The title of this diary is borrowed from a couple of thought provoking essays. The first one is from John Ganz, and I urge you to read it in full. The second is from Jon Alterman, who is at an American think tank CSIS. The title is a little misleading, and I will come to that in a second. But I urge you to read both pieces. Briefly, the points made by John Ganz are as follows:
- The Israeli goal of “destroying Hamas” is (or may be) unattainable. “Although the Israeli Prime Minister has vowed to continue the war and destroy Hamas, there are signs that that is not an attainable goal.”
- Among all the death and destruction in Gaza, only about 10% of Hamas fighters may have been killed. "And what has all this death and destruction accomplished for the stated goal of destroying Hamas. Embarrassingly little: “Israel’s military estimates it has killed between 1,000 and 2,000 Hamas fighters out of a military force it believes is about 30,000 strong.”
- At this rate, the destruction of Hamas would justify the use of the word genocide; and the world will simply not stand by and let that happen. “if they are serious about destroying Hamas, and the rate of death remains comparable, then we would be looking at hundreds of thousands of deaths. At that point talk of “genocide” starts to sound less like rhetoric and more like reality. Some callous or cruel people may be able to say to themselves, “Well, they have it coming” or “This is war,” but that “message” is unlikely to resonate with the world public.”
- Therefore, the strategic choices facing Israel are somewhat bleak. "Continue in a slaughter that will permanently damage or destroy its international reputation and perhaps trigger a wider international crisis or give up on its stated goal to defeat Hamas and thereby face humiliation, domestic turmoil, and the appearance of vulnerability."
I will stop right here and urge you (once again) to read the whole piece. The essay does refer to “other strategic options”, but describes the leadership as being bereft of imagination, and a society led by settler thugs. It suggests that everything Israeli politicians say appears to be stupid, and hamfisted, and suggests that Israel is losing the propaganda war. It goes on to make the point that there is a fair amount of anti-semitism in the response to October 7, but suggests that anti-semitism is only part of the story. It closes with the following
Again, the total incompetence, shortsightedness, and bloody-mindedness of the Israeli government—and not just in this conflict but this is a historical pattern—has squandered all its goodwill in favor of being brutal and aggressive. They believe the hard lesson of history is that this is the only way to deal with Jew-hate, but it’s an approach that’s increasingly endangering the very nation that’s supposed to exist to protect the Jews.
Again, I urge you to read the whole piece before I lay out my criticism. Jon Alterman’s essay is even more interesting, in that he lays Hamas’ strategic objectives in ways that most people don’t. Even amongst people who should know better, it is fairly common to assume that Hamas is a bunch of barbarians, and barbarians don't have any strategic objectives other than to rape and pillage. Thus, most people don’t stop to consider that Hamas may also have strategic objectives, and Alterman’s essay was one of the rare exceptions (in my opinion). Each of these 5 points below are copied directly from his essay.
- Israel’s army has a remarkable record of winning. It won conventional wars in 1948, 1967, and 1973; it forced the Palestine Liberation Organization to give up armed struggle in 1996; and it has deterred Hezbollah since a 2006 campaign laid waste to the group.
- And yet it is quite possible that the war in Gaza will be the first war in Israel’s history that the army has fought and lost. The U.S. military ended engagements in Lebanon, Somalia, Haiti without clear victories, but they were of a small scale. The post-9/11 wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Syrian-Iraqi border area were serious efforts with serious resources behind them, but years of fighting, billions of dollars, and thousands of U.S. deaths failed to secure victory.
- Israelis sometimes argue that there is no comparison between their wars of survival, literally fought on their borders, with far-flung U.S. actions. They argue, too, that the public in Israel is united on matters of survival, while Western populations are fickle in comparison.
- Hamas’s concept of military victory, like those other organizations, is all about driving long-term political outcomes. Hamas sees victory not in one year or five, but from engaging with decades of struggle that increase Palestinian solidarity and increase Israel’s isolation.
- Arab states move strongly away from normalization, the Global South aligns strongly with the Palestinian cause, Europe recoils at the Israeli army’s excesses, and an American debate erupts over Israel, destroying the bipartisan support Israel has enjoyed here since the early 1970s.
Did you follow the rationale? Hamas (and the PLO before it) have understood that that it cannot win a conventional war against Israel if Israel is backed by American arms (which has been true since 1967). So Hamas’ strategic objective is to isolate Israel from it’s international support. Stalin and the Soviets are gone, but Israel still has American support. Hamas assumes that Israelis can be provoked into an over-reaction and is assuming that the world will recoil from this over-reaction, thereby isolating Israel from support. Assuming Hamas still has Iranian support at that point, it would then be able to defeat Israel.
