Commentary Magazine


Contentions

Debating Israel

According to Nicholas Kristof, writing in the New York Times last Sunday, American politicians, whether Republicans or Democrats, always bite their tongues when it comes to discussions about Israel. Both sides have “learned to muzzle themselves” and to acquiesce in President Bush’s “crushing embrace” of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians. “That silence,” he argues, “harms America, Middle East peace prospects, and Israel itself.” Kristof’s piece is part of a growing genre: criticism of Israel whose starting point is to bemoan how such criticism cannot be made in public.

In Israel, Kristof informs us, there are no such constraints. Debates there “about the use of force and the occupation of Palestinian territories” are healthily “vitriolic.” “Why can’t [our] candidates be as candid as Israelis?”

Among the examples of sabra candor he admires is a 2004 remark made by Tommy Lapid, then Israel’s justice minister, comparing the Israeli army’s razing of a house in Gaza to the Nazis’ dispossession of his grandmother during World War II. “Can you imagine an American cabinet secretary ever saying such a thing?,” asks Kristof. He omits the fact that the house in question was an entry point for a network of tunnels running across the adjacent border with Egypt, tunnels used for smuggling terrorist weapons. Nor does he attempt to explain how our political conversation might be improved by importing Nazi analogies as irresponsible as Lapid’s. Is this the sort of “discussion” that Kristof wants to see?

Still, there is no denying that political debate is somewhat more contentious in Israel than in the U.S. (although we seem gradually to be catching up). But it is also the case that, despite the rough-and-tumble of the debate Kristof praises so highly, a fairly stable consensus has been reached in Israel about certain policies pertaining to the Palestinians.

One is the need for a security fence to keep suicide bombers from entering Israel. Another is the disinclination to offer more concessions to a Palestinian entity that shows no inclination to live in peace with Israel. Despite his avowed admiration for Israel’s freewheeling brand of politics, Kristof takes the opposite view on both these questions.

His own analysis of the problem, such as it is, is little more than a series of clichés: he blames Israel and its “hard-line policies” for “radicalizing young Palestinians, empowering Hamas and Hizballah, isolating Israel in the world.” It does not occur to him that these “hard-line policies” (though it’s hard to see what is “hard-line” about building a defensive barrier and refusing to negotiate with radical movements devoted to your destruction) might be a response to years of Palestinian terror. And nowhere in his column does Kristof press for the Palestinians (or the larger Arab world) to engage in the kind of self-lacerating debate he so admires in Israeli politics. Apparently, the mere fact that “the Palestinian cause arouses ordinary people in coffee shops” across the Middle East is enough to warrant demanding of Israel that it bend over backward to address their grievance.

For all of the noise Kristof makes about candor in politics, his main concern is that Israel be cast, permanently and publicly, as the primary cause of its own problems: “The best hope for Israel isn’t a better fence or more weaponry. . . . Ultimately, security for Israel will emerge only from a peace agreement with Palestinians.” Why Kristof ignores Israel’s repeated demonstrations of its willingness to make peace is unclear. But before he demands more concessions of Israel, or changes in American discourse on the Middle East, he ought to wait until some healthy “vitriol” appears in Palestinian political debate. The silence of dissenters in that arena is truly deafening.