Thursday, October 23, 2014

Why I have become more pessimistic about Israel

Smoke trails over Gaza city after Israeli shelling on July 29, 2014. (Photo by Ashraf Amra/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

"I have become less pro-Israel," admits Jonathan Chait in a powerful piece for New York Magazine. But I don't think Chait has become less pro-Israel. I think he's become more pessimistic about Israeli policy. And so have I.

Chait and I used to argue a lot about Israel, in part, I think, because we disagreed about what it meant to be pro-Israel. In his post, Chait gives his definition: "a sympathy for the country's history vis-à-vis its critics, or an ongoing support for its political stance in relation to its international foes." I don't equate support for Israel with support for the current policies of any particular Israeli government, any more than I equate support for America with support for the particular policies of President Bush or President Obama. My definition of being pro-Israel was always more basic, and, admittedly, more subjective: I want to see Israel succeed. I want to see it thrive. And that makes this moment in Israeli history painful to watch.

The state of Israel is supposed to make Jews safer. But Israel itself is terrifyingly vulnerable: it is home to 6 million Jews in a tiny sliver of land surrounded on all sides by enemies. Israel is a fortress built in hostile territory. Its survival, and its strength today, is something of a miracle. But the nightmares are easy to conjure: the Six-Day War ending another way, or a dirty bomb detonating in Tel Aviv.

Israel's political ideals are similarly imperiled: it is a liberal democracy that intends to remain a Jewish state. The problem is that Jews might become a minority in the territory they control (though there's disagreement about the demographic projections behind that fear), and even if they don't, liberal democracies do not deprive millions of their native residents of a say in their government.

Israel's problems aren't easy to solve — and Israel cannot solve them without moderate leadership in Palestine and the region. But in recent years Israel seems to be making its problems insoluble. The continued growth of the settlements is morally indefensible, but it's also deeply counterproductive: every Israeli home built in the West Bank makes a two-state solution that much harder. Israel's peace movement has collapsed, and its government has become more bellicose and aggressive: Avigdor Lieberman's presence in the cabinet is painful proof that Israel's fear is outpacing its hope.

The excuse used to be that Israel did not have a partner for peace, and that was true. But it's clear today that Israel itself is not much of a partner for peace, either. As Chait writes, the best account of the recent talks show that "Netanyahu appeared on several occasions to approach the brink of agreement, but pulled back in the face of right-wing pressure within his coalition."

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The Gaza Strip's only power plant was forced to shut down Tuesday after an Israeli attack hit the facility's fuel depot on July 29,2014. Even before the shutdown, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip only had electricity for about three hours a day because fighting had damaged power lines.(Photo by Ashraf Amra/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Israel's other problem is the way it wields its overwhelming military superiority. Hamas is an indefensible organization led by fanatics and murderers. But it's no conspiracy that the nightly news around the world shows so many lifeless Palestinian bodies; it's the bloody reality. In this conflict, around 100 Palestinian civilians have died for every civilian Israeli casualty. More than 200 of the Palestinians killed were children. The answer to this, of course, is not more Israeli dead; it's a more proportionate Israeli reprisal that leaves fewer Palestinian casualties in its wake.

It is impossible to credit Israel's promise that it makes every effort to avoid civilian deaths while so many Palestinian civilians are dying. Hamas's strategy of launching rockets from civilian areas and hiding weapons in schools makes it culpable in these deaths. But Israel chooses the force of its campaign, and a strategy based on unleashing air strikes in a crowded city makes civilian casualties an inevitability. The brutality of Hamas's tactics doesn't justify the brutality of Israel's response.

Netanyahu's aim, in part, is simple punishment: "Hamas will pay a heavy price for firing at Israeli citizens," he warned. The deeper plan is to crush Hamas's tunnels and cripple their supply lines. But while Israel's wrath weakens Hamas operationally, it strengthens them — and other extremists — politically. No Palestinian man who watched his daughter die in an Israeli air strike will moderate his politics. Each Palestinian boy who loses his home to an Israeli bulldozer will be that much more open to the promises of radicals. Meanwhile, Israel loses support around the world.

