Leon Trotsky once supposedly observed, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” To President Joe Biden I’d say today, “You may not be interested in Middle East peacemaking, but Middle East peacemaking is interested in you.”
Here’s why: All three key players in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have been dealt some huge painful shocks over the past year. They know, deep down, that another round of fighting like the one we saw in the past two weeks could unleash disastrous consequences for each of them. Henry Kissinger forged the first real peace breakthrough between Israelis and Arabs after they were all reeling, vulnerable and in pain as a result of the 1973 War. They each knew that something had to change.
Today, if you look and listen closely, you can sense a similar moment shaping up in the wake of the latest Hamas-Israel war.
The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, led by Abu Mazen, was dealt a significant blow when President Donald Trump last year managed to get the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan to each normalise relations with Israel — without waiting for a Palestinian-Israeli peace deal. The message to the West Bank Palestinian leadership was crystal clear: You are utterly messed up, corrupt and ineffectual, and we Arab states are no longer going to let you have a veto over our relations with Israel. Have a nice life.
And by the way, despite Israel’s relentless pounding of Hamas in Gaza, none of those four states renounced their normalisation with Israel.
But Israel also got a shock: It was surprised that Hamas chose to fire rockets at Jerusalem — in effect inviting this war. It was surprised by some of the long-range rockets that Hamas was able to build in its underground factories and deploy and keep deploying — despite heavy blows by the Israeli air force.
But most of all, Israel was stunned by this fact: Hamas, by its actions, was able to embroil Israel into a simultaneous five-front conflict with different Arab populations. That was scary.
On several days last week, Israel found its military and police confronting violent Palestinian protesters in the West Bank; enraged East Jerusalem Palestinians on the Temple Mount; rockets fired, most likely by Palestinian militants, from southern Lebanon; rockets fired by Hamas from Gaza; and, most dangerously, mob violence in mixed Israeli towns between Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews.
Israel managed to keep a lid on all of it. But it is not hard to imagine, had it continued or if it flares up again, that this would severely stress Israel’s army and police and economy. Israel has not faced that kind of multi-front threat since the Jewish state was founded in 1948.
This time around, Israel still found a lot of world public opinion and sympathy on its side — but for how long? This war with Hamas exposed and exacerbated Israel’s vulnerability in public opinion.
Israel’s use of sophisticated air power, no matter how justified and precise, triggered a set of images and video, in the age of social networks, that inflamed and energised Israel’s critics around the world and exposed just how much the rising progressive left, and even some young Jews, have grown alienated from Bibi Netanyahu’s right-wing government and its willingness to abandon democratic norms to ensure perpetual Israeli control over the West Bank.
As the Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland put it last week, a new connected generation of progressive left-wing activists in America and in Europe are reframing the Israeli-Palestinian struggle not as a conflict between two national movements, “but as a straightforward matter of racial justice. Note the placards at last weekend’s demonstration in London: Palestine Can’t Breathe and Palestinian Lives Matter.”
Many American Jewish college students are either unwilling, unable or too afraid today to stand up in their class or dorm and defend Israel. Democratic lawmakers tell me that they are being savaged on Twitter and Facebook for even remotely suggesting Israel had a right to defend itself against Hamas rockets. A dam has burst.
Which is why I was not the least bit surprised to read that Netanyahu’s longtime ambassador to D.C., Ron Dermer, (now retired) bluntly told a conference a few weeks ago that “Israel should spend more of its energy reaching out to ‘passionate’ American evangelicals than Jews, who are ‘disproportionately among our critics,’” Haaretz reported.
Let me know how that works out for you. If Israel loses the next generation of liberal Americans, including liberal Jews, it is in for a world of political hurt that no amount of evangelical support will be able to blunt.
And then there is Hamas. As usual — indeed right on cue — the morning after the Gaza cease-fire took effect, Hamas’ leaders declared another glorious victory. I guarantee you, though, the morning after the morning after, another set of conversations started in Gaza. It was the Gazan shopkeeper, widow, doctor and mourner, surveying the damage to their homes and offices and families, quietly saying to Hamas, “What the hell were you thinking? Who starts a war with the Jews and their air force in the middle of a pandemic? Who is going to rebuild my home and business? We can’t take this any longer.”
So if I were Hamas, I would not just bask in the new voices criticising Israel on the left. I would also worry that virtually no Arab governments came to its defence, and that the Biden administration and the European Union and Russia and China basically gave Israel the time it needed to deliver a heavy blow to Hamas.
And I would worry about something else as well: As Hamas makes itself the vanguard of the Palestinian cause — and becomes its face — more and more progressives will come to understand what Hamas is — an Islamo-fascist movement that came to power in Gaza by a 2007 coup against the Palestinian Authority, during which, among other things, it threw a rival PA official off a 15-story rooftop.
Moreover, after Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, and before there was any embargo, Hamas could have turned Gaza into a thriving entity. It chose instead to turn the territory into a launching pad for attacks on Israeli border posts and then to invest in 250 miles of attack tunnels and thousands of rockets. Today, Hamas openly aspires to replace Israel with its own Tehran-like Islamic government, which subjugates women and persecutes any LGBTQ Gazans who want to publicly express their sexual identity.
This is not a “progressive” organisation — and Hamas will not enjoy indefinitely the free pass it has gotten from the left because it is fighting Netanyahu.
For all of these reasons, my friend Victor J. Friedman, an academic activist who has worked extensively in Jewish-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab dialogues in Israel, emailed me from Israel to say:
“Maybe this is another ‘Kissinger moment.’ Like the 1973 war, this situation is a wake-up call for Israel. Despite the spin, people know that there was no real victory here. More than ever there is a feeling that something has to change. Hamas, like the Egyptians, in 1973 surprised Israel and did real damage. Bibi wanted to do enough damage to humiliate Hamas as much as possible, without going in on the ground. But Biden stopped us before we could totally humiliate Hamas.”
So, Victor added, “There is a potential opening here for some creative diplomacy, just like after the 1973 war.”
I think he is right, but with one huge caveat. Kissinger’s negotiating partners were all strong national leaders: Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir and Syrian President Hafez al-Assad — and they were resolving an interstate conflict between sovereign nations.
Indeed, what Kissinger began in 1973 and President Jimmy Carter completed at Camp David was only possible because all these leaders actually agreed to ignore the core problem — the intrastate problem, the problem of two people wanting a state on the same land. In other words, the Israeli-Palestinian problem.
What Bibi Netanyahu, Mahmoud Abbas and the various leaders of Hamas all have in common is that they have never, ever, ever been willing to risk their political careers or lives to forge the kind of hard compromise needed for a peace breakthrough in their war over the same piece of land.
So I am dubious, to say the least, about the prospects for peace. What I am not dubious about, though, is this: the pain on all the actors in this drama — from more accurate rockets to more global boycotts to more homes destroyed that no foreigners want to pay to rebuild to unemployment to more inflammatory social networks to more anti-Semitism — is only going to intensify.
So, my message to Biden would be this: You may be interested in China, but the Middle East is still interested in you. You deftly helped to engineer the cease-fire from the sidelines. Do you want to, do you dare to, dive into the middle of this new Kissingerian moment?
I won’t blame you if you don’t. I’d just warn you that it is not going to get better on its own.
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