Assuming you have read both pieces, I will lay out my points:
- It is not for outsiders or 3rd parties to declare that Israel has lost. In a conflict, the only ones who can credibly declare that one side has lost is the losing side, and that happens only when they accept defeat. The most easily forgotten lesson from history is that winners don't get to declare victory without the losers’ consent. George W Bush and his “Mission Accomplished” banner is exhibit #1 in this lesson. The title is thus somewhat misleading. It is true that Israel’s stated strategic objective on 10/8 (i.e. Hamas is to be destroyed) appears to be a form of unobtainium. That tends to happen in most conflicts ~ it is extremely rare for a conflict to end with one side’s initial strategic objective being met. Thus, in most cases, warring parties generally end up adjusting their strategic objectives given the realities on the ground and the resource constraints it faces. Within this context, Israel is not “losing” (and has not “lost”), but is rather facing a choice as to how to re-calibrate it’s strategic objectives.
- Likewise, you will hear a lot of talk about how Palestinians “lost” in 1948, 1967 and 1973; and should behave as “losers” (i.e., they should move to other countries, or do anything other than ask to go back). Such arguments will come from nominally liberal Jewish intellectuals, and supposedly neutral well-wishers as well. For instance, I also urge you to read this interview in the LA Times of Benny Morris, an Israeli Jewish historian and author of “The birth of the Palestinian refugee problem”. For those who don't know, Benny Morris is often accused of peddling pro-Palestinian propaganda (because he dares to document what happened in 1948). And yet, here is a direct quote: “The Arabs were the losing side and my view is that if people commit major mistakes in history they pay for them and perhaps that’s how it should work out.” This is just as misguided. Just as the Israelis are the only ones who can declare that they (i.e. Israelis) have lost, the Arabs are also the only ones who can declare that *they* (i.e. Arabs; I think Palestinian Arabs is more appropriate here) have lost. Losing is a choice for the losers to make.
- As it so happens, the Palestinian (under Yasser Arafat) came close to accepting that they had lost. This is essentially what the Oslo “peace” process was about. The process was only tangentially about peace; it was actually a negotiated surrender ceremony. The Palestinians were conceding that they had “lost”, and should be relegated to 22% of the land between the river and the sea even though they were about 67% of the population. The surrender was not unconditional. Very few surrenders are. What Arafat wanted, as part of this negotiated surrender, was for Israel to accept a token number of refugees, and for the 22% of the land between the river and the sea to become a sovereign Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem. What Israel offered was nothing on the refugees, and a vassal Bantustan state whose borders and internal security would be controlled by Israel. This was a mistake ~ a mistake of epic proportions. A mistake by Israel led by Ehud Barak and the Israeli left (so you can't even blame Bibi for this). The Israeli left likes to say that they offered Arafat “98% of what he wanted, and he walked away”. Well, when someone is trying to negotiate a surrender, but really needs the other 2% to be able to do so, it is rather foolish to not give that up, especially when it costs you nothing.
- It may surprise most backers of Israel, but Palestinians are also capable of learning lessons from history. So here are the lessons that I think they (Hamas, and Palestinians in general) have learnt from the wars they “lost”. (1) The 1948 loss was down primarily due to Stalin repurposing surplus Nazi arms to Israel. Stalin wanted a Jewish state so he could have a place where he could expel Soviet Jews. This is not a factor anymore ~ no anti-semite is going to support Israel today because there aren't any large Jewish populations to expel (other than in the US, and this scenario is simply not credible in the US). (2) The loss in 1973, and every loss since then, were primarily due to American support. American support to Israel is not due to some nefarious Jewish lobby, or even due to the evangelicals waiting for a Messiah, but because most Americans feel that Israel is a strong and virtuous nation, and that Jews deserve a home after the Holocaust. In this, I believe Palestinians have learned the correct lesson ~ American support for Israel is not because Jews control media, banking and finance (or whatever else conspiracy theorists will have you believe), but because Americans see Israel as strong and virtious. And it is this perception that they seek to change. Palestinians believe that American support is based on ignorance, and as more Americans learn of the events (e.g. of the Naqba), American support for Israel will dwindle.
