War is raging in Israel and Palestine since the horrific Hamas attacks on Israelis on October 7. No one should make the mistake of thinking, for even a second, that the Hamas terrorists are some kind of freedom fighters. They are monsters, far below the threshold of true human beings.
But this war, which is still in danger of expanding to other fronts, has already revealed the complete collapse of the regnant Israeli vision of reality and of the policies Israel has pursued over the last several decades. That collapse was imminent anyway, though not everyone could see it. Israel has indulged in a dark chimera, an interlocking sheaf of delusions that somehow kept up an appearance of having some potential link to reality. It is not difficult to spell this out. I’ll begin with the easy part.
1) The present extreme right-wing government has compounded the cumulating disaster of recent years, not least by attempting to undermine the basic institutions of Israeli democracy as well as the social fabric. Benjamin Netanyahu, who has done more damage to the state of Israel than anyone else in living memory, has brought the country to the brink of civil war. He has attacked the judicial system – particularly but not only the Supreme Court. He has replaced competent experts and bureaucrats in the civil service with sycophants and toadies lacking any relevant training or knowledge. He has undermined the army, as everyone in the higher echelons of the security establishment warned him months ago. He has ruined the economy, including its brightest hope, the high-tech industry. He has fomented hatred among the communities that make up Israeli society and created a ragamuffin mob of violent “Bibists” akin to the Fascists and marauding gangs familiar from many authoritarian regimes. The result of this systemic erosion of the state, on all levels, was clearly apparent in the lethal failure of the armed forces on October 7. In effect, the army, including the intelligence branches, indeed the state apparatus as a whole, evaporated, leaving thousands of ordinary civilians to be murdered at the hands of Hamas.
But apart from the disastrous influence of the present government on all aspects of life in Israel, there was an idea, or a set of ideas, at the heart of the Netanyahu project. More on that below.
2) Gaza. On the immediate horizon we have the problem of Gaza and Hamas rule there. It is important to put an end to the Hamas hold on power, just as it was important, not so long ago, for the US and their allies to eliminate ISIS and al-Qaeda as military forces. Hamas belongs in that list of evil movements. Here, a little recent history should be recalled. Gaza is one of the most densely populated places on earth; two and a half million people are crammed into an area of 365 square kilometres, most of it thickly built-up urban sites. The vast majority of the population there are refugee families from the 1948 war (that is, third or even fourth generations of those families). In 2005, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon removed the Israeli settlements that had been placed in the midst of this dense Palestinian population; typically, he did this as a unilateral Israeli decision, with almost no coordination, and certainly no mutual agreement with the Palestinian Authority (ruling in Area A of the West Bank). There was bad blood between Fatah, the central body of the Palestinian national movement, and Hamas. In June 2007, in a brief, bloody campaign, Hamas took control of Gaza and evicted Fatah and the Palestinian Authority. Its rule since then has been characterised by corruption, a fierce fundamentalist ideology, and totalitarian suppression of any rivals; also by the explicit goal of destroying the state of Israel. Despite that, for the last decade or more, Netanyahu has strengthened Hamas by allowing huge monetary transfers (in billions of dollars) to them from Qatar, among other measures. The logic of this odd, not to say idiotic, policy was that by building up Hamas, Israel was weakening the Palestinian Authority still further and, having thus divided the Palestinian population between these two poles, could prevent the very possibility that a Palestinian state could ever emerge on the West Bank. Netanyahu has explicitly articulated this approach at various times in the course of those years, which were also characterised by periodic “rounds” (sevev in Hebrew) of fighting between Israel and Hamas meant to deter Hamas from attacking Israel for some limited period of time. These rounds of fighting failed utterly to generate such deterrence, as we can see from the events of October 7 this year.
Although Netanyahu is sometimes seen as a straightforward opportunist focused only on his own personal benefit, it is a mistake to think that he has no overriding plan for Israel and Palestine. He has spelt this out for all to hear. He thinks that Israel can, indeed must, extirpate the Palestinian national movement completely, at the same time settling the West Bank with Israelis and eventually annexing much or even all of it to Israel (possibly along with the expulsion of the Palestinian population there). This leads to the heart of the conflict and to the present catastrophic situation.
3) Stated simply: Israel has no viable future unless it reaches some form of accommodation and rapprochement with the Palestinian people, who share the land west of the Jordan River with Israeli Jews. That rapprochement must enable institutional and political expression for Palestinian national aspirations, such as the state of Israel has created for the Jews. The two populations, Jewish and Palestinian, are now more or less at parity (over five million in Gaza and the West Bank, and another two million or more who are Palestinian citizens of the State of Israel, compared with roughly eight million Jews). In effect, a binational state already exists, but in the unworkable form of apartheid rule over the Palestinian West Bank. Note, however, that large pockets of friendly co-existence are in evidence all over Israel: Palestinians and Israelis work peacefully side by side in hospitals and health services, in the restaurant industry, in the transportation network, in other service sectors, in construction and maintenance of infrastructures, and so on. To take only one example: without Palestinian doctors, nurses, and orderlies, the Israeli health system would break down within hours.
