Israel's two wars
One is bloody but justified, the other is lower-key and wrong
The humanitarian toll of Israel’s war in the Gaza Strip is immense, which naturally gives most people pause.
The situation is worrying — it would be inhumane to find it otherwise — and obviously Israel should follow the laws of war and respond in as measured a manner as possible. I do think, though, that a lot of critics overlook the extent to which this humanitarian disaster is an inevitable consequence of waging war in a place with the population density of Philadelphia or Chicago. It’s not like Israel is avoiding military targets in favor of shelling a city (something that does happen in wars) or deliberately targeting a civilian population center as a means of psychological warfare (something the United States has done in the past).
If your house is destroyed or your children are starving or a piece of rubble just crushed your femur, you’re not going to care about any of that.
But Israel really did try to maintain a modus vivendi with Hamas for a long time, Hamas really did break out of that dynamic with a spectacular attack on civilians, and countries who are attacked are allowed to counterattack. The civilian toll is tragic, but on some level I can understand why Israelis and others who are strongly pro-Israel are baffled by the vehemence of the condemnations.
One problem, I think, is that while Israel is waging a just war in Gaza, they are in parallel waging an unjust war in the West Bank. This second war is much less spectacular, much more of a slow burn, and at the moment, is causing much less death and destruction to innocent civilians. That these two wars — one just but spectacularly deadly, one unjust but lower-key — are playing out in tandem is contributing to a confused and polarized debate over a set of issues that were already quite fraught. It also, in my view, greatly complicates the question of the right policy response for the United States of America. As a matter of pure-position taking, I think it’s easy to say that the right stance is “Hamas is bad, it is correct to make war on them, but the ongoing colonization of the West Bank is also bad and Israel ought to halt and partially reverse it.” But I don’t know that foreign countries can actually craft a policy that makes that outcome any more likely.
The war for the West Bank
Probably the closest the Israel-Palestine conflict ever came to a resolution was these two maps presented by Israel and the Palestinian Authority at a 2008 summit hosted by Condoleezza Rice in Annapolis. Conceptually, these maps both show the same thing: Israel annexes some settlements and, in exchange, gives the Palestinians some sparsely populated land.
The proposals obviously are not identical. Israel was trying to minimize the number of settlements that would need to be evacuated and the PA was trying to maximize the contiguity of the West Bank. In the Israeli proposal, for example, the desire to annex the large block of settlements east of Jerusalem creates some very awkward transportation logistics for the connections between Ramallah and al-Quds and Bethlehem. Annexing Ariel further north also sort of strands Qalqilya.
But conceptually, it’s a common framework, and at these talks the Palestinians were willing to essentially give up on the Right of Return.
No agreement was reached, though, and the day after he made this proposal, Ehud Olmert was forced from office by a corruption scandal. The religious party, Shas, that was part of his coalition disliked this proposal. And at the subsequent election, even though Olmert’s successor as the head of Kadima got one more seat that Bibi Netanyahu’s Likud, it was Likud that formed the government thanks to Shas’ preference for Netanyahu and to the strength of other right-wing parties. Since that time, Israel has mostly been led by Likud-centric Netanyahu governments. And Netanyahu’s coalition partners have become increasingly right-wing during this span, while the Israeli left has collapsed to the point where the last non-Netanyahu coalition heavily featured Naftali Bennett, who is right-wing on the Palestinian issue.
All this time since Annapolis, it’s not just that military occupation of the West Bank continues, it’s that the footprint of the settlements has been growing — and is subsidized — while Israel denies Palestinians’ building permits. The upshot of this is that if you re-ran the basic concepts that both sides were working with at Annapolis, it would be much harder today. Drawing an equivalent of Olmert’s proposal would leave the West Bank with even less contiguity, and finding adequate terrain for land swaps would be harder. And drawing an equivalent of Abbas’s proposal would require even larger population transfers.
And to be clear, this isn’t some kind of accident.
Opposition leader Tzipi Livni made the case to the voters that Netanyahu and endless settlement expansion would make a two-state solution harder and harder and generate more and more global efforts to delegitimize Israel. I said this a lot during Barack Obama’s first term, lots of liberal Jews in the diaspora said it, lots of liberal Jews in Israel said it, Obama and his team said it. The Israeli voters just disagreed. Netanyahu has never, going back to his first term as prime minister, agreed with the idea of a two-state solution, and his coalition partners have been increasingly committed to driving Palestinians out of the West Bank so it can be seized by Israel.
This war for the West Bank has been happening on a slow burn for a long time. It intensified the moment the current Netanyahu coalition came to power because that coalition includes some very hard-core far right elements, and it has further intensified since October 7. The Israeli security forces are not focused on protecting Palestinians from Jewish violence, Israeli opinion has shifted further to the right, and settlers are fired up. This is all much less spectacular and much less deadly than what’s happening in Gaza. But unlike what’s happening in Gaza, it has no basis in legitimate security concerns or the laws of war.