- Coming to the “present conflict” (by which I mean everything post October 6), it is possible that Israel may be “losing” and Hamas may be “winning”; if winning and losing refer to initial strategic objectives (of 10/6 for Hamas and 10/8 for Israel) being met or not met. Israel’s stated objective was to “destroy Hamas”. Hamas did not state it’s objectives, but most observers (including President Biden) inferred that it’s objectives were to (1) prevent any rapprochement between Israel and various Gulf states without a deal for Palestine (2) to ensure that Israelis don't feel secure (3) to survive the expected Israeli onslaught & (4) to isolate Israel from it’s international backers over a period of decades, as Jon Alterman argues above. And, as per various reports, Israel may have run out (or is about to run out of) of a critical resource ~ American support.
- And that brings me to a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche: Insanity is rare in individuals, but fairly common in group settings. If you accept this quote (as I do), then it presents an interesting divergence between individuals and groups. You must assume that all groups are likely mad, even though most individuals within that group present as perfectly rational humans. You must also assume that the more closely your identity is tied to your group, the more insane your positions become when it comes to questions concerning that group. Within this context, consider Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs…. and Americans. Palestinians have a history of defending Jerusalem against foreign crusaders. Leaving their homes and going someplace else is a violation of their history. They won't do it. European, and Middle Eastern Jews who migrated to Israel have a history of leaving their homes when they “lose”. This history may explain Benny Morris’ framework ~ you have to go someplace else if you “lose”. Collectively, both sets of expectations are completely irrational. But in that divergence of historical narratives lies a future that is filled with conflict. The conflict will end only when both sets of histories converge.
- And what of us Americans? What is our collective insanity. Our greatest foreign policy disasters have been due to our policymakers (who have been mostly of European white ancestry) being largely ignorant of Asian and African history, and substituting their prejudices for informed decision making. Mandel and the ANC were not ever natural allies of the Soviet Union, but you had a whole generation of American elites convinced otherwise. Likewise, the North Vietnamese were not ever going to be natural allies of either the Chinese, or the Soviets, but the wise philosopher Kissinger just knew otherwise. The irony in all of this is that Ho Chi Minh greatly admired American society, and desperately wanted to be an American ally. And Sunni dominated Iraq, with Arab antecedents was not ever going to be partaking into any axis of evil with Shia Iran with Persian antecedents. Conflating Shia Iran with Sunni dominated Iraq is a deeply ignorant form of bigotry, but our President had us convinced of that not too long back.
Having laid out my criticisms of John Ganz’s piece, I will lay out where I agree:
- It is true that Israel is now facing a choice that requires a recalibration of it’s strategic objectives. It now understands that the world will not let it “destroy Hamas” if doing so also requires flattening all of Gaza. It is also true that Israel has a history of squandering several opportunities to “win”, by accepting relatively minor concessions required by the Palestinians under Arafat. That history should be a cautionary tale.
- However, there are opportunities within the confines of the current conflict that Israel could grab. Specifically, there is a very popular Palestinian leader named Marwan Barghouti who currently resides in an Israeli jail. If a popular election were held today, Barghouti is the only one who could defeat Hamas in either Gaza or the West Bank. Thanks to this article by Gershon Baskin (as an aside, you should also be following Baskin, he is one of the few sane individuals around; and thanks to Daily Kos user ‘mettle fatigue’ for a link to this article), you can get an insight into Barghouti’s character. “What impressed most of the Israelis about Marwan was his principled positions and the sense of integrity that he demonstrated. There was a clear commitment and desire on his part to make peace with Israel, but not under all conditions. He had his demands concerning ending the occupation, sharing Jerusalem, finding agreeable solutions to the refugee issues and providing security to his people. He was most definitely not a quisling.”
- In short, there is an opportunity for Israel to revive the Oslo accord, and close out a 2-state solution that could comprise a strategic win: a 2-state solution that defeats Hamas politically, and that also secures safety for Israel as a Jewish state. I am not a proponent of this outcome, but I am pointing out that it is possible to achieve this in the near term (i.e. 12-18 months). Marwan Barghouti’s position is actually not that different from Yasser Arafat’s position, and he has the personal popularity to sell that deal to the Palestinian public. By comparison to Arafat, Barghouti has not personally enriched himself, and has a documented history of personal sacrifice (about 20 years in an Israeli jail). He may be the only one who can defeat Hamas. But… and there is a but… Barghout is 64 years old. There is only a 10 year window before he would be too old to sell anything to a relatively young Palestinian public.
In the next few days, look out for any signals from within the Israeli government (or Secy of State Blinken) that they have sent emissaries to Barghouti. If you don't see that happening, then you should just assume that the conflict will rage on until one side “destroys” the other.
If you are an Israel backer, just keep in mind that Israel can lose.