How to Think About…The Israel-Gaza War

The Fallacy of a Solution

Not every problem is solvable – at least in the sense of there being some immediate set of actions that will remove (or even alleviate) the problem. No single actor in the Middle East has control of the problem and most of those who might appear to be able to make decisions are severely constrained in what they can do. People are strongly motivated to believe that “if they were in charge” things would be better or different. But history strongly suggests that this is not the case. This is not a prescription for despair but for humility. Positive changes in public policy are hard even inside stable, productive and safe democracies. Positive change between peoples separated by a great cultural divide, religious antipathy, envy, and generations of hatred and blood feud?

Good luck with that.

So, thinking clearly about the problem doesn’t necessarily mean finding a solution and, in this case, almost certainly means the reverse. Nor is any aspect of this problem clear, simple or predictable. I certainly don’t claim to any idea how things will play out in the coming weeks or years.

A long-term solution is not impossible. We’ve seen historically intractable situations improve dramatically and often in a surprisingly short time. Ireland, South Africa, and Germany – each a kind of miracle – illustrate how dramatic and unexpected change can be. Good things do happen, and they sometimes happen very suddenly.

Not too long ago, the blood feud in Ireland with its clash of religion and long, violent history of resentment looked unsolvable. Now it seems like a bloody fever-dream. The fall of the Apartheid regime in South Africa is even more surprising given a local history of violent oppression, racial discrimination and divide, and entrenched prejudice. And while German re-unification was inevitable in the absence of the Soviet fist, the fall of the Soviet Union is still hard to comprehend. That a system should become so transparently awful that even those it most benefitted could no longer believe in it is, in the history of the world, almost unprecedented.

Yet there are many reasons for thinking that the Palestinian problem is worse than any of these and likely to be less tractable. The divide between Israeli’s and Palestinians isn’t imposed by external power. It lacks any clearly inevitable end (South Africa benefitted from the sobering realization of its white ruling class that they could not possibly sustain their social order). And, unlike Ireland, there is little shared culture between the two sides.

Perhaps a weariness will settle in that changes the facts on the ground for both sides. It could happen. But none of it will happen from the outside and, for the most part, it will have to set the table for policy changes, not be driven by them. That kind of weariness hasn’t arrived yet and the road is already long and terrible. The time for hope looks far away.

For now, Israel will go into Gaza and attempt to destroy Hamas. They’ll do this because they must. Israeli’s will expect retribution, and no country with sufficient power would do less. Certainly, we wouldn’t. But even in the somewhat unlikely event that they succeed, it probably won’t do much good. Nor do I think Israel’s leadership is under some delusion that it will. Whatever follows is unlikely to be better.

Sometimes you just carry on and hope that at some point things will change for the better. Occasionally that even works.

The Hostage Problem

If there is some learning to be had in the aftermath of the Hamas strike, it’s that Israel’s past hostage policy must change. Guessing at the strategic imperatives behind the Hamas incursion is tricky, but from a tactical perspective it seems clear that one of Hamas’ primary objectives was to seize hostages for exchange.

Hostage situations are difficult, and they have no easy answers. It is easy enough to say that one should never negotiate, but it’s oh so difficult to do. Nor is negotiation always a mistake or a forlorn hope. Sometimes it’s worth it, bad precedent and all.

No political leader can afford to seem insensitive to the plight of citizens held hostage by terrorists, and few political leaders truly are insensitive. Yet when your enemies begin to make taking hostages a strategic priority, you’ve clearly gone too far down the road of negotiation and are simply endangering the lives you are supposed to protect.

The massive and perhaps unexpected carnage inflicted by Hamas may provide Israel’s leaders with the necessary cover to change their policies around hostage negotiation and stick to the change. This is neither easy nor simple.

All democracies face a “dirty hands” problem when it comes to their leaders. We often want (and need) our leaders to make painful, morally ambiguous (or worse) decisions that are necessary to the national interest. In other words, we expect a leader to be willing to have “dirty hands” when necessary. On the other hand, nobody wants a leader who is indifferent or even eager to get their hands dirty. That kind of leader is dangerous – especially in a democracy. We value a principled reluctance on the part of leaders AND a willingness to sometimes overcome that reluctance.

Politicians, even those who are in charge, can often go a long time without having to make real dirty-hand’s decisions. But when they come, they are often devastating. The current hostage situation in Israel presents their leadership with a terrible dilemma. Refusing any form of hostage negotiation with Hamas is likely the right thing to do for the national interest. But with more than a hundred hostages in Gaza, sticking to that resolution will require some very dirty hands.