The war on Hamas
Gaza, by contrast, is lying in ruin. The pictures coming out of the war zone are striking in ways that tear at the heartstrings.
But I think in Gaza, Israel fundamentally is pursuing a just cause, though this is not to endorse all of their tactics. They were attacked by a violent Islamist movement whose stated goal is the eradication of their country and its replacement by an autocratic Islamist regime. The leaders of this movement based themselves in a dense urban area such that the only possible way of counterattacking them will generate massive collateral damage. That’s incredibly sad, but fundamentally says more about the irresponsibility of Hamas than about the irresponsibility of the IDF.
One cannot simply impute guilt for Hamas’ crimes to every Palestinian. But I do think it’s not well understood in the US that the group was acting broadly in line with the preferences of Gaza’s population. Polling from June by Dr. Khalil Shikaki of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research showed that most Gazans wanted a return to armed struggle:
When asked about the most effective means of ending the Israeli occupation and building an independent state, the public split into three groups: 52% chose armed struggle (55% in the Gaza Strip and 49% in the West Bank), 21% negotiations, and 22% popular resistance. Three months ago, 54% chose armed struggle and 18% chose negotiations.
That doesn’t make the loss of life any less tragic.
But I do think it underscores that, in Gaza, Israel’s goals are broadly consistent with normal wartime activity. It’s of course true that the situation in pre-war Gaza was not good. But nothing was stopping Hamas from articulating a set of demands for improving conditions in the Gaza Strip or even asking the international community to support the creation of an independent Republic of Gaza. Unlike in the West Bank, Israel was not trying to poach land in Gaza. And in fact, because Gaza has no particular religious significance, I think even the most right-wing Israelis have barely expressed interest in this territory qua land.
The significance of Gaza to Israel is good-faith national security concerns (they don’t want it used as a base for military attacks on Israel) and a question of population counts, since the existence of millions of Palestinians in Gaza undermines a Jewish majority. But precisely for that reason, if Egypt had asked for Gaza during Jimmy Carter’s administration, they almost certainly could have gotten it. Even the idea that pre-war Gaza was an “open air prison,” while not totally wrong, begs the question of why Egypt is collaborating in keeping the doors locked. And the answer is the Egyptians don’t want Hamas running around the Sinai Peninsula any more than the Israelis want them running around the Negev.
As I said in my free speech post, I believe in generally taking people at their word and presuming good faith.
So when anti-Israel protestors say they are not pro-Hamas and when people who chant “from the river to the sea” say they favor the creation of a secular democracy with equal rights for all, I think that we should believe them. But strong critics of Israel and Israeli policy are letting their subjective sentiments about this cloud their analysis of the Hamas problem. After all, Hamas does not favor the creation of a secular democracy with equal rights for all. That’s not how they run the Gaza Strip, and it’s not their stated aim. And even if a post-Zionist administration somehow came to power in Israel, they’d still need to deal with Hamas. Because otherwise, simply tearing down the walls around Gaza and saying “everyone gets to vote now” would be the prelude to civil war, not democracy.
Position-taking from the outside
Much of the current debate is taking place in the form of chants, memes, and tweets, none of which are ideal modes for communicating even slightly complicated ideas.
But I think the basic situation is actually pretty clear: Both Hamas’ desire to create a unitary Islamic Republic and Israel’s desire to expel Palestinians from the West Bank are illegitimate. A lot of people focus on the horrifying aspects of Hamas’ tactics, which is fair. But Israel has not been responsive to non-violent protest. The problem here, I think, is predominantly one of aims.
Comparing Israel to apartheid South Africa is in vogue on the left. And this analysis has some merit, but I think it ultimately paints a misleading portrait of Hamas’ political goals. Supporting the African National Congress’ vision of a multi-racial democracy with equal rights was a good idea in large part because this is what the ANC was campaigning for. It’s true that the ANC’s opponents said “oh no, that’s not true, Nelson Mandela is just a front for Communism.” But an important aspect of Mandela’s victory was convincing people that wasn't the case (the end of the Cold War helped).
Hamas is not doing that, so most of the western pro-Palestinian advocacy consists of fairly vacuous position-taking. Someone says, “there should be a secular democracy with equal rights” — but how?
At the same time, the sensible center position on this (which I endorse) is also fairly vacuous position-taking. “There should be a two-state solution” — okay, but how?
The reality is that Israel is trying to seize the West Bank and Hamas is trying to establish an Islamic state. There’s a lot that outsiders could do to effectively intervene in the debate between the Abbas map and the Olmert map, because even though the differences there mattered, the parties shared a common framework. But what outsiders are doing today is really just a kind of discourse lawyering. One guy says the illegitimacy of the Israeli project in the West Bank shows that the two-state solution is dead, so Israel is presumptively illegitimate, so normal Israeli wartime activities in Gaza should be characterized as a form of genocide. The other guy says the illegitimacy of the Hamas project shows that Israel needs our material support, which in practice amounts to material support for dispossession of West Bank Palestinians.
