How to talk about Israel
They are still finding bodies.
Six days after Hamas launched its terror attack and Israel declared war – and amid the horror, fear, violence, retribution, and political convulsions that are shaking the entire Middle East in ways no one can predict – the victims are still being discovered.
That is just one indication of the monstrous scope of the Hamas attack that massacred, at the time of this writing, over 1,300 people and led to 150 hostages in Gaza. There has never been anything like this in Israel.
Caught by the worst intelligence failure since the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israel is reeling with questions about how Hamas was able to mount the attack and why the response was so ragged, slow, and hodgepodge. Stories of heroic efforts by individuals like retired general Israel Ziv, who drove his car into the carnage to fight Hamas and rescue people, are another indication of the shambolic military response that cost so many innocent lives.
Now more bodies, this time in Gaza, are being found. The heavy bombing of the densely populated Strip has the stated purpose of destroying Hamas, but it has a real consequence of killing Palestinian civilians in the process. It is happening now, and it will get worse when the inevitable Israeli ground attack begins. The cycle of violence and vengeance is spinning fast, and the bloody river of video showing Israeli victims is now being joined by Palestinian ones.
How does one talk about all this without succumbing to both-sidesism, or simply just taking a side and forgetting the context? The danger of descending into an oversimplified binary view of good and evil diminishes understanding. That doesn’t help. In a war, just acknowledging victims in Israel and Gaza can be politically divisive. There are deeply divisive, historical, religious political views tied up in the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, and it is hard to disentangle them without offending one side or another.
Still, it is possible to condemn the horrifying, criminal carnage of Hamas – an annihilationist terror group whose very charter openly advocates for the destruction and erasure of Israel – while still maintaining critical views of Israeli policy on Gaza and the West Bank. This happens in Israel every day, let alone outside of it. One position does not diminish the other.
For example, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has now stitched together a wartime “unity” government, is hardly on firm political ground. He will be held accountable for the failure of intelligence and also for his divisive attempts to undermine the judicial system. He will face a political reckoning. In some Israeli newspapers, there are calls for his resignation, but that is not going to happen now. The country is at war, and those domestic political questions are, for the moment, on the back burner.
On the other hand, though there is a desperate need to find a peaceful, two-state solution, any calls for an immediate ceasefire from critics of Israel are naïve and would reward Hamas for its bloody actions, emboldening terrorists around the world. Where there is a crime there must be a punishment. But what does that punishment look like?
This is the Israeli dilemma now. No one doubts the need to retaliate, but what is the strategic goal of Israel in Gaza? The main goal, security experts agree, is to dismantle Hamas and to reinstate Israel’s deterrence capabilities so that other terror groups in the region – and Iran – don’t think attacking a weakened Israel is fair game.
Does destroying Hamas mean re-occupying a strip of land it left back in 2005? How does Israel get the hostages back? How does it avoid this escalating into a regional war? Is cutting off electricity, food, and water, a form of collective punishment, a sustainable tactic? If Egypt, which controls the southern border of Gaza, doesn’t let in refugees – they don’t want to – where do people go to escape the bombing?
There are more questions than answers, and they are not just limited to the war in Israel and Gaza. Today, I’m in Montreal at an International Security Conference, where I spoke to the Ukrainian ambassador to Canada. She expressed deep concerns that the US will now divert funds meant for Ukraine to Israel – funds already very much in political jeopardy. Ukraine sees the security of Israel and the security of Ukraine as linked issues. Nothing happens in isolation. Where does that leave the US and Canada, the focus of this newsletter?
The US is already playing a critical role both as a supporter of Israel and in working the region to avoid a wider war. Today, Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in Israel to send a message, signaling to other actors via the presence of US aircraft carriers in the region not to get involved and trying to get a sense of the scope of the Israeli response.
Canada has significantly less influence, but Canada’s former attorney general and famed human rights activist Irwin Cotler argues that Canada has a legal duty to lead the hostage release movement, using the Canadian-led Declaration Against Arbitrary Detention in State-to-State relations as a framework. Hamas is not a formal state and doesn’t recognize Israel, but Cotler argues that the state backers of Hamas – Iran and Qatar – should be the key players here at the table, and Canada should convene a way to arbitrate this.
In a time of deep distrust, convening powers matters, but it is, at best, a long shot. Canada’s influence in the region is not what it once was, in say, the Suez crisis. Still, this is how influence is built, and establishing legal frameworks to solve a crisis is the only way forward.
This is the escalation phase, so no one can properly say where this is going. Though not a perfect parallel, after 9/11, when America was reeling, there was no debate that a military response was warranted. But the colossal error of the Iraq war made things worse not better. That is a key lesson.
In the fog of war and anger, as the bodies are still being found, there is a need to think about long-term consequences – a need to keep asking uncomfortable questions. As Philip Gourevitch wrote in his brilliant book on the Rwandan genocide, “We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families,” “The problem remains that denouncing evil is a far cry from doing good.”