The disastrous trendline from Israel’s past history of hostage negotiation should also be a point of learning for the United States. Is the strategic lesson we want Hamas to learn from this episode the value of taking American hostages in creating leverage with Israel?

Leadership Lock-in

Well meaning people often grossly underestimate the difficulties inherent in problems like Palestine. It seems so easy to suggest basic change by both sides – change that would build trust and eventually resolve into some peaceful form of coexistence and self-determination. Yet change is not easy, and the problem is two-fold. First, most political leaders are radically limited in their ability to change policies. We think of the person in charge as being in charge and mostly unconstrained. Yet that’s not the case. It’s certainly not the case in any democracy, and it’s not really the case even in organizations like Hamas.

Every political leader (every leader) is beholden to some group or other and it is usually difficult or impossible for a leader to move that group where it doesn’t want to go. Yet even this problem of political constraints understates the challenge. Because in more extreme political circumstances, groups or societies also experience leadership lock-in.

How do you become the head of Hamas? Not by showing any willingness to negotiate with Israel, any reluctance to kill Jews, or any deep concern for peace.

Quite the contrary.

So, in most cases, leaders aren’t constrained by their base because they are fully in tune with it. The constraint is there and it’s real, but it’s never tested. This is obviously true for organizations like Hamas where ideological rigor and hatred are core values, but it is very much true in Israel (and even here, where we do no face existential threats to our existence). Politics in Israel often rewards those who are least concerned with Palestinian rights or peace and most concerned with Israeli predominance. We often assume that all politicians are fully self-interested hypocrites, but the reality is quite different. When a political system rewards people with certain beliefs or attitudes, it often gets or creates people with those beliefs and values.

The Problem of Representation

In the wake of the massacre in Israel, the most extreme radicals on the left simply excused Hamas. These are the kind of people for whom no treatment of their enemies can ever be too harsh. Such people have always been with us, and they underwrite most of the savagery in the world. But for the less fanatic critics of Israel (who, nevertheless, often seem more interested in criticizing Israel than helping Palestinians – very few college campuses are awash in progressives desperately trying to improve the plight of the Masalit) their main interest shifted almost immediately to preventing and condemning whatever action Israel might take against Gaza. These critics were quick to claim that Hamas doesn’t represent Palestinians and that many in Gaza loathe Hamas. We are meant from this argument to understand that when Israel brings suffering to Gaza it is missing the mark – targeting the very people who are already suffering at the hands of Hamas.

I’m sure many people in Gaza do loathe Hamas, but it’s harder to know whether Hamas is their legitimate representative. Plenty of people in almost any nation loathe their government. Nor is it clear that loathing Hamas has much to do with any desire for peace or reconciliation with Israel. It seems at least possible that one driver for the Hamas attack was to boost their popularity. Traditionally, a successful attack on Israel has been a fairly certain path to widespread popularity in the Arab world in general and Palestine in particular.

Hamas was elected in Gaza, which provides some evidence of legitimacy, but as with many such victories it was never followed by another. It’s very difficult for an outsider to assess the extent to which Hamas is a legitimate government in Gaza and there is little reason to trust any single “expert” or expect expert consensus on such a question. Prior to the massacre, how many of the people making the argument about Hamas would have insisted that they were a legitimate representative of the people there and that Israel should be negotiating with them?

In determining a course of action after the Hamas massacre, however, the legitimacy of Hamas in Gaza isn’t a meaningful or action-guiding question. That’s especially true since Hamas uses the population it governs as a human shield. You can’t take meaningful action against Hamas without widespread damage and death to many people – some of whom probably don’t like Hamas at all. As with all countries, Israel’s first responsibility is always to its own national interest. If Hamas isn’t a legitimate government, it’s all the more important that Israel destroy it. If Hamas is a legitimate government, then the Gazans share responsibility for the massacre and can hardly plead innocence when retribution arrives.

The Problem of Friendship

In so many analyses of Arab/Israeli clashes and the resulting coverage in the West, one hears the refrain that the West is biased. This claim is both true and wrong-headed. True on its face. Wrong because the implication that we have some moral responsibility to be objectively neutral is mistaken. Nobody reads the coverage of Israel in Iran and complains that it is biased. Of course it is. We are not judges in some global system of justice with a special duty to be neutral. We are just actors on the stage with our own interests, convictions, values, and friendships.

