When conflicts erupt, public opinion tends to divide between absolutists who have decided once and for all who is right and who is wrong, and more cautious people who judge a particular act as appropriate or not according to circumstances, prepared, if necessary, to withhold judgment pending further information. The confrontation in Gaza, as bloody and awful as it is, nevertheless contains a gleam of hope. For the first time in the conflict in the Middle East, the fanatical absolutists seem to be in the minority. The discussion among Israelis (Is this the right time for war? How far should we go? How long?) proceeds as expected in a democracy. What is surprising is that the Palestinians and their supporters are taking part in a similar public debate, to the point that, even after Israel’s launching of punitive operations, Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, found the courage to attribute initial responsibility for the suffering of Gaza’s civilians to Hamas, which had broken its truce with Israel.
Unfortunately, the reaction of global public opinion—the media, diplomats, and moral and political authorities—seems to lag behind the thinking of those who are directly concerned. We cannot avoid the word that is on everyone’s lips and bolsters another kind of absolutism—the word that magisterially condemns Israeli acts as “disproportionate.” Captions on pictures of Gaza under attack express a universal and immediate consensus: Israel acts disproportionately. News reports and commentaries add other terms as opportunities present themselves: “massacre,” “total war.” At least the word “genocide” has been avoided so far. Will the memory of the so-called “Jenin genocide,” so often evoked before being discredited as a fiction, continue to restrain the worst of these verbal excesses? In any case, the absolute and a priori condemnation of the Jewish outrage defines the dominant line of thought in most parts of the world.
“Disproportionate,” of course, refers to what is out of proportion—either because no proportion has ever existed, or because an existing proportion has been broken or violated. It is the second meaning that is intended by those who castigate the Israelis for their reprisals, which are judged to be excessive, incongruous, and inappropriate, a violation of limits and norms. The implication is that there is a normal state of the Israel-Hamas conflict, some equilibrium that the Israeli military’s aggressiveness has disturbed—as if the conflict were not, like every serious conflict, disproportionate from the outset.
What is this correct proportion that Israel is supposed to respect in order to deserve the favor of world opinion? Should the Israeli army refrain from employing its technical supremacy and limit itself to the weapons that Hamas uses—that is to say, crude rockets and stones? Should it feel free to adopt the strategy of suicide bombers and the deliberate targeting of civilians? Or, better still, would it be appropriate for Israel to wait patiently until Hamas, with the help of Iran and Syria, is able to “balance” Israel’s firepower? Or might it be necessary to level the playing field regarding not only means but also aims? Hamas, unlike the Palestinian Authority, refuses to recognize the Jewish state’s right to exist and dreams of the annihilation of its citizens; should Israel match this radicalism?
Every conflict, whether dormant or boiling, is by its nature “disproportionate.” If the adversaries agreed on the use of means and on each other’s claims, they would not be adversaries. Conflict necessarily implies disagreement, and thus the effort of each camp to exploit its advantages as well as the other’s weaknesses. The Israeli army is doing just that when it “profits” from its technical superiority. And Hamas does no differently when it uses Gaza’s population as a human shield, unhindered by the moral scruples or diplomatic imperatives that constrain its adversary.
To work for peace in the Middle East, we must escape the temptations of absolutism, which entice not only fanatical hard-liners but also angelic souls who imagine that some sacred “proportion” would bring a providential balance to murderous conflicts. In the Middle East, the conflict concerns not only the enforcement of rules of the game, but their establishment. One has every right to discuss freely the appropriateness of a given military or diplomatic initiative, but not to imagine that the problem is soluble in advance by the ostensible right-thinking of world opinion. To wish to survive is not disproportionate.