The Limits of Outside Opinion in Gaza
A lot of my colleagues want to walk Israel back from the abyss. That is not going to work well.
Israel is ramping up its plans to move into Gaza with overwhelming force. According to the New York Times’ Patrick Kingsley and Ronan Bergman, “[Israel’s] ultimate goal is to wipe out the top political and military hierarchy of Hamas, the Palestinian group that controls Gaza.” This means a ground invasion that, “is expected to be Israel’s biggest ground operation since it invaded Lebanon in 2006.”
George Washington University professor Marc Lynch has forgotten more about the Middle East than I will ever learn. Last week Lynch took to Foreign Affairs to warn that this would be a disastrous choice. He calls on the United States to apply the necessary brakes on Israel’s tactics:
An Israeli ground campaign has seemed inevitable from the moment Hamas breached the security perimeter surrounding the Gaza Strip. Washington has fully backed Israeli plans, notably refraining from urging restraint. In an overheated political environment, the loudest voices in the United States have been those urging extreme measures against Hamas. In some cases, commentators have even called for military action against Iran for its alleged sponsorship of Hamas’s operation.
But this is precisely the time that Washington must be the cooler head and save Israel from itself. The impending invasion of Gaza will be a humanitarian, moral, and strategic catastrophe. It will not only badly harm Israel’s long-term security and inflict unfathomable human costs on Palestinians but also threaten core U.S. interests in the Middle East, in Ukraine, and in Washington’s competition with China over the Indo-Pacific order. Only the Biden administration—channeling the United States’ unique leverage and the White House’s demonstrated close support for Israeli security—can now stop Israel from making a disastrous mistake. Now that it has shown its sympathy with Israel, Washington must pivot toward demanding that its ally fully comply with the laws of war. It must insist that Israel find ways to take the fight to Hamas that do not entail the displacement and mass killing of innocent Palestinian civilians.
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Read the whole thing to see why Lynch believes a ground assault will be a strategic and humanitarian disaster. It’s a compelling case. And on BlueSky Lynch links to an Irish Times op-ed by Daniel Levy and Zaha Hassan — former negotiators for Israel and the Palestinian Authority — urging Western leaders and populations to apply any pressure that they have on Israel to resist its ongoing siege and forthcoming ground invasion of Gaza:
We do not say this lightly: if the international community does not intervene to stop what is coming, we could be watching a combination of mass killing and forced expulsion in real time….
We are now staring into an abyss. Surely it is possible, if one accepts the humanity and equality of all people without discrimination or distinction, to hold three truths simultaneously. First, the militant attack on Israeli civilians was unconscionable, inhumane and in violation of international law. Second, Israel’s collective punishment against Palestinian civilians and its actions in Gaza are unconscionable, inhumane and a violation of international law. And, third, one must address the context of occupation and apartheid in which this is unfolding if one is to maintain integrity and be able to plot a strategy going forward in which both Palestinians and Israelis can live in freedom and security. If we can hold these three truths, then it will be possible to prevent further casualties, secure the release of prisoners and step back from the precipice….
Western leaders have spoken thus far with tremendous empathy about the humanity of Israelis. As well they should. However, there has been a glaring absence of any reference to the humanity of Palestinians – it should not be hard to acknowledge Palestinian pain, suffering and endless dispossession. This sin of omission in the language coming from the US and many European leaders is encouraging the committing of war crimes. Western leaders should be on notice and desist from being part of the choir of incitement.
This sentiment echoes many queries I have received from students along the lines of, “is there anything we can do to stop the worst of the worst from happening?” Because Lynch is likely correct — it’s all too easy to envisage the carnage that will come from an Israeli ground offensive.
I wish I could agree with calling on Western leaders to articulate their concerns with a louder voice. I wish I could offer my students some kind of intellectual light out of what seems like the coming darkness. The hard truth, however, is that this is a situation in which folks in the West possess very little agency, and what agency they do possess is difficult to exercise publicly.
Understand that Israel is going to respond because they see no other option after the loss of their deterrent power against Hamas. This is precisely what any other state in the international system would do if it possessed similar capabilities. The intentional attacks on Israeli civilians was heinous. No government could not retaliate, could not demonstrate the severe consequences of such an assault, and still remain a government. This is Politics of National Security 101.
Furthermore, any public allied pressure on that government not to respond runs the risk of backfiring. Comparisons to 9/11 have been thick in the past week, but the key parallel is that I have no memory of anything any ally saying in the wake of 9/11 that would have tamped down the U.S. public demand for a military response. If anything, such public pronouncements would have likely hardened the hearts of Americans. The same is true with Israelis right now.
If this holds for allied governments it holds with even greater force for outside experts and public intellectuals. As vexing as this might sound, there are simply moments when petitions and letters and outside counsel will have no effect because every actor is locked into their course of action. My former dean, Stephen Bosworth, believed in the idea of "ripeness" - that the time to advocate for diplomacy or a policy shift was contingent on the receptivity of others to such advice. The current moment is not ripe at all.
For example, I do not disagree with anything Lynch writes in his Foreign Affairs essay. What is less clear to me is what Marc is proposing as a suitable alternative. And this is what keeps nagging at me whenever I am asked if there is anything that can be done to reduce the loss of life. A ground invasion will be grueling in and of itself. It might widen the conflict to include the West Bank, Lebanon, and Iran. But I cannot necessarily think of another policy option that produces a superior outcome for Israel.
The Biden administration can and should exercise whatever influence it can over Israel's response. The optimal way that influence can be properly exercised, however, is behind closed doors, which prevents painting anyone into a corner. If and only if Israel refuses to listen should the Biden administration go more public.
As it turns out, this closely tracks what the Biden administration is actually doing. After more quiet behind-the-scenes warnings, Biden administration officials have started to be a bit more vocal about their preferences. On 60 Minutes, Biden supported taking out Hamas, but he also said, “Look, what happened in Gaza, in my view, is Hamas and the extreme elements of Hamas don’t represent all the Palestinian people. And I think that it would be a mistake for Israel to occupy Gaza again.” Hopefully Israeli policymakers read that statement (and other signals) in the way it was intended.
This dynamic leaves outside observers like myself in an exceedingly frustrating position. The best thing one can do in moments like this one is to think through what could happen and when moments might arise when policymakers will be open to changing their mind -- and be ready to offer an alternative option at that juncture. Until then, all we can do is two things. First, remind everyone about the costs of the invasion option Israel is contemplating. Second, demonstrate some empathy for those who, right now, do not want to listen to outside voices because they are in so much pain. Only when that pain subsides will anyone be able to influence them publicly.