It doesn’t matter that Hamas is a repressive, misogynistic, homophobic, Islamist terrorist organization that fires thousands of rockets indiscriminately at innocent civilians all over the State of Israel while using its own citizens as human shields. It doesn’t matter that Hamas is not seeking an accommodation with Israel, or a territorial compromise with Israel but, rather, to wipe Israel off the map.
It doesn’t matter that Israel forced 8,000 Jews from their homes in Gaza 16 years ago, and pulled its army back to the pre-1967 border, to the delight and approval of much of the international community. It doesn’t matter that, intermittently over the years, Israel offered to relinquish most of the West Bank too — most of Judea and Samaria, our biblical heartland, the historic explanation for our people’s modern return to this part of the world — but was unable to secure, in return, reliable guarantees that we would not continue to face efforts to destroy us militarily or via the so-called “right of return.”
It doesn’t matter that US president Bill Clinton unerringly identified Yasser Arafat as the unreformed terrorist who doomed the most recent serious effort to negotiate an accommodation. It doesn’t matter that, in the wake of that failure, two decades ago, both Arafat’s Fatah and the Islamist Hamas embarked upon an onslaught of suicide bombings that targeted all of Israel, and left much of the Israeli mainstream persuaded that no amount of territorial concession would satisfy the Palestinians — persuaded, in other words, that relinquishing land would not yield the sought-after peace, but merely give our enemies improved conditions from which to proceed with their phased plans for our elimination.
It doesn’t matter that Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas, tells his people that Israel is “a colonial project that has nothing to do with Judaism” and, like Arafat, denies the Jews’ connection to the holiest place in our faith, the Temple Mount.
What the latest, 11-day conflict between Hamas and Israel has made arguably clearer than ever before is that none of this matters because the Israeli leadership no longer subscribes, even in theory, to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The point here is not whether you consider this shift in Israel’s stance to be understandable, essential or deplorable, or consider this writer to be wise, foolish, patriotic or traitorous in noting it. That doesn’t matter either.
What matters is that Israel’s government, backed by a growing proportion of its electorate — most especially because of the abiding trauma of that Second Intifada bombing campaign, launched from the West Bank cities where Israel had relinquished control to the Palestinians — has ceased to publicly aspire to the negotiated framework at the heart of our international legitimacy. It no longer endorses the very basis upon which the ancient Jewish homeland was revived as a state with UN approval in 1947. “There cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan,” as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put it, at the time of the last major conflict with Hamas, in July 2014.
Facing the deplorable Hamas, which unarguably initiated the military phase of this mini-war with its rocket barrage toward Jerusalem on May 10, which oppresses the people of Gaza, which would oust Abbas from the West Bank in a blink if it could, and which of course wants nothing to do with any two-state accommodation, Israel is nonetheless widely blamed for the escalation and its consequences
And as Israel has moved to also gradually reduce the potential viability of a two-state solution — by expanding settlements even in areas of the West Bank that it would need to give up for an accord, and by seeking to unilaterally annex parts of Judea and Samaria — our most implacable enemies have gradually been joined by others who had previously regarded themselves as our supporters.
This process has reached new heights with the latest round of conflict. Facing the despicable Hamas, which unarguably initiated the military phase of this mini-war with its rocket barrage toward Jerusalem on May 10, which oppresses the people of Gaza, which would oust Abbas from the West Bank in a blink if it could, and which of course wants nothing to do with any two-state accommodation, Israel is nonetheless widely blamed for the escalation and its consequences.
“Twenty-two people were killed in this building on Tuesday when it was hit by an Israeli airstrike, including a doctor and his family. They say nobody here had any connection with Hamas,” CBS reported from Gaza soon after the ceasefire, implying Israeli brutality, or indifference, or both.
It’s not fair? That doesn’t matter either.
“Many in the world are capable of distinguishing between Israel, a democratic state that sanctifies life and has the world’s most moral army, and a bloodthirsty terrorist organization that sanctifies death and commits a double war crime: deliberately firing on [our] civilians while using their civilians as human shields.” So said Netanyahu on Friday afternoon, hours after the ceasefire came into effect.
Indeed, many in the world are capable of making that distinction. But that doesn’t matter as much as it used to.
“My party still supports Israel,” US President Joe Biden said on Friday. And “there is no shift in my commitment to the security of Israel, period, no shift, not at all,” he said. “But I tell you what there is a shift in. The shift is that we still need a two-state solution. It is the only answer, the only answer.”