There are two basic views of international relations. The traditional realpolitik view is that nations have interests but neither friends nor moral obligations. This view is plausible but is, in many respects, anachronistic in a democratic age. I don’t believe it and I don’t think very many people – even politicians – believe it either. And even if a political leader of the United States believed it wholly, they could rarely act as if they did since the broad electorate feels differently.

If you do happen to take the realpolitik view seriously, it’s hard to make a compelling case for our interest in Palestine (though it’s not that easy to make a case for Israel, either).

But is there a moral case for neutrality? On some moral theories there is. If you happen to be a Kantian or a utilitarian, then you are committed to believing that every single person’s interest should be treated identically. This, presumably, would extend to nations as well. Of course, for the political leaders of a country, such universality is forbidden by their specific responsibilities. They are obliged by duty to pay special attention to the interests of their citizens.

Even as private citizens, however, there is no reason we should accept a demand for neutrality in our judgements. By and large, nobody is a Kantian or a utilitarian. We do not act on universal principles in our daily ethical lives nor do we especially desire to. There are, in fact, strong grounds for thinking that neither utilitarian or Kantian justifications are compelling or even rational.

The United States shares a deep connection with Israel and its project. We share bonds of culture, history, commerce, language, and ideology. We have none of those things with Islamic militants in Gaza. If international relations are not simply a matter of realpolitik (and I am convinced they are not), then surely we are allowed to have convictions, friends and even enemies. Every individual moral actor is allowed such things. We can and should bring our values to the party since it is inherent in the meaning of a value that we care about it.

And if we are allowed to have friends, why should we be forced into some façade of objective neutrality when our friends are in conflict or are threatened by our enemies?

This isn’t a blank check.

In normal life, we understand that friendships are not absolute. Sometimes we must judge whether a friend is still worthy of friendship. Between nations as between people, all relationships are provisional and subject to evaluation and change.

There are plenty of people who argue that Israel has evolved in ways that have endangered or sacrificed our friendship. That’s certainly an argument. But insofar as the bulk of Americans are concerned, that argument isn’t right. And until people are convinced it is, the demand for neutrality is fallacious.

Yes, the stakes are higher. You may argue that because lives are at stake, the ordinary rules of daily ethical life don’t apply and must be superseded by a more stringent and objective reckoning. Yet the stakes are higher both ways. We are not often confronted, in our daily life, with the mass slaughter of our friends. If the horror and rage we feel when that happens are not fundamentally moral, then perhaps we should give up being moral.

We owe the duties of basic humanity to everyone. But we owe support, encouragement, and protection only to those bound to us by something more specific and value laden. To us, a disaster in England matters more than a disaster in China or Saudi Arabia. Just as, obviously, a disaster in Kuwait or Egypt matters more to Saudi Arabians than a disaster in Iowa. This isn’t wrong. This is human. It is ethical and rational.

Summing Up

If tackling the Trump indictments was scary, tackling the Middle East is downright terrifying. The massacre in Israel was shocking even to a world that has become very hard to shock. The scope and nature of the carnage were terrible, the events hard to absorb. The response from Israel will likely provide its own terrible challenges. The mistaken rush to blame Israel for the hospital bombing was shoddy journalism and also completely understandable. It is hard to imagine that at some point Israel will not drop bombs somewhere they shouldn’t for the simple reason that war is a very messy business. The commonplace of friendly-fire casualties is proof of how messy combat can be even in situations far less complex than Gaza. And in our world, whatever mistakes are made will be splashed across the news in the brightest reds the cameras can summon.

I’m not here to tell you that there is an easy solution or right answer.  Things will almost certainly get worse – perhaps much worse – and the path to better is tortuous and obscure. Even if that path were somehow made clear, it’s not obvious who could walk it or whether the people who are making the decisions will be interested. Nor does it seem to matter much whether Hamas is a legitimate government or representative of Gaza.

Admittedly, there is not much clarity to be had. Yet it is not wrong to have values and friendships and we need not apologize for taking them seriously. We are not judges appointed to some impartial function and there is no abstract set of rules by which to make a neutral judgement. Nor do you owe some abstract neutrality to the problem or to your feelings. There is not a truth to the situation that isn’t tied up with what values you hold.

If Socrates was right that sometimes the greatest wisdom is a clear understanding of one’s ignorance, it seems likely that wisdom in this case is perilously close to despair. Sometimes you have a cancer, and it is not always curable.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *