Cliff May

He notes that Israelis now have weapons so precise they can target a single room in a building, doing no harm to those in adjoining rooms. During last year’s conflict in Gaza, Israelis would also phone people to warn them to leave buildings that contained ordnance, weapons caches, or command-and-control facilities. Sometimes, too, the Israelis would “knock”: Very small, relatively harmless bombs would be dropped on the roofs of buildings in order to further encourage people to leave.

I point out how unusual such practices are. Throughout history, military strategists have sought to demoralize their enemies, to defeat them conclusively, or at least lead them to the conclusion that the cost of continuing the conflict would be unacceptably high. I ask if Israelis may instead be teaching Gazans that a long war, with Israel’s extermination as the goal, is tolerable. He says he’s not sure, but he does know this: Israelis believe it is important to distinguish between Hamas and the people of Gaza.

Is that distinction valid? Gazans voted for Hamas in 2006 but there have been no elections since. A poll taken in March shows support for Hamas in Gaza down to about 20 percent. And, in the aftermath of the last year’s fighting, a clear majority of Gazans, 60 percent, believe that waging war against Israel does them more harm than good.

It is against this backdrop that Secretary of State John Kerry is attempting to restart negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. Among the hurdles he faces: Hamas has no intention of giving up power in Gaza, nor does Palestinian National Authority president Mahmoud Abbas speak for Hamas or the people of Gaza. In 2005, Abbas also was elected to a four-year term, and he, too, has not faced voters a second time. His popularity in the West Bank is far from solid. An Israeli analyst — who also identifies himself as a Palestinian and a Muslim — suggests what this means: “Abbas has no mandate to make peace with Israel.”

What’s more, any concessions Abbas might make would be seen by Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran’s rulers, and other Islamists in the region as a betrayal. Could this explain, at least in part, why Abbas has refused to negotiate with Israelis for more than four years? Does it really make sense for him to sit down for talks if (1) he knows he can’t deliver a deal and (2) he’ll be painting a bull’s-eye on his back if he makes a serious attempt?

I never fail to be astonished by how many “experts” refuse to grapple with such questions in their rush to propose the most banal and facile solutions. One example: Dov Waxman, an associate professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, argues that the key to peace is “applying pressure on Israel.” Waxman goes on to lament that “American Jews are not likely to exercise the same kind of pressure on Israel that Irish-Americans applied on Sinn Fein–IRA, which [led] it to renounce violence and disarm.”

Does the professor really believe that Israelis — who confront terrorism every day and, as noted above, go to extraordinary lengths to avoid harming Palestinian civilians — are themselves akin to terrorists? Is he seriously suggesting that Israelis “disarm”? Is he unable to imagine the consequences were such advice to be followed?

New York Times columnist Roger Cohen also promotes the dubious notion that just as “Irish-Americans played a significant role in the Northern Ireland peace” so “American Jews can have similar influence on Israel-Palestine.” But Cohen at least acknowledges that many Palestinians “still dream of all the land, the destruction of Israel” and that “nothing would advance the just cause of Palestinian statehood faster than the irrevocable renunciation of violence by all factions and reconciliation between them on the basis of territorial compromise with Israel.”

I envision Palestinian leaders taking such steps when camels learn to fly. But as Israelis have demonstrated time and again, anything can happen.

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Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.