Dr. James J. Zogby *
President Arab American Institute
Looking at the unfolding horror in Gaza, I am reminded of two important lessons that should have been heeded by Hamas, Israel, and the US.
The first came from the late Ibrahim Abu Lughod, the brilliant Palestinian American historian. He always cautioned never to make judgements based on the day’s headlines, because like the ocean’s tides or waves, they come in and go out. If we are driven by them, we are left flailing about without being grounded in reality. Rather, we should focus on the deep currents that shape the direction of events.
Using that lesson, I scoff at the “pundits” who insist that after this Gaza War, nothing will ever be the same again. No doubt, some things will be different, but when the dust settles, no matter how much damage Israel is able to inflict on Hamas, the Palestinian people, and Gaza, too many constants will remain.
In the first place, Palestinians will still be under an oppressive occupation, chaffing at the way Israel covets their land and denies them freedom. Hamas may be defeated, but out of the anger and trauma caused by this massive display of Israeli might, the seeds are being planted for Hamas 2.0 or something worse. At the same time, the already diminished Palestinian Authority will have become even more irrelevant and Palestinians, as they have been since the tragic end of Yasser Arafat, will be operating without a leadership that could actually inspire them. That unfortunately will not change.
Israel also will not change. As it emerges from its trauma, its politics will not be more moderate. There may be less of a push for radical changes in the judiciary and fewer accommodations made for the ultra-Orthodox, but Netanyahu’s new/old partner, Benny Gantz, is no less hard line on the Palestinian issue. In fact, Gantz’s past critique of Netanyahu was that he hadn’t “finished off” Hamas in the last Gaza war.
Sadly, nor will anything change on the US front. While public opinion, especially among Democrats, continues to be increasingly critical of Israel (and will most likely become more critical after Israel finishes bombing Gaza), the pro-Israel lobby will continue to intimidate elected officials in both parties. At some point, the Biden administration may decide that Israel has gone too far with its murderous assault and press them to halt the violence, but we shouldn’t expect the US to apply the kind of pressure needed to force an end to the occupation or justice for Palestinians.
The bottom line is that because constants will not change, neither will the political realities shaping the conflict.
The second lesson comes from the famous “doctrine” attributed to former Secretary of State Colin Powell. He laid out a series of questions to be considered before ever engaging in a war. Among them were: Is there a clear and attainable objective? Have risks and consequences been assessed? Is there an exit strategy?<
It will be recalled that Powell tragically didn’t follow his own doctrine, which led to debacles in Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s equally clear that neither Hamas nor Israel heeded his guidance.
There are 2.3 million Palestinians in Gaza. In our most recent polling, Hamas has the support of about 20% of them. If history is our guide, Israel’s murderous assault will only make Palestinians angrier and more inclined to fight Israel, just as Hamas’ murderous assault only gave reprieve to an unpopular Netanyahu.
What then were the attainable objectives for either Hamas or Israel? Did Hamas think they would actually advance their cause? Did they believe that their butchery would end the occupation, harm Netanyahu’s government, or improve their own standing among Palestinians or in the Arab World? And does Israel really believe that massacres in Gaza are going to pacify Palestinians, turning their hatred into acceptance or that it will salvage Netanyahu’s electoral fortunes? And did either Israel or Hamas think of what might happen in weeks two or three of this war or what the end game might be?.
One can try to understand—but never excuse—Hamas and Israel for striking out blindly. But the US needed to be more level-headed. Having seen Israel engage in similar past efforts to destroy Hamas or Hezbollah—and seen them fail—why did the US think this would be different? Did the administration actually believe that by giving Netanyahu full-throated support that he would act with restraint? Or that the resultant devastation of Gaza and killing of thousands would hasten the prospects for regional peace? And did they really believe that Israel would be any more successful in this war than it was in 2006 in Lebanon or the biannual wars with Hamas over the past 15 years, or for that matter than we, ourselves, were in Afghanistan or Iraq?.
It’s too late to answer these questions now. They should have been asked and answered by all parties before Hamas launched its deadly attacks, Israel embarked on its massive devastation and killing of Palestinians in Gaza, and the US gave Israel blank-check support. Now we’re left to live with the horrific consequences of everyone’s foolishness—the dead, the rubble, and the trauma and anger on both sides.