The recently concluded round of fighting between Israel and the Palestinians fits a familiar and depressing pattern, which has included earlier wars in Gaza in 2008-2009, 2012, and 2014. Israeli military force applied in one direction, and a weaker use of force in the other direction, have resulted in highly disproportionate casualties and destruction, with many of the victims being innocent civilians. And such costs have bought no identifiable positive result.
In the absence of fundamental change in the underlying causes of this long-running conflict, a safe bet is that the pattern will continue. After perhaps another few years, there will be yet another round of fighting in Gaza. Israeli warplanes and artillery will once again destroy infrastructure that in the interim had been rebuilt with international aid. Scores more of innocents will die, and many more will lose their homes or livelihoods.
Much of the post-ceasefire discourse about U.S. policy offers no way out of this pattern. A focus on Hamas and its rockets — a focus especially preferred by those wanting to defend Israel’s behavior — misses the underlying causes of the larger conflict. It even misses the origin of the latest round of violence, which began with an issue of evictions of Palestinian families from their homes in East Jerusalem, followed by sympathy demonstrations and Israeli police inflicting casualties on a Palestinian crowd at the Al-Aqsa mosque. As if to underscore the endless and feckless cycle being played out, the ceasefire was promptly followed by another Israeli raid at Al-Aqsa that was a carbon copy of the earlier one.
Hamas is a symptom, not a cause. Hamas should be criticized not only for firing unguided rockets at civilian areas and for the casualties that causes, but also for making itself and its rockets a center of attention and thereby playing into the hands of those seeking to deflect attention from the root causes of the larger Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If Hamas ceased to exist tomorrow, some other group would rise to take its place and fill a similar role in the Palestinian resistance. And the cycle of Israeli-Palestinian violence would continue.
Hamas reacts to circumstances. When given the chance to compete peacefully in a free and fair election, it has done so — quite successfully. When Israel and the United States have refused to accept the results of such an election, and the Gaza Strip has been subjected to a suffocating blockade, Hamas has adopted more militant tactics. And if given the chance to participate in negotiating a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Hamas would react to those circumstances and would negotiate. Contrary to all the “dedicated to the destruction of Israel” rhetoric about Hamas, the organization has long made clear it would accept a hudna or long-term truce and de facto recognition of an Israel living within the 1967 borders, side-by-side with a Palestinian state.
The vast majority of Palestinians obviously don’t want to continue with the oppression, detentions, demolished homes, blockades, and other miserable features of Israeli occupation and domination. It is not Palestinians who are resisting change from the status quo.
Israel is the side with overwhelming military and economic power. It is the side capable of moving away from the violent status quo, but enough Israelis are sufficiently comfortable with that status quo to lack the will to do so.
One possible way to try to overcome that lack of will is to make a moral appeal to Israelis — to point out to them that oppressing other people is not a morally acceptable way to secure their own people’s preferred way of life. Several trends in Israeli attitudes make the prospects for success through such an appeal dim.
Another approach is to make those comfortable with the status quo less comfortable. That may be what rocket fire from Gaza is designed to do, but it has been a complete failure. This kind of violence directed against Israelis has been no more effective in diverting Israeli policy onto a more constructive path than the larger Israeli violence directed against Palestinians has been in deterring Hamas from firing more rockets — which is to say not effective at all.
But the United States has much leverage, in the form of billions of hitherto unconditional subsidies and much diplomatic cover, that could be used to induce Israeli policymakers onto a more constructive path — if there were the will to use such leverage.
Everyone, including President Joe Biden, knows the political circumstances in the United States that account for a lack of such will. Biden evidently has calculated that the prospects for meaningful progress during his term of office toward anything that could legitimately be considered an Israel-Palestinian peace are dim enough for the necessarily large expenditure of political capital not to be worthwhile. It probably is unrealistic to expect Biden to make a major recalculation about this.
But Biden should think about the longer term and about how a slow but desirable evolution in American attitudes toward Israel and the Palestinians has given him material to work with. Discourse during the most recent round of fighting has displayed a greater willingness than before to criticize destructive Israeli policies and behavior. This has included not only prominent voices in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party but also others who have become more willing to acknowledge unpleasant realities in that part of the Middle East. The Overton Window of acceptable American discourse about Israel has shifted, and shifted in a positive direction.
U.S. party politics has something to do with this in that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s going all-in with the Republicans has made many Democrats less hesitant than before to shed long-standing taboos about criticizing Israel. But events in the Palestinian territories have a lot to do with it as well. The sheer passage of time, with now more than half a century since Israel’s conquests of territory in the 1967 war, has made increasingly undeniable that Israeli policies are heading for nothing better than an ever more firmly entrenched system of apartheid. When Netanyahu and other leaders on the Israeli right — which now includes most of the Israeli political spectrum — say anything about a two-state solution, it has been to hold out a false promise and to keep would-be mediators and negotiators occupied while Israeli actions on the ground push such a solution ever further out of reach.
The continuation of these patterns will continue to move the Overton Window, regardless of what President Biden says or does. But he can and should encourage further desirable movement of the window, if only with his rhetoric and even if he fails to do what he ought to do in fully employing U.S. leverage.
Biden’s statement at the time of the cease-fire was mostly a disappointment in this regard, with its ritual affirmation of Israel’s right of self-defense unaccompanied by any mention of Palestinians having a similar right. But the seed of a more useful rhetorical line was found near the end of the statement, when the president said, “I believe the Palestinians and Israelis equally deserve to live safely and securely and to enjoy equal measures of freedom, prosperity, and democracy.”
Biden and his administration ought to amplify and develop that line, strongly and repeatedly. The administration does not need to spin reality. It is quite obvious that Palestinians and Israelis have grossly unequal degrees of freedom, prosperity, and democracy.
With open and honest acknowledgement of those realities, and sufficient attention given to them, the president can have a beneficial effect on American discourse on the subject even without spending a lot of political capital on any new Middle East initiative. In so doing, he can increase the chance that at least under a future president, U.S. policies will change in ways that in turn elicit a change in Israeli policy that will make future wars in Gaza less likely.