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Israel's 9/11 Moment
As you must know unless you’ve been living in a cave these past few days, Hamas recently launched horrific attacks on Israel near the Gaza strip, during which more than 1,000 civilians were murdered and at least 150 others were abducted. As far as civilians are concerned, this is by far the worst attack in Israel’s history. Even during the 1936-1939 Arab revolt in Palestine, which predates the creation of Israel, not as many Jews were murdered in the region. The scale of this disaster has naturally led many people to compare it to 9/11. This comparison seems apt not only for the obvious reasons, but also because of what is likely to follow. As French journalist Jean-Dominique Merchet noted the other day, if last weekend’s attacks are Israel’s 9/11, then it must be feared that Israel will commit the same kind of strategic mistakes that the US did back then. As a result of 9/11, not only did the US launch into a 20-year long occupation of Afghanistan that ended in a calamitous retreat, but it also invaded Iraq on fallacious pretexts, which ultimately resulted in a massive increase of Iran’s influence in the region and greatly damaged the US reputation around the world.
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One of the best things I have read on foreign policy recently is Michael Mazarr’s book on the decision to invade Iraq. He demonstrates convincingly that Bush and other US officials made that decision primarily because, instead of instrumental rationality, their decision-making was dominated by a value-driven logic and the conviction that attacking Iraq simply was the right thing to do, independently of cost-benefit considerations. He compares what happened after 9/11 with the process that led to the escalation of US involvement in Vietnam:
George Ball, the famous dissenter in the US escalation decisions for Vietnam, wrote of the fact that analytical arguments simply bounced off people who believed they “must” do something. “To my dismay,” he wrote of the reactions to his prescient arguments that US strategy in Vietnam was bound to fail, “I found no sympathy for these views. Both McNamara and Gilpatric seemed preoccupied with the single question, How can the United States stop South Vietnam from a Viet Cong takeover? How did I propose to avoid it? The ‘falling domino’ theory was a brooding omnipresence.” Official statements of US commitment to South Vietnam, Ball continued, “had the sound and solemnity of a religious oath: ‘We now take the decision to commit ourselves to the objective of preventing the fall of South Vietnam to Communism.” The solemnity of a religious oath—exactly the right way, I think, to understand the convictions that burst to the fore after 9/11.
I think that, after the horrors of last weekend, this is more or less where Israel is and it will predictably lead to similar results.
When people are filled with righteous anger, you shouldn’t expect good decisions, what you should expect is strategic mistakes of epic proportions and moral failures on a massive scale. The US invaded Afghanistan and Iraq not because, after carefully weighing the costs and benefits of the different available options, it determined that it was the best thing to do, but primarily because in the aftermath of 9/11 US officials felt very strongly that they had to do something and, since a bipartisan consensus in favor of regime change in Iraq had been growing in the US throughout the 1990s, it provided a natural outlet for that urge to do something after they were done, or rather thought they were done, in Afghanistan. In the face of last weekend’s horrors, and Hamas’s obvious immorality, people in Israel are unsurprisingly filled with the same kind of righteous anger as Americans after 9/11 and will predictably see the destruction of Hamas as the obvious response. Just as Americans never seriously paused to consider how the occupation of Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq would advance their agenda, Israeli won’t seriously ponder the question of whether they actually can destroy Hamas, at what cost and whether it would even solve their problem in the long run. Anyone who asks that kind of questions will be accused of sympathy toward Hamas, which is why few people will. By the time people realize what they’re about to do was stupid, it will be too late.
