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What’s Wrong With Being Reasonable About the Middle East?

Nicholas Kristof’s totally reasonable, utterly delusional recipe for peace

Lee Smith
July 21, 2014
Gaza City, July 21, 2014.(Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images)
Gaza City, July 21, 2014.(Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images)

The weekend saw the heaviest fighting in Gaza with 13 members of the IDF and dozens of Palestinians—87, according to Palestinian officials, killed. Hamas claims to have abducted an Israeli soldier, which if so may yet further raise tensions.

While the escalating bloodshed is naturally upsetting to any sane person, there is a way out, according to New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. Luckily for both Israelis and Palestinians, the prescription for peace is a simple one: We need “to de-escalate, starting with a cease-fire that includes an end to Hamas rocket attacks and a withdrawal from Gaza by Israel. For Israel, this is a chance to use diplomacy to achieve what gunpowder won’t: the marginalization of Hamas. Israel might suggest an internationally supervised election in Gaza with the promise that the return of control to the Palestinian Authority would mean an end to the economic embargo.”

Kristof’s formula is a reasonable and balanced one. The only problem with it is that, in order to be so reasonable and balanced, it ignores two basic facts that have been reported in every newspaper in America. A ceasefire has already been offered by Egypt: Jerusalem accepted the ceasefire, and Hamas rejected it. Israel then stopped shooting for six hours, while Hamas continued firing dozens of rockets into Israel while loudly proclaiming that it had no intention of honoring the truce. So, no ceasefire.

The second fact that Kristof’s reasonable-sounding formula ignores is that there already was an internationally supervised election in Gaza, back in 2006, which was won handily by Hamas. There is little to indicate that Hamas would do any worse at the polls this time around—after all, they didn’t run on a good-government platform but a war with the Zionist Enemy platform, and they’ve delivered on their campaign promises not once but three times since taking office. Hamas’ steadfast resistance to Israel in the fact of Operation Protective Edge would put wind in its electoral sails and win the organization an even larger electoral majority the next time around—helped along by the fact that any sane Palestinian voter with doubts about the wisdom of having his or her community destroyed every two years by the IDF would also presumably have doubts about the wisdom of voting against a heavily armed paramilitary organization that is clearly not afraid to use its guns to get its way.

So, is Nicholas Kristof really that ignorant of basic facts reported by his own newspaper as well as the rest of the entire international press? Of course not. He is not describing reality but is rather re-touching his self-image as a man of reason and compassion who can look on the world of mere mortals from Olympian heights and see the suffering and folly of both sides. “Here we have a conflict between right and right,” Kristof writes, “that has been hijacked by hard-liners on each side who feed each other.”

But of course, the conflict is not about hardliners on both sides. Rather, it’s between a state led by a risk-averse prime minister that, whatever its failings, openly wanted peace and quiet, and a U.S. State Department-designated foreign terrorist organization that openly announced its desire for war and has continued firing rockets despite warnings, attacks, cease-fire offers, and other devices in the military-diplomatic play-book.

Which is not to say that Kristof isn’t a reasonable person. It’s that his model of reasonableness is at odds with reality in the Middle East. While any sane person would prefer Kristof’s version of reality to the horrors that actually prevail, pretending that it offers a solution to anything isn’t realism. It’s wishful thinking.

Whether you see Kristof’s prescriptions as the product of a desire for things to be better than they are or as a species of personal vanity, what’s interesting about them is how widely shared they are among pundits and policymakers. For more than two decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Americans have enjoyed a period of relative peace and stability and economic prosperity. As a result, we have come to imagine that this was the natural order of things, instead of a respite bought by America’s victory in the Cold War.

Another result of the post-Cold War pause was the seeming reasonableness of the moderate who believes that all the world’s problems can be solved in a reasonable way, so long as moderate men and women acted in good faith on all sides. America would reset relations with Russia—after all, Putin, too, was a pragmatist, a reasonable man. The Iranians would bargain away their nukes for their re-entry into the community of nations because, after all, why in this day and age did they need nuclear weapons? The Israeli-Palestinian conflict could also be solved, because why shouldn’t two peoples share the land that was important to both of them?

The posture of reasonableness requires one to blame both sides, because both sides are responsible for solving the issue: If problems weren’t being solved, then it was because of hardliners like Hamas and Benjamin Netanyahu who weren’t being reasonable, in contrast to men of peace, like Mahmoud Abbas.

Yet surveying the world from Ukraine to Syria, and Gaza to Iraq, it is hard not to argue that the international arena is in fact more dangerous and violent than ever. The fact however is that the world is what it always has been. What’s changed is that the self-image of the post-Cold War moderate, the reasonable man, has been shattered, and there’s no putting the pieces back together. For a reasonable man like Kristof the outrage is that both sides are exposing his worldview for what it is—it’s not reasonable. It’s delusional.


To read more analysis by Tablet magazine political columnist Lee Smith,click here.

Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.