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Cohen’s Consistent Inconsistencies

Richard Cohen of the Washington Post has an interesting history with Israel’s recent wars. Today, as Jennifer noted, he has an article blaming the Gaza war on Hamas, while taking to task those who criticize Israel for retaliating against the rocket attacks hitting towns in the southern part of the country:

I get the impression that Israel is expected to put up with this. The implied message from demonstrators and some opinion columnists is that this is the price Israel is supposed to pay for being, I suppose, Israel. I am informed by a Palestinian journalist in a Post op-ed that Israel is trying to stop “amateur rockets from nagging the residents of some of its southern cities.” In Sderot, I saw homes nagged to smithereens.

Cohen’s right, of course, but he has not always been quite so understanding. Some might recall that back in 2006 Cohen caused a stir when he wrote critically about Israel’s war against Hezbollah in Lebanon, suggesting that Israel itself was “a mistake”:

The greatest mistake Israel could make at the moment is to forget that Israel itself is a mistake. It is an honest mistake, a well-intentioned mistake, a mistake for which no one is culpable, but the idea of creating a nation of European Jews in an area of Arab Muslims (and some Christians) has produced a century of warfare and terrorism of the sort we are seeing now. Israel fights Hezbollah in the north and Hamas in the south, but its most formidable enemy is history itself.

The 2006-Cohen continued:

The smart choice [for Israel] is to pull back to defensible — but hardly impervious — borders. That includes getting out of most of the West Bank — and waiting (and hoping) that history will get distracted and move on to something else. This will take some time, and in the meantime terrorism and rocket attacks will continue.

Now, imagine if Israel had followed the advice Cohen offered back then–that is, imagine  if Israel had withdrawn from the West Bank. Cohen does so in today’s column:

Three years ago, Israel pulled out of the Gaza Strip. Good, the world said. Next, pull out of the West Bank, the world said. But then Hamas, which has vowed to destroy Israel, won the election in Gaza. Sderot soon became hell. The West Bank is controlled by Fatah, the moderate Palestinian organization, which once had control of Gaza, too. If Israel withdraws from the West Bank, will rockets come from there? If you lived in Tel Aviv, a spit from the West Bank, would you take the chance?

Of course, Cohen is hardly the only person to have had his mind changed by the current circumstances–and this is not the only reason readers should treat the advice of columnists with caution. Soon after he published the 2006 piece, I asked him to clarify his position. “It was a mistake,” he told me in reference to the piece (not the formation of the State of Israel). He explained that he was trying to say something about the complexity surrounding  Israel’s formation, and that his column had turned out badly.

A week or so after this 2006 “mistake” piece, Cohen wrote another article on the Lebanon war in a more straight forward manner. It was coherent and blunt. Indeed, in that regard, it was similar to what he wrote today, and it is still very relevant to those struggling with the philosophical questions related to proportionality. Here’s what Cohen wrote about the proportionality of Israel’s response in Lebanon:

The dire consequences of proportionality are so clear that it makes you wonder if it is a fig leaf for anti-Israel sentiment in general. Anyone who knows anything about the Middle East knows that proportionality is madness. For Israel, a small country within reach, as we are finding out, of a missile launched from any enemy’s back yard, proportionality is not only inapplicable, it is suicide. The last thing it needs is a war of attrition. It is not good enough to take out this or that missile battery. It is necessary to reestablish deterrence: You slap me, I will punch out your lights.

Makes good sense, don’t you think?



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