In the Trenches: NYT columnist's blind spot on Israel

Frankly, Israel doesn't need lectures from well-intentioned journalists on the need for peace.

david harris 88 ajc (photo credit: )
david harris 88 ajc
(photo credit: )
Nicholas Kristof is a respected New York Times columnist. He has highlighted critical issues in the developing world, and earned acclaim for focusing our attention on the unfolding tragedy in Darfur. But when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict, he has a blind spot. In his most recent Times column (March 18), which was reprinted in the International Herald Tribune the next day, Kristof went after Israel with a two-by-four and chastised elected leaders in the US for uncritically embracing Israel. He sanctimoniously lectured Israel on what he called "the best hope" for the country, namely, "a peace agreement with Palestinians," and lambasted "hard-line Israeli policies." And he accused American politicians of having "learned to muzzle themselves" regarding Israel policy. Most striking about the column was what was missing. There wasn't a single reference to the unenviable situation in which Israel finds itself. Frankly, Israel doesn't need lectures from well-intentioned journalists on the need for peace. Israel needs well-intentioned partners for peace. Three consecutive Israeli prime ministers, including Ehud Olmert, have called for a two-state settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Indeed, at an Israeli cabinet meeting on March 18, commitment to a two-state solution was reaffirmed. And each of those Israeli prime ministers has acknowledged the painful territorial concessions required to achieve an accord. Israeli rhetoric has been matched by performance. Prime Minister Ehud Barak withdrew unilaterally from the security corridor in southern Lebanon, first established to keep terror groups operating in Lebanon out of shelling range of northern Israeli towns and villages. The result? Hizbullah stepped into the vacuum and built a sophisticated command-and-control operation, fortified bunkers and, courtesy of Iran and Syria, accumulated thousands of missiles and rockets intended for use against Israel. Moreover, Prime Minister Barak, in cooperation with US President Bill Clinton, offered Chairman Yasser Arafat a tantalizing deal for a two-state settlement, including compromise on Jerusalem, previously a red line for Israeli leaders. Arafat's response? President Jimmy Carter's distorted version of history notwithstanding, the Palestinian leader triggered a new intifadah and once again chose the path of war over peace. Following Barak, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon broke with his previous views and spoke of a two-state deal. When he concluded that there was no credible partner on the other side, he stared down his own party loyalists and pushed through a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, giving local Palestinian residents their first opportunity in history to govern themselves. The result? More Somalia than Singapore, shall we say. In other words, destruction rather construction. And now Prime Minister Olmert, elected on a platform that called for unilateral Israeli withdrawal from much of the West Bank because of the lack of a Palestinian negotiating partner, is faced with an untenable situation. There's no partner because in the January 2006 elections the Palestinians elected Hamas, a terrorist group dedicated to Israel's annihilation. The Hamas Charter spells that out clearly and unambiguously. Given the reality on the ground, and after the Gaza and Lebanon experiences, Olmert can't risk further shrinking Israel without a negotiated deal and solid international guarantees. Is Israel simply supposed to bide its time, waiting around for a Palestinian leadership to emerge capable of delivering its half of the bargain, while neglecting the arms build-up and daily threats, as if they don't have consequences? Should it sit down and talk with Hamas, which controls eleven of the seventeen cabinet posts in the new government, about the timetable for Israel's own destruction? Let's be clear. Israel has sought peace and coexistence with its Arab neighbors since its establishment in 1948. Indeed, peace has been central to Jewish aspirations since time immemorial. Peace is not a slogan or tagline picked up along the way, but rather the essence of the Jewish quest, as embodied by the vision of the prophet Isaiah. But peace doesn't come by waving a magic wand or wistfully projecting one's aspirations on others. In addition to the long-resident Jewish community, the three building blocks of Israel's Jewish population are survivors of the Holocaust and their descendants, refugees from Arab countries-the forgotten refugees of this conflict-and refugees from the endemic anti-Semitism of the communist world. Most have endured enough pain and suffering to wish for nothing more than a life of tranquility, security and normalcy. But they've also come face to face with man's capacity for evil-and experienced the sense of loneliness, even abandonment, which accompanied their ordeal. Poll after poll underscores Israelis' deep yearning for peace, willingness to sacrifice territory for a settlement, and discomfort at being in the unsought position of an occupying power. Yet those same poll results repeatedly call into question Palestinian intentions. Jewish history reminds them that when a Hamas or Hezbollah (or Iranian) leader calls for destroying Israel, he might actually mean what he says. In the real world, where President Mahmoud Abbas has not been able to fulfill his early promise as a peace partner; where Gaza has become a magnet for increasingly sophisticated weapons-including anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles-smuggled across the Egyptian border; where southern Israeli towns like Sderot have endured more than four thousand rockets fired from Gaza; where Hezbollah is rearming; and where the margin for error is tiny because of Israel's small size (one-fiftieth the territory of Egypt and two-thirds the size of Belgium), Jerusalem has no choice but to hang tough, even as its outstretched hand awaits a credible peace partner. And all power to the United States if the elected leaders of both major parties understand what is truly at stake and stand by Israel (even if Kristof ignores some important disagreements between Washington and Jerusalem, such as American determination to proceed with the Palestinian elections in early 2006, including Hamas, over Israeli objections). When a serious and determined Palestinian peace partner emerges as the examples of Egypt's Anwar Sadat and Jordan's King Hussein amply prove, the Israeli people will not need coaxing from an American journalist. Rather, they will embrace that partner in their deep and abiding quest for peace and an end to the decades-long conflict. The writer is the Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee David Harris's previous blogs