting as irrelevant the idea that Palestinian statelessness is at the root of the problem.
They reject that fact because it suggests that Israel is in charge of its own destiny. It can determine where it stands in the eyes of the world, and especially the Arab world, by changing its relationship with the Palestinians.
How do I know that? Because it happened once before.
Following prime minister Yitzhak Rabin's decision to recognize both the PLO and the Palestinians' right to a state in the West Bank and Gaza, nine non-Arab Muslim states and 32 of the 43 Sub-Saharan African states established relations with Israel. India and China, the two largest markets in the world, opened trade relations. Jordan signed a peace treaty and several of the Emirates began quiet dealings with Israel.
The Arab boycott ended. Foreign investment soared. Israel's isolation appeared to be over.
The most graphic demonstration of Israel's changed international standing occurred at Rabin's funeral in 1995, which rivaled president Kennedy's in terms of international representation.
Leaders from virtually every nation on earth came to pay homage to Rabin. From President Clinton and Prince Charles to President Hosni Mubarak, King Hussein, and the leaders of every country in Europe, most of Africa and Asia (including India and China), Latin America, Turkey, Morocco, Mauritania, Oman, Qatar, and Tunisia. Yasser Arafat wept at Leah Rabin's apartment in Tel Aviv.
The world mourned Rabin because under him, Israel had embraced the cause of peace with the Palestinians. The homage to Rabin was a clear demonstration - as was the opening of trade and diplomatic relations with formerly hostile states - that Israel was not being isolated because it is a Jewish state, but because of its conflict with the Palestinians.
Once Rabin moved to end the conflict, he ended Israel's isolation as well. (If the problem was undying Jew-hatred, Rabin's opening to the Palestinians would not have affected Israel's standing.)
We need to remember this as the hard-liners insist that anti-Israel sentiment is unconnected with anything Israel does. That is simply not true. Even Ariel Sharon, hated more than any Israeli by most Arabs and Muslims, saw his image transformed overnight when he moved to relinquish Gaza. He actually received an ovation at the United Nations, leaving the old man in shock.
But that was then, this is now. I agree with Morris who seems to believe that, at this rate, Israel's days may be numbered.
So the questions have to be asked. Does the Gaza war improve Israel's long-term (or even short-term) situation? Might it not have been better to induce Hamas to stop the shelling by ending the blockade Israel imposed back when Hamas won the Palestinian election?
Was it right to insist that Hamas accept Israel in advance of negotiations rather than simply push for a total and absolute cessation of violence and blockade, followed by negotiations? Could Israel realistically expect the cease-fire to hold while Gaza remained under siege, rife with hunger, illness, and joblessness? And freezing cold. (Even during the cease-fire, Israel was turning on Gaza's heat and electricity only a few hours a day.)
Again, I am not questioning Israel's right to respond. But that is the wrong question. The right question to ask is why it came to this. And to ask ourselves if supporting the continuation of this war - rather than an immediate cease-fire - will do Israel more harm than good.
The writer is the Director of Israel Policy Forum's Washington Policy Center.
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