The same dialogue greatly exacerbates the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. The civilian population of a war zone would normally flee, in this case primarily to Egypt. Watching refugees flee war zones is heartbreaking, but it saves many lives relative to the alternative. But right now, not only does Egypt want to keep the border sealed, nobody wants to criticize Egypt for sealing the border because “refugees should be allowed to flee to safety” is seen as complicity in an Israeli campaign of ethnic cleansing. On one level, I think that’s insane — the international community is sacrificing the lives of thousands of Gazans in order to make Israel look bad — but it is actually true that Israeli policy in the West Bank points toward ethnic cleansing as their strategy.
What is to be done?
Several non-specialists who I like recommended Shadi Hamid’s post, which opens with “I’ve been getting this question a lot, so here's an attempt to answer it. If I were advising President Biden, what would I suggest?”
I think the post mostly underscores the extent to which it’s a very hard question. Step three in his six part plan is “in exchange for Israel halting its bombardment of Gaza and any ground invasion, Hamas agrees to release all hostages and offload governing responsibilities in Gaza onto the Palestinian Authority. A ceasefire would allow for this to be negotiated.” And then in step five, he says that America should condition ongoing military aid to Israel and “after a cessation of hostilities, the U.S. should put pressure on the Israeli government to accept a Palestinian state and commit itself a peace process that would lead to the establishment of two states—but this time any ‘peace process’ would need to be real, not the pretend one of the past 15 years.”
On one level, I completely agree with what he’s saying.
In essence, the Hamid Plan is that Hamas should surrender to Israel in the Gaza War and Israel should surrender to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank War. And I agree entirely that is the thing that should happen. That’s why in my joke plan, the critical third step is for both Israelis and Palestinians to develop different preferences from the ones they actually have:
Obviously that’s not a real solution to anything. But I think a lot of these other proposed solutions are just ways of talking around it.
It’s true that American aid to Israel gives us leverage over them, and Biden has made tactical use of that leverage around things like getting Israel to restore internet access to Gaza and pushing for humanitarian supplies. But twisting Netanyahu’s arm into engaging in a good-faith diplomatic process with the Palestinians is impossible — that’s not what good faith means! My guess is that by the end of this, Biden and/or the Saudis will, in fact, have twisted Netanyahu’s arm into some kind of window-dressing political process to help them with their own political problems, but that’s different. And of course the Palestinians know Netanyahu has worked his whole career to subvert a two-state solution, and so they won’t negotiate with him in good faith, either.
America should normalize its relationship with Israel
For the record, in accordance with the established manner of discussing this issue, I think that what Israel “should” do is ditch Netanyahu, kick the far-right and religious parties out of the coalition government, and form a real national unity government with Likud, Yesh Atid, Blue & White, and Labor. That government should pause the attack on Gaza for humanitarian purposes. And then, in consultation with Egypt, Jordan, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia, it should try to form a broad coalition whose aim is to defeat Hamas and counter Iran. That multi-faceted effort would have to include:
Immediate meaningful anti-settlement measures as a gesture of good faith to the Palestinians.
Provision for Gazan civilians to flee to the Sinai Peninsula, with ironclad Israeli guarantees that they will be able to return to Gaza and plenty of Gulf money to help take care of people.
An opportunity for Hamas leaders to admit they are surrounded and isolated and surrender.
A vision for postwar Gaza as a non-blockaded entity (albeit with strict Israeli border security) run by the Palestinian Authority.
Rapid, high-intensity negotiations to settle the eventual border between Israel and the Republic of Palestine.
That's what they should do. If they ask me, I will tell them that. If Joe Biden asks me what he should tell them, I will tell him to pass the word on. But I bet Biden already told them that. Israeli political leaders aren’t stupid; they know what American liberals think they should do. They just disagree.
Where I ultimately come down is that the big problem with this issue, as a question of American public policy, is that it has attracted so much attention and interest over the years that it has created a large community of subject matter experts. Subject matter experts are great, but their inherent bias is toward thinking that their thing is very important. So across their whole range of perspectives, their thought is always that America should do more — do more to support Israel or do more to coerce Israel or some of both.
What we ought to do, though, is less.
Give Israel less material assistance (it’s not a poor country, and it’s not at risk of getting outgunned by Hamas). Put more diplomatic separation between us on the world stage, but also make it clear that we’re not going to coerce them into not retaliating against attacks or otherwise doing normal stuff. We should try to just have a normal relationship with them, like our relationship with Turkey or Thailand or Chile, where we don’t send them massive subsidies but also things just keep on keeping on, even though we don’t agree with or approve of all the things their governments do.
A lot of people on the internet are convinced that absent American assistance, Israel would be forced to deal more pragmatically with the Palestinians.
My suspicion is it might be the reverse, and Israel would be more brutal. But the basic logic of “Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf states have a common interest in forging a coalition against Iran but can’t really do this without a resolution of the Palestinian issue” is sufficiently obvious that none of the relevant parties actually need the United States to point it out to them. What we need to do is admit that we cannot solve this problem and then try to contain the diplomatic blast radius by stepping back from the situation.