The Undiplomatic Michael Oren


I thought ambassadors were supposed to smoothe over rifts, not inflame them. And I thought they were supposed to speak to the broadest number of citizens in the countries to which they have been appointed, not provide inflammatory rants to the already-persuaded. But this Michael Oren piece in TNR abandons any pretense of diplomatic balance.

The premise of Oren's piece is that Israel faces a new Nazism represented by Ahmadinejad and Holocaust deniers but, to an even greater extent, by the South African liberal, Richard Goldstone, and the United Nations. Oren seems to be arguing that Gaza was a war of survival for the Jewish state and that Israel had no choice but to launch a war that killed, by one conservative Israeli count, 320 children, destroyed 4,000 homes, and up to 80 government buildings. Even if one is sympathetic to the horrific barrage of Hamas rockets that Israeli citizens endured (and what decent human being wouldn't be?) - every single rocket being a war crime - it helps no one to use language this extreme or to distort history in this manner.

One might ask what the response of Michael Oren would be if Palestinian terrorists pulled off a major coup by killing 320 Jewish children, and destroying 4,000 homes in Tel Aviv, because Israel had lobbed primitive missiles at its territory, missing human targets an overwhelming proportion of the time. This is not to defend Hamas' wickedness and war crimes. It is not to say that Israel deliberately targeted children. It is to insist that the laws of war be applied equally to both parties in a conflict. It is to ask Israel to live up to its own ancient moral values - values that were pioneered when my own ancestors were running around painted in wode.

Recommended Reading

It is also to ask beleaguered Israel to get some perspective and to see, for a moment, how things might look from the outside. I can see why they may feel encircled and alone. But they're not. Even those of us who have been made angry by their recent actions and seeming unconcern for the needs of their most powerful friend, want to help. God knows I love Israel and its people; and I understand that some of the extremism among neocons is really an excess of passion and love rather than mere belligerence and orneriness. But, seriously guys, get a grip. Help the US help you. And try to see the wider picture.

Here's a graph that tells the story of the comparative human toll in the year before the conflict broke out:


Over eight years, 28 Israelis were killed by Hamas rockets in what were clearly war crimes, as Goldstone emphatically reports. Four times that many Palestinians were killed by Israelis in one month in 2008. In the subsequent conflict, the ratio of Palestinian deaths to Israeli deaths was close to 100 - 1. With this tally, Oren writes:

If a country can be pummeled by thousands of rockets and still not be justified in protecting its inhabitants, then at issue is not the methods by which that country survives but whether it can survive at all.

Seriously? No; the issue is whether Israel committed war crimes in its self-defense in Gaza and whether that self-defense was disproportionate to the threat it faced. At the time Bret Stephens offered the just war theory behind the Gaza war thus:

For every single rocket that falls randomly on Israeli soil, an Israeli missile will hit a carefully selected target in Gaza. Focusing the minds of Hamas on this type of "proportionality" is just the endgame that Israel needs.

Does that sound like the desperate act of a country on the brink of extinction? Glenn Reynolds explained the actual rationale:

Israel’s just playing by Chicago rules:  “They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue.  That’s the Chicago way!”

Whatever else that is, it is not a just war. The disproportion was the point: it was designed to teach the Gazans and Hamas a lesson they would never forget. Michael Goldfarb, McCain's former spokesman, echoed Reynolds' statement but embraced the murder of children as well:

The fight against Islamic radicals always seems to come around to whether or not they can, in fact, be deterred, because it's not clear that they are rational, at least not like us. But to wipe out a man's entire family, it's hard to imagine that doesn't give his colleagues at least a moment's pause. Perhaps it will make the leadership of Hamas rethink the wisdom of sparking an open confrontation with Israel under the current conditions. Or maybe not, and the only way to stop Hamas is to eliminate its capacity for violence entirely.

Now it is a completely fair point that many other nations are in no position to criticize, including the US. Israel has to survive on a tiny strip of land which is surrounded by enemies. The Jews have achieved there such a miraculous, inventive, dynamic state it puts most other countries to shame. And its moral standards and its internal airing of debate have no peer in its own region. In some respects, the US has recently had lower standards.

The US, by invading Iraq and failing to provide any security for the civilians trapped in the chaos the US tolerated, ("stuff happens"), by torturing hundreds of prisoners, innocent and guilty, and by unleashing entities like Blackwater on civilian populations is in no position to judge. 3,000 Americans died on 9/11. Hundreds of thousands of civilians died in the Iraq occupation in sectarian violence that an invading army has a fundamental moral responsibility to restrain. To have invaded a country with no thought for the security of its civilians is one reason I came to see the execution of the Iraq war as morally intolerable. Israel, moreover, has seen its Supreme Court outlaw the torture methods championed by the US under Bush and Cheney. The US, in stark contrast, refuses to investigate its seven-year policy of torture and abuse of individuals, some of whom it knew to be innocent.

But that doesn't make either war just. As Matt points out, even if you believe the Israeli attack on Gaza was justified, that doesn't exclude the possibility of war crimes in its execution. Is this so hard to understand? Jews of all people - the victims of war crimes of unimaginable evil - should know this. And exchange anger and paranoia for the integrity they once had.