The West Bank is divided into three areas (under the Oslo agreements): Area A, under full Palestinian control; Area B, under joint Israeli and Palestinian control; and Area C, under full Israeli control. However, in practice, Israel does whatever she wants on the West Bank—planting more and more Israeli settlements, terrorising the Palestinian civilian population, intruding whenever she feels the need to into Areas A and B, and so on. In part, this asymmetrical arrangement reflects considerable structural weakness and ineptitude on the part of the Palestinian Authority; Israel has also systematically eroded the institutions put in place in Area A, with the exception of the Palestinian security forces who are, in effect, sub-contractors for Israeli security.
But the core of the matter is the nature and telos of the occupation itself. We have, today, a situation in which Israeli Jews, within the Green Line and also Israeli settlers on the West Bank, enjoy all privileges and basic human rights, while Palestinians on the West Bank have no human rights at all—no legal recourse, no protection from violent settlers and (all too often now) soldiers and police, no political representation, no freedom of speech, no freedom of movement, no personal security, and so on. This reality, transparent to anyone who goes into the West Bank with open eyes, is becoming more and more cruel and oppressive by the day, or by the hour. In the last few weeks, extraordinarily violent Israeli settlers, motivated by a messianic and apocalyptic ideology, have succeeded in emptying out whole Palestinian villages in the central West Bank – a form of ethnic cleansing under the aegis of the army and the government. I have personal experience in several of these villages, and I have seen the endless harassment by hate-filled settlers that left the villagers little choice but to leave. A second Nakba – the word refers to the catastrophe of exile that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians suffered in 1948, some by fleeing the battlefields and some through forced evictions by the Israeli army – is already underway. It is largely under the radar of the international community and even the Israeli press, which is occupied with other matters, including the war.
No society can continue to function if all rights and privileges are the sole prerogatives of one section of the populace while the rest are denied them.
A large part of the Israeli electorate, identified mainly with the religious right, accepts and supports the occupation and the discriminatory regime that it has put in place. They believe that the Land of Israel belongs uniquely to the Jews by virtue of God’s command (they like to ignore the Bible’s warnings that the land may be lost if the Jews fail to act in accordance with moral standards). A majority of Israeli Jews do not, however, see things like that. Even now, despite the clear shift to the right in Israeli politics, the mainstream is by no means committed to the annexationist plans of the government and the religious Zionists. In theory, the mainstream could well support a peace agreement, including a withdrawal from most of the West Bank, that met Israel’s real security concerns. Reliable opinion polls in the Palestinian West Bank and, interestingly, in Gaza consistently show a similar majority in favour of some kind of workable agreement.
Is such a solution likely to emerge at some point? No one can say. I myself think that the American plan, hinted at by President Joe Biden’s speech in Israel earlier this month and reaffirmed on October 25, is to create a regional settlement in West Asia that will include a resolution of Palestinian issues. What is certain is that Netanyahu’s attempt to sweep the Palestinian national movement under the rug while attempting to make peace agreements with other Arab states such as Saudi Arabia will never materialise. It’s been tried before, more than once, without success. The events in Gaza this month are a decisive indication of this basic fact. A conceptual revolution is needed in Israel in light of the tragic results of policies serving the hyper-nationalist and religious right. Similarly, the prevalent notion that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be “managed,” on a low burner, so to speak, has been exposed as false.
4) There is one more element to be added to the above analysis, which in any case needs to be amplified and far more nuanced. Only fools think that the predicament in Israel-Palestine is simple and easily soluble, or that either of the two sides holds a monopoly on good or evil. Israel’s existential fears are not without a basis in reality. Palestinian moderates have, historically, often been vanquished by the extremist fundamentalists. But if Israel is to have any kind of livable future, that is, a future worth living for, it has to revert, for its own sake, to the classical, humanistic, moderate values of Jewish civilisation, which also underly the democratic framework of the state—the framework Netanyahu has tried hard to destroy. Contrary to what some political scientists like to say (including some that I know personally), the moral basis of any polity is crucial to its survival, especially under conditions of violent conflict. Indeed, the ethical foundation may ultimately be more important than the standard calculations of naked power and power-driven interests.
With some justice, the Jews may claim to have invented human rights as we think of them today. In the home where I grew up, I was taught that the essence of Judaism lies in the memory that we were once slaves in Egypt; we know what it means, what it feels like, to be a slave; hence we will never, ever, enslave another people. Unfortunately, that axiom turned out to be very far from the reality of the occupation. Somewhat surprisingly, however, ethical values, even in the midst of severe conflict, can also serve political self-interest. It is in Israel’s cardinal interest to end the occupation and to create conditions for a peace rooted in mutuality and equality with Palestinians, in our own deepest and most authentic values, and in the aspirations of the Palestinian moderate mainstream insofar as the latter is still intact. I believe it is, but every day that the occupation continues on its destructive course eats away at that belief.
Of course, it’s certainly possible that when this war is over, Netanyahu will hang on to power in some crooked way, and Israel will revert to the untenable policies of the last few years until the next cycle of violence bursts the bubble again.
David Shulman is a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is an activist in Ta’ayush, Arab-Jewish Partnership.