Eyeless in Gaza

Since I’ve been nitpicking Beinart lately, let me associate myself with much of his latest piece on the flotilla incident and the Gaza embargo more generally.

If the Gaza embargo is legal (I’m not an international law expert – it would be if Gaza were an independent state, but Gaza’s status is kind of sui generis so I’m not sure) then intercepting the flotilla on the high seas was legal and, while the operation was clearly a fiasco, once the foolish decision to board with a handful of commandos (rather than disable the ships and tow them to shore) was made the use of deadly force by same in self-defense was understandable.

But whether or not the Gaza embargo is legal, the point of the flotilla was to demonstrate that the policy is morally wrong – that it’s a policy that logically requires Israel to attack ostensibly allied ships and kill civilians on board in order to prevent Gazans from importing basic supplies for normal civilian life. In this, it seems to have succeeded admirably well.

Beinart blames the Israeli leadership for this policy. But here I need to take issue with him. Take a look at the makeup of the current Knesset:

Kadima: 28 seats
Likud: 27 seats
Yisrael Beinenu: 15 seats
Labor: 13 seats
Shas: 11 seats
United Torah Judaism: 5 seats
Hadash: 4 seats
Ichud Leumi: 4 seats
Ra’am-Ta’al: 4 seats
Habayit Hayehudi: 3 seats
Balad: 3 seats
Meretz: 3 seats

The current government is led by Likud. But both the embargo and the Gaza war were launched by Kadima governments, which is now the leading opposition party. Yisrael Beitenu, Likud’s main partner, is generally understood to be to Likud’s right, and is certainly supportive of the embargo. Labor, generally understood to be to Likud’s left, and a party one would have thought would be sitting in opposition, is part of the current coalition government, and the head of the party is serving as Minister of Defense. So they must be considered supporters of the current policy. Shas and UTJ are ultra-Orthodox religious parties that have historically been willing to sit in coalition with left-wing parties, but have become increasingly hawkish over time, and are sitting in the current government. Ichud Leumi and Habayit Hayehudi are small parties to the right of Likud.

In other words: of the 120 seats in the Knesset, 106 represent parties that explicitly support the current policy (either because they sit in government or because they inaugurated the policy under the previous government), or are dissenters from further to the right.

That leaves tiny left-wing Meretz, with three seats, the former Communists of Hadash, with four seats, and the formally Arab parties, with seven seats, in opposition.

This is not a policy foisted on an Israeli public. This is not a particularly controversial policy in Israel. In the context of the Knesset that the Israeli public elected, the Gaza policy is not remotely extreme.

Beinart criticizes the American Jewish leadership for being out of step with American Jewish opinion – and it is. But it is not so clear that it is out of step with Israeli Jewish opinion.

Obviously, the complexion of the Knesset could well change with the next election. And it’s a much-noted fact that while the right wing parties get bigger and bigger, the policies espoused by the center on fundamental matters such as whether there should be a viable Palestinian state keep moving to the left. (Kadima’s stance today on this question is well to the left of where Rabin’s Labor Party was, for example, and roughly in line with where Barak’s Labor Party was.) But I think these respective moves to the left and the right are two sides of the same coin. Support for a two-state solution remains high, and the overwhelming majority of centrist leaders in Israel now support it, including a recognition that the capital of a Palestinian state will be in Jerusalem. But the Israeli Jewish public perceives these as painful retreats from a cherished dream, and as the retreats multiply and the “other side” continues to fight, the response is a kind of primal anger.

I get notes all the time from family and friends in Israel. These are generally liberal, secular people. None of them are settlers. None of them vote for Likud, to say nothing of parties further to the right. Overwhelmingly, the sentiment among people I know in Israel was in favor of the Gaza war, in favor of the embargo and blockade, in favor of a policy of collective punishment against the people of Gaza.

The reason is simple. From the perspective not only of the Israeli center but of people who consider themselves basically on the left, though not the far left, when Israel unilaterally left Gaza that meant the Gazans “got what they wanted” and left no basis for continued hostilities. The fact that, after the withdrawal, Hamas rained mortars and rockets down on Israeli territory, proved that Hamas had no “legitimate” political goals but was simply interested in destroying Israel and killing Jews. After that, whatever Gaza got, from their perspective, they had coming to them, and there’s nothing more to say.