Let’s think for a moment about what Israel can realistically hope to accomplish and whether it would help them in the long run. It’s not even clear to me that Israel can actually destroy Hamas or what this would mean exactly. If the Israeli try, and I think they almost certainly will, they will have to do a massive ground invasion of Gaza. In theory, I’m sure they could kill almost every member of Hamas over there, but in such a crowded place this would result in massive civilian casualties. In turn, this would result in strong international pressure to adopt tactics that are less costly in terms of civilian lives, which might just make the destruction of Hamas impossible. I agree that, for various reasons, Israel benefits from a double standard in the West to some extent, but there are limits to it and the West will not tolerate hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths in Gaza. If Israel tries to destroy Hamas, there will be a constant stream of shocking videos that will profoundly affect Western public opinion and have a very negative effect on Israel’s reputation abroad, including among Jews in the West. Of course, right now there is a wave of sympathy for Israel in the West, but it would be a mistake to think that it wouldn’t be affected by the kind of operation Israel seems poised to launch in Gaza. Arab governments will also be under intense pressure from their public opinion to react, which will not only affect Israel directly through the deterioration of bilateral relations, but also indirectly because Western governments still depend on them in various ways and can’t totally ignore their reaction.
Thus, I think that if Israel tries to literally destroy Hamas, not only will it suffer a massive economic and political cost, but it will probably fail because that cost will force it to give up on their initial goal before it has achieved it. But let’s say that I’m wrong and that Israel somehow manages to destroy Hamas once and for all. What then? The Israeli will have to stay and administer the Gaza strip directly, because if they just leave, not only will the chaos result in even more civilian deaths and further damage their reputation abroad, but sooner or later something like Hamas will emerge from the chaos and take control of the area, at which point Israel will be back to square one. It’s also unlikely Fatah will accept to replace Hamas after the carnage that will have taken place over there, because it would be very unpopular. Even if Fatah did accept or Israel were able to create another movement to take over the administration of the Gaza strip, Fatah or that group would be seen as collaborators and rejected by the population, so Israel would still have to be involved in some fashion. Thus, the occupation will be much costlier than in the West Bank, where Israel can delegate to the Palestinian Authority. Indeed, even the cost of the occupation in the West Bank will predictably increase, because the carnage in Gaza will obviously result in massive unrest in the West Bank.
So even if Israel managed to destroy Hamas and the conflict remained limited to Gaza and the West Bank, which remains to be seen, it would have to devote much more resources to the occupation than before. Moreover, sooner or later (probably sooner rather than later), other groups like Hamas will emerge. The Israeli will again face waves of terrorism against both the IDF in the occupied territories and civilians in Israel. Inevitably, as Israel deploys more troops in the territories and retaliates against terrorist attacks, Israeli police and soldiers will commit atrocities against Palestinian civilians. This already happens on a regular basis, but it will happen even more often and, after the carnage in Gaza, international public opinion will ignore it less and the cost for Israel will correspondingly increase. Both sides will be further radicalized by this cycle of violence and Israel in particular will increasingly resemble a weird third-world country, with dysfunctional institutions and where genocidal language is normalized. Most people in the West don’t know much about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and, if they tend to side with Israel, it’s mostly because they identify with Israeli society more. This will become less true if Israel goes down that slippery slope. In fact, the Israeli were already on it before (as many people have noted in recent years), but if they try to destroy Hamas it will predictably accelerate this process.
To speak frankly, the only way Israel could solve the problem by the use of force would be to commit genocide and physically exterminate the Palestinians, which fortunately is not going to happen because even after last weekend’s attacks the Israeli still won’t be capable of that and the international community would prevent it anyway. Short of that, the use of force will only solve their problem temporarily, while making it worse in the long run. They could make life even more intolerable in Gaza and the West Bank, to induce Palestinian emigration, but realistically they are not going to empty the Palestinian territories like that and the reduction in the size of the population would likely be more than compensated by the increase in radicalization this sort of strategy would produce. In short, there is no realistic scenario in which trying to destroy Hamas will help the Israeli and on the contrary it’s guaranteed to make things worse in the long run, but that’s probably what they’re going to try anyway because as I noted above people are not in the mood to be instrumentally rational at the moment. They want revenge and they will have it, but it will cost them more than they think.
