Hope and pessimism mingled in roughly equal measure at the Jewish Center of the Hamptons on Monday morning as pro-Israel panelists from the worlds of media and academia discussed the seven-week war in Gaza, the rise of violent Islamic radicalism, and the surge of anti-Semitism around the world.
Speaking to a standing-room-only crowd, Mortimer Zuckerman, an East Hampton resident who is the publisher of the New York Daily News and editor in chief of U.S. News and World, expressed the panelists’ united defense of the Israeli military’s conduct in the war. Hamas, Mr. Zuckerman said, the militant group that governs Gaza and does not recognize Israel’s right to exist, launched missiles at Israel from densely populated areas, effectively using civilians as human shields. He also sought to provide context to reports that more than 2,000 Palestinian civilians had been killed in the war by noting that 378,000 German civilians and 580,000 Japanese civilians were killed in World War II.
“This is not a moral strike against Israel,” he said. Other panelists said the criticism of Palestinian casualties ignores what they said were the extraordinary measures taken to warn of impending action through leaflets, text messages, and telephone calls.
Mr. Zuckerman had recently toured one of the tunnels Hamas had built. “It was stunning to see what had been done,” he said, describing miles-long passageways large enough for trucks with electricity and telecommunication facilities. Describing some as having reached either side of an Israeli kibbutz, he said, “That’s when you realized how precarious Israel’s basic, fundamental security is.”
Some of the panelists called the situation intractable and said it had often been exacerbated by the United States, where political support for Israel seems to be waning. Others voiced optimism, calling the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria a phenomenon that will inevitably galvanize Western civilization and Arab countries alike to act against it.
According to Mr. Zuckerman, with Hamas severely weakened by the war and the Palestinian majority in favor of a political settlement with Israel, a peace initiative is now possible, involving Arab countries concerned about a nuclear Iran, fundamentalist Islam, and overall instability in the Middle East. The opponents of Israel, he said, “are not Palestinians but radical Islam, which is now recognized by many of the other Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. On the theory that ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend,’ Israel is now recognized by other Arab countries as a potential ally,” he said.
Judith Miller, whose reporting on Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction in The New York Times was ultimately discredited, also struck an optimistic note. Despite 12 million displaced people in the Middle East and religious and ethnic groups being systematically driven from their homes, “I am not as worried because I think ISIS has done the world a great service.” She said it had “awakened the American public and Western civilization to the danger and horror of these people.” Even President Obama, whom Ms. Miller called “reflexively passive,” has called the organization barbaric, she said.
In Ms. Miller’s opinion, Arabs will ultimately reject the more radical groups. “They will turn their backs on them just as they turned their backs on Al Qaeda in Iraq,” she said. While a strong critic of President Obama’s policies, she said she was “not a critic of his taking his time to figure out what’s the best way to isolate and destroy these people, because, make no mistake about it, Barack Obama is no pacifist. He kills comfortably from 20,000 feet, from drones. What he doesn’t want to do is send in more Americans to get killed, and get in the middle of a huge, generational, fundamental struggle for the future of Islam.”
Ms. Miller said that conversations with Saudi Arabians and Egypt’s president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, reveal “a huge strategic opportunity for the United States.” That, she said, is to “push people to do what is in their strategic interest right now, which is to deny the Islamists at least one argument, which is ‘the Israelis are part of a Western camp who will never want peace with Arabs and the only thing we can do is fight them.’ If we are perceived as having our initiative with our new Arab allies — Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., Israel, Egypt — you can begin to at least appear to make some progress.”
Among the other panelists, John Podhoretz, the editor of Commentary and a New York Post columnist, was pessimistic that a lasting agreement between Israel and the Palestiinians could be reached. Alarmed by the rise of anti-Semitism aligned with the war, he said, “This is really striking. The notion that Hamas launches a war, Israel responds to the war, and the complete blending, in this case, of a national action by a sovereign state in response to a specific set of circumstances with the existence of Jews, particularly in Europe.” He allowed, however that perhaps ISIS represents “a new kind of threat that will crystallize and focus some of these governments, but it does not appear to be having that effect on populations in those countries.”
Richard Stone, a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and a professor at the Columbia University School of Law, said that an Israeli-Palestinian settlement would not placate groups like ISIS or Boko Haram, the extremists who continue to plague Nigeria, where it kidnapped more than 250 schoolgirls in April.
Richard Cohen, a columnist for The Washington Post, called himself “a long-term worrier” and expressed dismay about the U.S.-Israel relationship. “I can see Israel . . . becoming a pariah state in much of the world. It’s certainly becoming that in Europe, it’s certainly becoming that in South America, it’s becoming that on American campuses, which is the future,” he said. “In the long term, this lack of support among young people in America will start to erode the political support for Israel in the United States.”
Kenneth Bialkin, a Water Mill resident who moderated the panel and is chairman of the American-Israel Friend?ship League, had introduced the program.
“We — hopers for a better future — had better get our act together and speak up,” he said.