Shortly before the announcement Thursday night of the ceasefire in Gaza that went into effect Friday morning and was immediately broken, the Deutsche Welle, the German radio station, posted the transcript of an interview with the Israeli novelist Amos Oz. Here's how it started:
OZ: I would like to begin the interview in a very unusual way: by presenting one or two questions to your readers and listeners. May I do that?
DEUTSCHE WELLE: Go ahead!
QUESTION 1: What would you do if your neighbor across the street sits down on the balcony, puts his little boy on his lap, and starts shooting machine-gun fire into your nursery?
QUESTION 2: What would you do if your neighbor across the street digs a tunnel from his nursery to your nursery in order to blow up your home or in order to kidnap your family?
Oz is no hawk. He is the godfather of Israeli peaceniks: in 1967, right after the Six-Day War—in which he fought—left Israel in control of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, he was the first Israeli to call publicly for the creation of an independent Palestinian state in those territories, writing, "Even unavoidable occupation is a corrupting occupation." He has always opposed the establishment of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land, and, in 1978, he was a founder of Peace Now. He is a steadfast critic of the policies toward Palestinians of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and, in the Deutsche Welle interview, advocated once again an Israeli deal with the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas. "My suggestion," he said, is "a two-state solution and coexistence between Israel and the West Bank: two capitals in Jerusalem, a mutually agreed territorial modification, removal of most of the Jewish settlements from the West Bank."
Although Netanyahu has said that he accepts the two-state idea, he has doggedly resisted efforts to realize it, and his resistance has carried a terrible price for both Israelis and Palestinians. Oz argues cogently that such an agreement, followed by heavy Israeli investment in the success of the West Bank, would do more to destroy Hamas's hold over Gaza than all of Israel's wars there have managed. "The people in Gaza will be very jealous of the freedom and prosperity enjoyed by their brothers and sisters on the West Bank in the state of Palestine," he said.
Oz's interview is not only one of the most sober reckonings of Israel's current position that you can find, his insistence that Israel and Palestine really could do vastly better by each other also makes it one of the most optimistic. While Oz finds it impossible to oppose Israel's current war on principle—he calls it "justified, but excessive"—his longstanding commitment to the end of settlements and a two-state peace deal means that he is convinced that this war could have been avoided. In this, the peacenik novelist sounds very much like the six former Israeli spy chiefs profiled in the powerful documentary "The Gatekeepers," all of whom left Israel's national-security apparatus convinced that there can be no military solution to their conflict with the Palestinians, only a political one. That is Oz's point in asking the brutal questions at the start of his interview: "For Israel," he said, "it is a lose-lose situation."
Meanwhile, on newyorker.com, the Columbia professor and former Palestinian diplomat Rashid Khalidi brushes aside the sort of questions that Oz poses—"What would you do if … "—as mere "pretexts" and "red herrings" to excuse wanton Israeli aggression. Just last month, Netanyahu told Israelis, as he has repeatedly, that they must never relinquish "security control" over the West Bank, and Khalidi interprets this to mean that Israel's war in Gaza "is not really about Hamas." No, he writes, "It is not about rockets. It is not about 'human shields' or terrorism or tunnels. It is about Israel's permanent control over Palestinian land and Palestinian lives." In short, Khalidi claims, Israel's only purpose is the collective punishment of Palestinians for resisting Israeli subjugation, and it follows that the unjustifiability of Israeli violence justifies Palestinian violence. After all, he writes, "Gaza is a ghetto and ghettos will inevitably fight back against those who ghettoize them."
When Oz speaks of the neighbor who shoots at you with a child on his lap, he is speaking, of course, of Hamas, and he consistently makes the distinction clear between Hamas and Palestinian civilians, for whom this war has been a devastating bloodbath. Oz does not absolve Israel from its responsibility for the death and destruction in Gaza—that would be impossible—but he sees Hamas as more than an equal partner in it. That is what he means, he explains, when he describes the war as lose-lose for Israel: "The more Israeli casualties, the better it is for Hamas. The more Palestinian civilian casualties, the better it is for Hamas." There is no end of argument about how to parcel out responsibility for this war and its ghastly toll on Gazans, but Oz is hardly alone in his view of Hamas's strategy. My colleague Lawrence Wright, in his deep reporting and one-man theatre piece about Gaza, is unsparingly critical of the Israeli occupation. But, when he turns to Hamas's attitude towards Gaza's disproportionately young population, he concludes, "These children are being groomed to die."
Khalidi, however, hasn't got a bad word for Hamas. He says, "We might not like Hamas or some of its methods, but that is not the same as accepting the proposition that Palestinians should supinely accept the denial of their right to exist as a free people in their ancestral homeland." Right—of course it's not the same. But that doesn't negate the fact that Hamas doesn't accept, or even nominally recognize, the right of Israelis to exist as a free people. As Khalidi says, we should pay attention when Netanyahu tells Israelis about controlling their security on the West Bank. So shouldn't we also listen when Hamas tells Palestinians that they should never accept the existence of Israel—and that victory will not come until they have wiped out not only the Jewish state but all the Jews?
If you take an interest in the war in Gaza, you should read the Hamas charter, but Oz sums up its biggest idea handily enough: "It says that the Prophet commands every Muslim to kill every Jew, everywhere in the world." If Khalidi has a problem with this, he keeps it to himself. While Oz has no problem saying that Israel's violent occupation is unjust to Palestinians and endangers its own people, Khalidi refuses to acknowledge that Hamas exists to end Israel's existence and thrives on Palestinian wretchedness. In the heat of his moral condemnation of Israel—and of America for supporting Israel against Hamas—the hardest line that he will allow himself against Gaza's categorically genocidal leadership is that "we may not like" it. What would he lose to say that we must not?
Ultimately, Khalidi's argument seems to be that might makes wrong. Israel, he says, is "the stronger party." He sees that strength as entirely dependent on America, and he argues that, if America seriously wants to make peace, it must cut Israel loose. Khalidi's aim is to drive a wedge between Israel and what he sees as the only thing it has going for it—American support—but, by blinding himself to Hamas's reality, or by denying it, he trips himself up. As we have seen since the breakdown on Friday of the American-brokered ceasefire in Gaza, the dastardliness of Hamas has, in fact, created a greater sense of common cause between Obama and Netanyahu than we have ever seen before. Oz cannot be happy about that, but he can surely understand it, whereas Khalidi's magical thinking invites incomprehension. That is the real difference that Oz represents: whatever you may think of his position, you cannot but recognize that he is that rarest thing in this war—an honest voice.