The big word in Middle East politics this week is "disproportionate." Political leaders around the world love it, and no wonder. Applied to the Israel-Hamas struggle, it quietly weakens Israel's position and displays sympathy for the Palestinians while making those who use it feel both righteous and compassionate.
Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero of Spain says that "to a friend like Israel, you have to tell the truth. And if you think the reaction is disproportionate, you have to say so." He makes it sound like a favour he's doing for Israel. Nicolas Sarkozy, the French President, has criticized "disproportionate use of force." Louis Michel, aid commissioner of the European Union, calls Israel's attack on Hamas "totally disproportionate." Dozens of other politicians have said the same.
The Canadian Press, in a 744-word story on reactions to the Gaza campaign in Canada (total number of anti-Israel words in that story: 744), managed to find a man-in-the-street to utter it during a Vancouver protest -- a man who said "extremely disproportionate."
That word bundles together ambiguity, deception and covert hostility to Israel's dream of a secure future. It says: "I of course support Israel's right to defend itself -- but not in this way." We are expected to assume there must be a better way to defeat Israel's tormentors, a way that will win the world's respect. No one ever explains this strategy, perhaps because no such strategy exists.
A recent article by Natan Sharansky, who served 10 years as a Cabinet minister in Israel, outlined the historic context of this issue. In June, 2001, the most recent in a series of suicide bombings that had started the previous September killed 21 Israelis at a Tel Aviv discotheque. Several Cabinet ministers wanted to endorse an IDF plan to strike back at the bases of the killers but that idea was dropped when foreign leaders, horrified, predicted that military action would provoke international disapproval.
During the next nine months, the bombing of restaurants, hotels and public spaces became a persistent part of life in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Ordinary activity was paralyzed.
The terror reached a climax when more than 130 Israelis were killed in one month, March, 2002. The Cabinet sat all night to discuss Israel's response. Finally it authorized Operation Defensive Shield, a series of attacks on terrorist centres.
Naturally, the UN and many countries condemned Israel. The American secretary of state, Colin Powell, insisted that the operation stop. Pro-Palestinian propagandists damned Israelis as war criminals, spreading an elaborate lie about a massacre at Jenin -- and media around the world believed them.
And yet, as Sharansky remembers it, this was a relatively small price to pay for what followed. Terror was crippled. The number of Israelis killed fell to fewer than a dozen during the following year. The Second Intifada was over. Israel's cities came to life again. And so did the West Bank, where economy grew healthier over the next six years: "If there is hope in the West Bank today, it is because Israel abandoned the ideas of proportionality and diplomacy in handling terror," Sharansky says.
Israel's critics demonstrate a meagre grasp of its situation. In thinking and talking about the Middle East, too few in the West show any imagination. Israel faces a relentless, implacable enemy. Diplomacy and "the peace process" will do nothing to stop Hamas or its sponsoring nation, Iran. Hamas doesn't want a better deal with Israel; it wants Israel to cease existing, as does Iran. To achieve that end they will proudly sacrifice many of their own people, not only warriors but also women, children and the old.
Israeli forces are ordered to avoid harm to civilians wherever possible. So far as we can judge by the reporting from Gaza, this policy is being followed. But so long as Hamas hides behind women and children the results are inevitable: Women and child will in some cases suffer and die.
Given that fact, given that heavy civilian losses are inevitable, should Israel simply decline to fight? Perhaps some nation, somewhere, will take that attitude at some unforeseeable moment in the future. It would be a truly radical idea, lifting Gandhi's principle of civil disobedience to the level of national policy. We can hardly expect that Israel, which has always lived under the threat of destruction by its Middle East neighbours, will be the first to take that bold and possibly suicidal step. Yet that's the course implied by those who glibly and piously condemn "disproportionate" warfare.