So why not adopt the strategy of nonviolent civil disobedience, the methods of Gandhi? That question has been asked for years, by moderate Israelis and by Westerners with sympathy for both sides. It comes packed with assumptions. It implies that Israelis accept a civilian death toll like that in Gaza only when they believe it is the unavoidable price of self-defense. It presumes that Israel remains a society whose citizens would not long allow their government to use deadly force against masses of nonviolent demonstrators. And it suggests that if Palestinians succeeded in shedding the image of terrorists and appeared internationally as saints, they would succeed in bringing unbearable Western pressure against Israel.
But even if patronizing, the question remains valid: Sainthood can work. Britain abandoned India; Montgomery's buses were desegregated.
As an Israeli, to imagine Nasser a-Din al-Masri is disturbing for another reason: This is a fantasy of a political savior who comes from the adversary's side because one's own has no answers. Israeli politics has become a junkyard of broken ideologies. The outgoing government of Ehud Olmert succeeded neither in negotiating peace nor in bringing quiet to the Gazan border with military force. Meanwhile, settlement construction continued, deepening Israel's entanglement in the West Bank. In February's election, a majority of Israelis voted for parties that offered no expectation of an end to the conflict. We have failed to manufacture hope. Let the Palestinians do it.
One potential answer to the mystery of the missing Gandhi is that the presumptions about Israel and the West are self-delusion. That answer says that Israel is ready to use overwhelming force against civilians, even when rockets are not being launched from their midst. It says that Israelis are not the civilized Englishmen of the Raj, that Israeli brutality is the father of Palestinian fury, and that in an age of wide belief in the "conflict of civilizations," the West is mostly willing to avert its eyes when Muslims or Arabs are the victims.
On the face of it, this answer suffers an obvious flaw: The British did not face Indian resistance as if engaged in a cricket match. The Amritsar Massacre of 1919, in which British troops opened fire on a gathering of thousands of peaceful Indians, killing and wounding hundreds, did not convince Gandhi to steal weapons and take to the hills. Rather, it deepened his commitment to satyagraha, non-violent action.
An alternative answer is that the problem is Islam. Palestinian society, says this hypothesis, is 98 percent Muslim, and Islam sanctifies jihad. After Hamas's introduction of suicide attacks to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict--and after 9/11--the hypothesis demands attention. Its own glaring flaw is that Islam has no monopoly on terrorism or holy war. But perhaps a religion whose founder was a warrior has prevented the emergence of an enemy of violence. Perhaps it has no room for the shahid, the martyr, who is willing to die without blowing himself up in a café or bus.
To find why a figure is absent from history is intrinsically more difficult than explaining why he is present. The search cannot yield the certain resolution of a detective novel. Nonetheless, I went looking for the missing Mahatma.