This is something Netanyahu knows full well. He has lamented the benefits Hamas derives from, in his cruel phrase, "telegenically dead Palestinians." But he continues the air strikes. He keeps making Palestine's extremists stronger and its moderates weaker. And there is no obvious next step; no compelling story for how it gets better. Chait expresses the feeling well:

Netanyahu and his coalition have no strategy of their own except endless counterinsurgency against the backdrop of a steadily deteriorating diplomatic position within the world and an inexorable demographic decline. The operation in Gaza is not Netanyahu's strategy in excess; it is Netanyahu's strategy in its entirety. The liberal Zionist, two-state vision with which I identify, which once commanded a mainstream position within Israeli political life, has been relegated to a left-wing rump within it.

This is true when the bombs aren't flying as well. The daily humiliations and hopelessness of life under the Israeli occupation (or, in Gaza, the blockade) radicalize the next generation of Palestinians — as well as others in the region who identify with them, or whose governments cynically use the Palestinian plight to drum up support. Israel may not have a much better choice than grasping security now even if it leads to more and more dangerous threats later. But it doesn't seem to be looking for another choice, either. And as Jeffrey Goldberg writes (in a piece, I should say, that's more sympathetic to Israel's operation in Gaza than this one is), there are other choices:

Israel, while combating the extremists, could do a great deal more to buttress the moderates. This would mean, in practical terms, working as hard as possible to build wealth and hope on the West Bank. A moderate-minded Palestinian who watches Israel expand its settlements on lands that most of the world believes should fall within the borders of a future Palestinian state might legitimately come to doubt Israel's intentions. Reversing the settlement project, and moving the West Bank toward eventual independence, would not only give Palestinians hope, but it would convince Israel's sometimes-ambivalent friends that it truly seeks peace, and that it treats extremists differently than it treats moderates.

Even if Israel's actions make sense for short-run security, the likely outcomes begin to look very bad the further into the future you try to peer. This analysis from the strategic intelligence firm Stratfor is persuasive, though obviously not certain:

Israel's major problem is that circumstances always change. Predicting the military capabilities of the Arab and Islamic worlds in 50 years is difficult. Most likely, they will not be weaker than they are today, and a strong argument can be made that at least several of their constituents will be stronger. If in 50 years some or all assume a hostile posture against Israel, Israel will be in trouble.

Time is not on Israel's side. At some point, something will likely happen to weaken its position, while it is unlikely that anything will happen to strengthen its position ... Looking at the relative risks, making a high-risk deal with the Palestinians would seem prudent in the long run. But nations do not make decisions on such abstract calculations. Israel will bet on its ability to stay strong. From a political standpoint, it has no choice. The Palestinians will bet on the long game. They have no choice. And in the meantime, blood will periodically flow.

There's been an important debate recently about whether the media is "biased" towards Israel. I won't speak for the media, but I definitely am biased towards Israel. My grandparents took me there when I was a child. I spent a week there with my best friend after I graduated college. I have friends there. I have family holding tickets to go there. I care about Israel personally, rather than abstractly.

There's an opposite argument that's made by Israel's supporters: that people like me, who write about our disappointment with Israeli policy, are "blaming Israel first." But it's not about blame. If interest in geopolitics was driven by outrage and horror Israel and Palestine would spend less time on the front page. The suffering there is immense, but the death toll is dwarfed by the slaughter in the Democratic Republic of Congo or Syria. I pay unusual attention to what Israel does because, for family and cultural reasons, I am unusually invested in Israel. Focusing on Israeli policy is a byproduct of focusing on Israel itself.

For these reasons, I used to write about Israel often. It felt, even a few years ago, that peace was a live possibility, that Israel had choices — and that some of them might even turn out well. But Israel seems to have made its choice, at least for now, and the results are painful to watch. I haven't become less pro-Israel. But I've become much more pessimistic about its prospects, and more confused and occasionally horrified by its policies. My sense is that's happened to Chait, too. I notice he writes about Israel less these days, also. My sense is it's happened to a lot of us.

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