I know it’s not popular to say that, especially after what happened last weekend, but the only way Israel can meaningfully address the problem is by negotiating and trying to reach a political settlement of the conflict. Realistically, this means the Israeli will have to negotiate with Hamas, because they have to talk to the interlocutors they have and not the ones they wish they had. At this point, whether they like it or not, Fatah no longer has the authority to speak for the Palestinians on its own. The alternative is to try and destroy Hamas, but as we have seen, that’s unlikely to succeed and, even if Israel somehow pulls it off, this will only make things worse in the long run. Sooner or later Israel will have to talk to groups that, whether they include Hamas or not, will be similar. I know people think a negotiated settlement is impossible, but I think their arguments are bad. They say that Hamas can’t be pragmatic, but I don’t think the evidence supports that view. They say that the Palestinians are not willing to make any concessions, but as a matter of historical fact, that is false. They draw mistaken conclusions from polling because they fail to appreciate how public opinion is shaped by political developments. In general, they have a superficial knowledge of the conflict’s history and never try to put themselves in the shoes of Palestinians to see it from their point of view, which makes them frame the debate in a deeply flawed way. In effect, people would like the Israeli to live the kind of peaceful and carefree life that people in the West enjoys while operating a sort of apartheid regime, but that’s just not possible. In a sense, I agree that such a settlement is impossible at the moment, but that’s only because most people accept those bad arguments. However, that’s a story for another time, so I’ll leave it at that for now.
I have mostly been talking about the cost to Israel, because I want people to understand that what is about to happen won’t even benefit Israel in the long run, but to be clear I obviously don’t think that’s the only relevant consideration. The truth is that Israel is probably about to commit war crimes on a massive scale in Gaza and this should be denounced just as firmly as when Russia commits war crimes in Ukraine. Collateral damage is inevitable in war, but the decision to cut water, food and electricity supplies and more generally to inflict collective punishment on the Palestinians in Gaza is absolutely unacceptable and unworthy of a civilized nation. Something like that can only be morally permissible for reasons of self-preservation, but despite the hysterical rhetoric that people use, Israel’s survival is not currently at risk and making that obviously correct point doesn’t in any way minimize the horror of what happened last weekend. To be perfectly honest, like most people in the West, I don’t feel much emotional connection to the Palestinians, but I recognize that it’s mostly for aesthetic reasons that don’t carry any moral weight and intellectually I understand that Palestinians have been for decades the victims of a grave injustice. I think it’s inevitable that people instinctively have more sympathy for some groups than others, but we should strive not to let that kind of bias affect our moral judgments. As the father of Noa Argamani, who was abducted by Hamas last weekend, recently said in a very moving interview: "[The Palestinians] have casualties and dead too, they also have mothers who are crying."
P. S. Someone on Twitter noted that nowhere in this post do I explain what I think Israel should do in the short term. This is a fair point, so I wanted to make a few brief remarks about it. In a way, if I didn’t say anything about that, it’s because unfortunately I’m convinced that it would be pointless since people are not going to do what I think they should. What I was describing in this post is something like a Greek tragedy. Everyone whom the gods have not rendered mad can see that we’re headed toward disaster, but also that it will happen no matter what they say, because the wheels of fate have already been set in motion and nothing will stop them now. What Israel should do in the short term is the same thing it should do in the long term, namely pursue a negotiated settlement of the conflict, but obviously that’s completely unrealistic politically because people in Israel would not tolerate that their government do nothing to punish the authors of last weekend’s attacks, even if doing so will only make things worse.
I would prefer that Israel start negotiations to obtain the liberation of the hostages who have been abducted by Hamas, then take steps to relaunch the peace process, but in the circumstances the best we can hope for is probably that it will only engage in a limited military operation in Gaza instead of trying to destroy Hamas, though I think even that is still overoptimistic. In a sense, I think the question that motivated this post scriptum is flawed because it presupposes that there is something Israel can do that would improve the situation in the short term and that it will necessarily involve the use of force, but I think there isn’t and the assumption that there must be is an instance of what I call the we-must-do-something fallacy. Insofar as it’s true that Israel has to do something that involves the use of force in response to what happened last weekend, it’s only in the sense that totally foregoing the use of force in the circumstances is not politically realistic, but it doesn’t mean that it’s true in a deeper sense. It is not.
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