“Listening to NPR talking about how the Democratic Party is ‘shifting’ on Israel,” tweeted Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy, also Friday. “Such a tired, lazy take. Democrats believe in a two state future. Always have. If we’re more critical of Israel, it’s bc their politics have moved, not ours.”
Militarily, the government and the IDF say, Israel “won” this particular battle. It intercepted most of Hamas’s rockets, it took down Hamas’s explosive drones, it thwarted planned Hamas attacks from the sea, it blocked Hamas’s cross-border terror tunnels, it blew up miles and miles of Hamas’s internal Gaza tunnels, it killed many Hamas gunmen. It kept the Israeli death toll to 12, and avoided a ground offensive, in which countless more lives would have been lost. Iran, to Israel’s immense relief, chose not to give the signal for Hezbollah involvement, or to get directly involved itself. This time.
But Hamas, the terror group that became a terror-state, is winning the strategic war. Capitalizing on tensions in Jerusalem fueled in part by some of Israel’s most extreme right-wing groups and politicians, it stirred up the Palestinians of East Jerusalem, set the West Bank seething, prompted rocket fire from Syria and Lebanon, galvanized protests in Jordan, exacerbated historic tensions within Israel’s Arab community.
By extension, Hamas complicated Israel’s relations with Arab partners both old and very new, discomfited some of Israel’s global allies, sent reams of commentator and media criticism pouring down upon us, shifted opinion among some Diaspora Jews and saw them subjected to a rising tide of antisemitism.
How, you might well ask, could Israel possibly make progress toward a negotiated accommodation at a time like this? The rise of Hamas proves conclusively the dangers of relinquishing adjacent territory. Mahmoud Abbas has shown himself obdurate in previous diplomatic efforts, and could die or be ousted at any moment.
Again, it doesn’t matter, because we are no longer avowedly seeking, even in principle, a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — the currently and foreseeably insoluble Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And since we no longer avowedly aspire to be part of the solution, we are increasingly perceived as part of the problem, as rejectionists.
Sure, better tactics and better public relations might help. When demolishing a Gaza tower where world media organizations have their offices, for instance, it would be wise to immediately make available the evidence that this building was a major Hamas asset; and if such evidence cannot be produced, it might be wise to reconsider demolishing the building in the first place. It would be useful to have articulate spokespeople around the world explaining why Hamas is a force of darkness, detailing how the IDF is trying to avoid Gazan civilian fatalities even as Hamas is hoping to inflate them, explaining that Israel’s reluctance to engage the Palestinians in supposed “land-for-peace” negotiations is born of decades of Palestinian rejectionism and terrorist assault, and so on.
But ultimately, again, it doesn’t matter. In 11 days of fighting, we may have set back Hamas months, or even years, militarily. But the dark force is outflanking us.
Israel still has plenty of friends, and plenty of support, including crucially in the US. Three EU foreign ministers chose to make a solidarity visit to bombed Israeli homes at the height of the conflict. But the ground is shifting dangerously. Diminishing international public and political support in turn leads to reduced diplomatic support and thus reduced military room for maneuver. And our vulnerability to conflict and violence even within our sovereign borders is all too plain to see.
Speaking after the prime minister on Friday, Defense Minister Benny Gantz warned that “if we don’t act diplomatically, quickly and wisely,” this operation will go down as “simply another round of conflict to be followed by the next one.” He called on Netanyahu to avoid turning “an unprecedented military victory into, heaven forbid, a diplomatic missed opportunity,” saying the future of the Strip must now be dealt with for the long term.
Nobody, but nobody, has a clear idea of how that might be possible, but Gantz’s vague plea to try, and to be seen to be trying, is vital, and must extend beyond Gaza to the wider Palestinian conflict.
There is no quick fix. To date, we’ve not found a slow fix either. But Israel needs to show itself ready and willing to be central to the effort to find one, and not to be following policies that further reduce the possibility.
Many of us, this writer emphatically included, regard a two-state solution as essential if we are not to lose either our Jewish majority, or our democracy, or both, forever entangled among millions of hostile Palestinians. Many of us, this writer emphatically included, cannot currently see a safe route to such an accommodation.
For the last time, it doesn’t matter. So long as Israel does not place itself firmly and distinctly on the side of those seeking a viable framework for long-term peace and security for ourselves and for the Palestinians, we will be regarded as blocking that framework. And even when facing an enemy so patently cynical, amoral and intransigent as Hamas, militarily strong Israel will be held responsible for the loss of life on both sides of the conflict.
We may keep on winning the battles, though they will get harder if fighting spreads to and deepens on other fronts. But we will be gradually losing the war.
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