Well: here's a start. From the perspective of intent, there does seem to me to be moral clarity between Israel and Hamas. Hamas refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist in peace; Israel refuses to recognize Hamas' right to exist as a legitimate polity in Gaza because Hamas does not recognize Israel's right to exist. Hamas also was the first to break a barely-held ceasefire recently. There seems to me to be no question that Israel has the higher moral ground from the perspective of recent events.
At the same time, Israel's actual resources of military and economic power far exceed Hamas's; and its pulverization of Gaza has led to a huge imbalance between the victims of Hamas's war on Israel and Israel's war on Hamas. The Palestinians are suffering something like ten times the trauma and deaths of Israelis. What they have endured in Gaza for the past couple of years must also be taken into account. It is not a function of appeasement or wimpiness or fondness for Jihadism that makes this conclusion inescapable. It is simply being human.
And so you have an excruciating confluence of the questions of proportionality in a just war and asymmetry in the war against terrorism. What renders the current awfulness particularly wrenching is that the immoral means Hamas uses are logical from the point of view of an entity that is committed to Israel's destruction but not powerful enough to achieve it. And the response of Israel is logical from the point of view of a Western country enduring constant terrorist bombardment. Hence the never-ending argument in which both extremes reinforce themselves. This is not, one remembers, a Likud government. This is what the center left needs to do in Israel to stay in power at this point. And it has the backing of Egypt.
The nature of the conflict therefore ensures that Israel will kill and injure and traumatize far more human beings than Hamas can, even though Israel's intentions may be more honorable (and the relative lack of civilian deaths, given the pounding that has been going on in Gaza, is striking evidence for Israel's relative scrupulousness). This means that Israel will continue to lose the war of ideas and that Hamas will benefit from the impasse. Meanwhile, Jewish Israelis face a demographic reckoning and the forces of Jihadism gain a new recruiting tool. Abbas is temporarily weakened; and Iran's ideological strength temporarily waxes. Democracy, pace the neocons, is not a panacea: Hamas has more democratic legitimacy, it seems to me, than Mubarak.
This is all horrible news for the Jewish people; and deeply disturbing for the rest of us. America's president and president-elect must ensure that the US is not drawn into this battle on one side or the other any more than is absolutely necessary. The West's interests in the Middle East are not exhausted by a defense of Israel's existence and security, especially when such a position comes allied with Arab autocracy and repression.
The one silver lining I can see is that Sunni Arab fear and loathing of Iran is still very real, and can be exploited. (If Arab powers are now reduced to acquiescing in the deaths of Palestinian children from Israeli bombs, you can see how vulnerable they feel toward the wave of religious extremism sweeping the region.) The best you can hope for in the Middle East is that one axis of hatred will temporarily eclipse another. Generally speaking, adherents of one religion hate each other more than they do adherents of another sect altogether, so the prospects for some advancement of Israeli and American self-interest in a broader Muslim civil war are real. With Muslim anti-Semitism, of course, we might have stumbled onto a rare exception.
Happy new year.
(Photo: a bombed mosque in Gaza by Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty.)