I am grateful to the editorial page editor of the Maine Sunday Telegram and to the editor of the Boston Jewish Advocate for allowing me to submit the same column for both papers.
The overwhelming majority of readers of the Advocate agree with Israel’s actions in the current military situation, and are supportive of its position on the question of Middle East peace. Less overwhelmingly, there are many readers of the Telegram who are very critical of Israel in both respects.
Expressing the mix of my agreement and disagreement with both audiences is best done in one article.
Hamas has used its control of Gaza for attacks on Israel, both with rocket fire and by the substantial construction of tunnels, not for the transmission of goods, but for the purpose of killing civilian residents of Israel. (Criticism that Israel has prevented building materials from entering Gaza, to the great detriment of the residents, is rebutted by the fact that a substantial amount of those materials has gone for war, not for enhancing the life of the civilian population.)
I do not know of any situation in history in which a nation would sit idly by while it was under this sort of attack. Some have argued that while Israel’s military response is justified, it is being done with too little regard for civilian life. In one argument, I had my opponent agreeing that Israel was exercising its right of self-defense, but that they should do it “surgically.” This is a glaring example of a common problem: using metaphors that mislead rather than enlighten.
There are very few human activities that are more different than surgery and war. The notion that Israel could go into a densely populated area where its assailants have deliberately embedded themselves and avoid civilian deaths is fanciful. Nor is Israel particularly vulnerable in this regard. I voted for the war in Afghanistan, in the course of which America has killed many more civilians than Israel has, albeit over a much larger period. As for being surgical, in another military action which I supported, Bill Clinton’s successful effort to end oppression in the former Yugoslavia, the United States mistakenly bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.
Further argument in Israel’s defense is that as I wrote this Aug. 6, Israel’s record of agreeing to cease-fires had been better than Hamas’, and Israel’s terms for an ending of its military activity are entirely reasonable: a destruction of the tunnels that were built solely for the purpose of sending people into Israel to kill its citizens, and an end the rocket fire.
But this defense of Israel’s military action requires justification for Israel’s maintaining control of Gaza.
History here is in Israel’s favor. Had the Arab states in 1948 not defied a U.N. resolution and tried to wipe out the new Jewish state there would have been for the past 66 years an Israel that was much smaller not only than the one that exists today, but than the one that existed before the 1967 war.
When Israel’s Arab neighbors after 1949 launched a series of attacks on Israel from their neighboring territories, Israel responded by occupying many of those territories. It has since shown a willingness to release them as long as it can be assured that they will not continue to be bases for attacks – the return to Egypt of the Sinai being the best example.
In pursuit of this policy, Israel in 2005, under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, left Gaza to the governance of the Palestinian authority. Sadly, within two years, Hamas, dedicated then and still to Israel’s destruction, took over that territory. It is relevant to note that things on the West Bank still governed by the Palestinian authority are sometimes difficult, but they have never reached the degree of violence that Hamas rule has brought to Gaza.
Current policy argues less strongly in Israel’s favor even though history justifies Israel’s occupation of Gaza. Clearly the only long-term solution to this terrible situation is for a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians that results in two separate states, each respecting the territorial integrity and the right to exist of the other.
History here again is more on Israel’s side than that of its opponents. The Palestinians turned down offers – from Clinton in 2000 and from Ehud Olmert in 2005 – that would have achieved a two-state solution. In neither case would they have gotten everything that they wanted. But holding out for perfection is a recipe for failure. And people who have lost in a series of wars, especially when they were the initial originators of that combat, cannot expect to get everything they seek in a peace settlement.
But even in the face of this history, I believe that the current Israeli government is acting contrary to its own best interest in the on-again off-again peace negotiation.
Israel’s expansion of settlements, especially those outside the boundaries of Jerusalem, are a self-wounding mistake. No one knows whether there will be at some point a Palestinian leadership ready to accept the kind of deal that they were offered by Clinton and Olmert. But it is clear that continued settlements make that much less likely. And it is even clearer that Israel’s standing in public opinion is greatly damaged by the settlement policy.
Israel has legitimate security concerns, but these are not the reason for settlement expansion. Religious and ideological motivations drive much of the increase. Part of the problem is that some Israelis believe that the Bible retains validity as a map. This is complicated by the fact that Israel is a democracy, governed by a coalition, and Prime Minister Netanyahu is under pressure from people on his right within his coalition to maintain the policy of settlement expansion.
Further damage to Israel’s international standing comes from the behavior of a small minority of the settlers, who have shown a brutality toward the Palestinians.
It is not at all clear that there is a Palestinian entity ready to agree to a reasonable peace with Israel, which creates two separate states with mutual acceptance of the other’s right to exist. So, I do not insist Israel make peace with Palestinians, because that is not within Israel’s power unilaterally to decide.
But it is very much in Israel’s interest to make clear that it is open to such a peace. Expanding settlements, and the unfair criticism of American presidents who called for that policy, damage Israel’s political standing and provide unnecessary support to those seeking to blame Israel for the absence of peace.
Israel’s current military action is justified, but to make that justification persuasive to public opinion, Israel must do a better job of making clear that it is prepared to achieve a two-state solution. And it must acknowledge that the price of that will be an end to the settlement policy.
Barney Frank is a retired congressman and the author of landmark legislation. He divides his time between Maine and Massachusetts.
— Special to the Telegram