Israel’s policy-making no longer seems to me to be particularly related to concrete policy objectives at all. Neither the Lebanon war nor the Gaza war had actual military goals. Both were essentially wars for domestic consumption. Hezbollah and Hamas were firing rockets at Israel, and Israelis were understandably furious. “Something” had to be done about that, to let the Israeli public know that their leadership felt their fury. So the government did “something.” Outsiders criticized the disproportion of the response, but the point of the response was its disproportion – not because the only thing the enemy understood was force, but because, in the absence of any way to actually solve the problem, the only thing that would convince a domestic audience that the government felt the way they did about the situation was to respond with a fury proportionate to that of the electorate.

If you think about it, though, it’s not at all hard to “understand” why Hamas launched their rockets. First of all, because they could. Israel was the enemy, fleeing with her tail between her legs. Why should they refrain from shooting? Second, of course they still had grievances. Even from the perspective of the most moderate possible interlocutor on the other side, what Israel “gave” the Palestinians by unilaterally withdrawing from Gaza didn’t remotely satisfy Palestinian grievances. Did Israel actually expect the people of Gaza to say “thank-you?”

The fact is that outside of the far left and the far right, nobody on the Israeli spectrum is particularly interested in trying to think the way a Palestinian might think. On the far right, the assumption is that the Palestinians are comprehensively unappeasable. They want what they want: all the land, with no Jews on it. They are willing to sacrifice massively, to fight and die and see their children die, for this goal. Since there is no way to satisfy that demand except by abject surrender and flight, there must be war forever. The nice thing about this line of thinking is that by following it in practice you automatically prove it to be true. On the far left, there is similarly an understanding that a Jewish state as such was always going to be an affront, and that therefore what looks like terribly painful concessions from the Israeli side looks to the other side like grudging half-measures. The assumption, however, is that there is a set of political compromises that would constitute mutual recognition of each side’s narrative, and on that basis of mutual recognition, an agreement to end the conflict is possible. In between, in the broad middle that constitutes most of the Israeli Jewish public, there is mostly fury that nothing ever seems to be enough.

How to handle Israel given the state of public opinion in that country is a difficult question to answer. On the American left, there seem to be two schools of thought. In some quarters, the assumption is that American pressure will force Israel to change course. It’s far from clear to me that this is the case. Certainly there’s little evidence that those Administrations that have been inclined to pressure Israel – Eisenhower’s, Carter’s and Bush Sr.‘s – have actually been able to materially change Israeli behavior by that means. (Whether that pressure served other American interests, as well as whether the pressurers were actually better judges of Israel’s best interests than Israel was itself, I leave aside as separate topics.) The other school holds that America should not pressure Israel specifically but, rather, gently prod both sides in the direction of a settlement, believing that only mutual confidence in America’s goodwill can get negotiations back on track, which, in turn is the only solution to the conflict. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of evidence to back this one up either. The big moves for peace in the region were made by Sadat, Rabin, and King Hussein of Jordan. In all of these cases, actors in the region played the decisive role; in none did American hand-holding prove decisive. And the later 1990s provide a counter-example, as the Clinton Administration assiduously followed precisely this strategy, and the end result was the second Intifada.

Beinart, meanwhile, wants American Jews to pressure Israel directly. It seems to me, though, that American Jews have very little to bargain with, emotionally, in this contest. Why would an Israeli listen to a lecture from an American Jew about the moral failings of a country his or her children are not willing to risk their lives to defend? And if the argument is that, if Israel doesn’t change, then American Jews will grow alienated from her, an Israeli might well answer: really? Is that a threat? You want me to care whether you love me or not? The very fact that you consider threatening to withhold your love proves that you already don’t love me enough for me to care.

And, honestly, it’s less and less clear that Israeli Jews are even willing to listen to their own people when what they hear is uncongenial. A poll of Israeli Jews was taken in April to assess their support for free expression. A variety of questions were asked, but the most telling, it seems to me, was this one:

65 percent of all of those questioned think the Israeli media should be barred from publishing news that defense officials think could endanger state security, even if the news was reported abroad.

It’s an interesting question how publishing news that is already reported elsewhere could possibly endanger state security. I interpret this result to mean that, when it comes to certain kinds of unpleasant information, 65 percent just don’t want to hear about it.

Is that the way a people that is winning behaves? I don’t think so.