Because of an accident while I was working on this post, it is dated October 31. It is actually going up on November 4.
The Israeli invasion of Gaza, designed to avenge the deaths of 1400 Israelis and wipe out Hamas, is well underway. Benjamin Netanyahu has warned his people of a long and difficult war, while reports from Washington suggest that the administration is hoping for his downfall. Today I will try to lay out my view of the situation as it has developed in recent decades, and where it seems to be going now.
I have written here many times that both history and journalism should in my opinion focus on what was or what is, not on what the author wishes should have been or should be. There is no topic more difficult to hold to this rule than this one, but I am going to do my best. The often-heard argument, "Yes, that's what they seem to think, but they shouldn't be thinking that," leaves me cold.
The problem is a simple one: two peoples, Israelis and Palestinians, want the same land between the Jordan River and the sea. The leading political elements on the two sides--Hamas on the one hand, and the current Israeli government on the other--reject the other side's right to sovereignty in any of that territory. It's easy to feel that the Palestinians should have given up their goal long ago, but they haven't. Many Israelis and an unknown number of Palestinians would be willing to compromise, but such people have rarely if ever been able to prevail on either side. Nor is this all. As we shall see, neither side is satisfied with the current status quo. And this is not a problem of a majority and a minority, like race problems in the United States from 1865 to 1965 or the Hindu-Muslim conflict in India in 1947. The Palestinian and Israeli populations of the territory in question are very close to equal.
Since the Carter years the government of the United States has pretty consistently taken the position that while Israel has a sacred right to exist, some framework involving a two-state solution should enable the Palestinians to enjoy full political rights as well. It has never been clear whether any Palestinian leadership--or the Palestinian people as a whole--would see such a solution as anything but a stepping stone to eventual control of the whole area, achieved by any means necessary. Certainly there is no indication that Hamas would--and Hamas appears to represent at least a plurality of Palestinian opinion. When Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, Hamas took it over, and Hamas also won the election in Gaza and the West Bank handily in 2006 with 45 percent of the vote to 29 percent for Fatah, the Palestinian establishment party. There is no indication that events since 2005 have made the Palestinian authority under Mahmoud Abbas more popular. Hamas has built a military base in Gaza, largely in underground tunnels, and put together a large arsenal of rockets and other weapons there with the help of aid from Iran and elsewhere. It also apparently developed a very sophisticated military planning capability, which early this month allowed it to disable the Israeli defense system on the border completely and carry out the massacre of more than 1,400 Israelis, military and civilian.
The US government continues to suggest that a two-state solution is the only desirable solution to the conflict. In the current crisis US officials imply that such a solution might emerge after Hamas is destroyed. That seems to me very unlikely for two reasons. First of all, the Palestinians have never responded to Israeli military action against them by becoming reconciled to Israel's existence. They have only become more and more militant. And equally importantly, the Israeli government has not shown any real interest in a two-state solution for more than twenty years, and the new government has repudiated it publicly and is doing more and more to make it impossible.
Prime Minister Netanyahu is not making any secret of his view of the future. Just last month, before the entire United Nations, he held up a map of the Middle East with Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Sudan, the UAE, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia in green--that is, Israel plus five countries countries with which it has diplomatic relations, plus Saudi Arabia, with whom negotiations to establish them were proceeding. The map showed Israel including both Gaza and the entire West Bank, with no territory at all marked out for a Palestinian state. More than six months ago, Bezalel Smotrich, himself a West Bank settler and Netanyahu's Minister of Finance--and now responsible for the government of the West Bank--went him one better. In a commemorative speech in Paris, he announced that "There is no such thing as a Palestinian people"--a claim Golda Meir also made half a century ago--while his podium displayed a map showing all of Jordan, as well as the West Bank, as part of Israel. That, I remember from Ezer Weizmann's book, The Battle for Peace, echoed articles by Menachem Begin in the years immediately after Israel's founding, when he too argued as a member of the opposition that the East Bank of the Jordan was part of the Old Testament grant of territory to the Jews. Begin at that time looked like a fringe figure in Israeli politics. Smotrich is a central figure now.
Another front in the struggle is the West Bank itself. Just six weeks ago, an Israeli academic and peace activist, David Shulman, had a remarkable article in the New York Review of Books detailing what is happening in the West Bank now: settlers emptying entire small villages of West Bank Arabs and taking over their land for new settlements, with no interference from the Israeli Army. The UN reports that 237 Palestinians and 25 Israelis died in West Bank violence from January 1 to October 6, and another 123 Palestinians have been killed since October 7, some by settlers and some by the Israeli Army, while 1,000 Palestinians were driven from their homes. It is not clear to me exactly what the Israeli right expects to happen to the millions of Palestinians living in the West Bank. Anyone who asks us all to look at the Hamas Charter and what it says about the future of Israel should also look at this evidence of how the Israeli government sees the Palestinians' future. Yes, many Israelis oppose all this, including some of the journalists I have quoted in this piece, but for the time being, at least, they are helpless, and they would have to command a substantial majority to reverse current trends.
We also need to ask what the actual result of the current military campaign in Gaza will be. Few would deny the Israeli right to punish the perpetrators of the massacre that started this war, but the consequences of their tactics too enormous to ignore. The Israeli government's demand that about one million Gazans leave the northern part of the strip to leave it completely open to Israeli military operations is, as far as I know, unprecedented in modern warfare. The devastation that the air and ground campaigns are wreaking upon Gaza is obviously making large parts of it uninhabitable for the foreseeable future.. I just heard a Gazan arguing that the Israelis are trying to turn the whole Gaza population into refugees again and empty Gaza out. Who could reassure her that it isn't? Meanwhile, Arab countries refuse to take any Palestinian refugees, and the only Palestinians allowed to leave Gaza for Egypt are either critically wounded or possess dual citizenship. Today, November 5, the New York Times reports that Israel has in fact asked Egypt to allow several hundred thousand Gazans to enter Egypt. The Egyptians refused.
Since the October 7 attacks that killed 1400 Israeli civilians and soldiers, Israeli leaders have used language reminiscent of American presidents in the last two decades. They have talked of crushing Gaza to the extent that Israel would be safe for generations, and many have compared what they plan to do to the enormously destructive American-led campaign against ISIS in northern Iraq. In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Netanyahu himself describes the conflict as a war between civilization and barbarism. "Iran has formed an axis of terror by arming, training and financing Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen and other terror proxies throughout the Middle East and beyond," he says, echoing George W. Bush in 2001. "In fighting Hamas and the Iranian axis of terror, Israel is fighting the enemies of civilization itself." Like Bush then, he argues that the whole world must side with Israel for its own sake. The column leaves the impression that a people ruled by an evil political movement is sunk in barbarism and enjoys no real rights. It could also mean that Netanyahu wants the US and other nations to join him in a war against Iran, which the Obama Administration was reportedly quite close to doing before it reached the now-defunct nuclear agreement with Iran in the second Obama administration. The Israeli historian Benny Morris, who best the drum for war with Iran in 2008-12, has just encouraged the Israeli government to consider an attack on that nation again.
We want a world where nations live together in peace. The US government, with its feeling of responsibility for everything that happens in the world, its very close ties to Israel, and its interests in the Arab world, very naturally continues to talk as if a real solution was possible--but neither the Palestinians nor the Israeli government seem to think so. I doubt that the Israelis can crush Hamas and Gaza into submission. I wish I could see a real solution on the horizon, but I can't.