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An Alternative to Invading Gaza

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Our Zoom call this week will be at our regular time: Friday at Noon EDT.

Our guests will be Ofer Cassif and Iyad El-Baghdadi. Ofer is a Jewish member of the Knesset from the largely Palestinian Hadash party. He was recently suspended for 45 days for criticizing Israel’s attacks in Gaza. Iyad is a Palestinian writer based in Norway. He’s one of the best analysts of Palestinian and regional politics I know. We’ll discuss the mounting repression inside Israel, the ground invasion of Gaza, and the prospects for a regional war. Ofer and Iyad are not only brilliant analysts. They also courageously affirm the humanity of people on both sides of the Jewish-Palestinian divide. We could use more of that these days.

As usual, paid subscribers will get the link this Wednesday and the video the following week. They’ll also gain access to our library of past Zoom interviews with guests like Thomas Friedman, Ilhan Omar, Omar Barghouti, Benny Morris, Noam Chomsky, and Bret Stephens.

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Sources Cited in this Video

In a week, Israel dropped more bombs on Gaza than the US dropped on Afghanistan in a year.

Gershon Baskin on how Hamas recruits its fighters from the relatives of people Israel has killed.

Michael Oren admits he has no idea whether Israel has a plan for Gaza after Hamas.

Things to Read

On the Jewish Currents (subscribe!) podcast, a terrific conversation about how Israeli leftists grew alienated from both leftists abroad and their own society.

A man honored by Yad Vashem returns his Righteous Among the Nations award after Israel kills six of his relatives in Gaza.

How Israeli police tried to save the residents of Ofakim.

How an Egyptian woman got internet service into Gaza.

Last week, I spoke at Georgetown University and appeared on Ezra Klein’s New York Times podcast to discuss October 7 and its aftermath.

A Listener Comment

I want to start reprinting interesting critiques of these videos that I hear from listeners. Here’s one from Joyce Aljouny, a Palestinian-American from Maryland, about my call on the American left to demand the release of Israelis held captive in Gaza:

“just heard your message re the hostages. I was curious if you consider Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, to be civilian hostages.  I think they are. As you are aware, many are held without charge, or trial. I personally agree that we should call for the release of civilian hostages, but it should also be accompanied by a demand for the release of innocent Palestinians held in Israeli jails. In the past two weeks alone, over 1000 Palestinians have been rounded up from the West Bank, with a total reaching over 6000.  Many of them children.  Reports from Aldameer for prisoner rights indicate that the conditions in Israeli detention facilities have deteriorated rapidly since October 7th.”

See you on Friday at Noon,

Peter


VIDEO TRANSCRIPT:

Hi. Our guests this Friday at noon for paid subscribers are going to be Ofer Cassif and Iyad El-Baghdadi. Ofer Cassif is a member of Knesset from Hadash, who’s been suspended for 45 days for his criticisms of the Gaza military operation. Iyad El-Baghdadi is Palestinian writer, one of the best commentators, not only on Palestinian politics, but on regional politics. In addition to them both being very smart, I wanted to reach out to them because I take some comfort talking to people who are working for mutual coexistence and mutual liberation. And Ofer Cassif is a Jewish Israeli who’s a member of Hadash, a mostly Palestinian party. Iyad El-Baghdadi is a Palestinian writer who has written some truly, really beautiful and important things about Jewish humanity and mutual coexistence, and about antisemitism in recent days, and so I wanted to bring them together Friday at noon for paid subscribers.

So, many people have asked me in recent weeks, and asked other people, what would be the alternative to the ground invasion that is underway? And in some ways, you know, there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to answer the question because I feel like in some ways it’s an unfair question because we got to this point because of a whole series of decisions that I would not have made. So, it feels a little bit like someone has driven a car into a ditch and then is asking you how to get out of it. Also, the other thing that worries me about the question is that it’s asked in a very utilitarian way. It’s kind of, what would work? But there are moral questions that are separate from the question of what would work, right? I mean, 3,000 Palestinian children have been killed already. So, for instance, we would never ask about Hamas’ horrifying attack, you know, did it work in terms of various Hamas, Palestinian objectives, right? There’s the fundamental question of the fact that it was profoundly immoral and evil, right?

So, when one analyzes any question, it seems to me one can’t only ask the question: what will work, right? There’s a moral sense that one has to bring to these questions. Still though, I think the question hangs out there. So, I’m gonna try to make my best effort at offering a response, as inadequate as it will be. And I understand why many Israeli Jews—most Israeli Jews, the vast majority of Israeli Jews right now, and probably most diaspora Jews, too—want Israel to go on the ground and destroy Hamas. First of all, there’s the agony and the fury of this just unprecedentedly horrifying attack, and that’s a very human response to want to go in and destroy the organization that was responsible for this. Secondly, there is a deep fear, and I understand that fear, too. An Israeli friend who I deeply, deeply respect said to me, listen as long as Hamas is there in Gaza no one will return to the south of the country. These were like 50 communities that have been uprooted now. He said, they can never go back if Hamas is in power. And that’s also a very, very legitimate concern. And thirdly, Israelis Jews, at least, worry about looking weak vis-à-vis Hezbollah, vis-à-vis Iran, now that Hamas has kind of really exposed a real tremendous Israeli security weakness.

So, I take all of those seriously. And honestly, even having the chutzpah to offer an alternative when I’m not a Jewish Israeli, when I’m not going through the agony that Jewish Israelis goes through makes me tremble a little bit. And I know that there are people who I tremendously admire who will not like what I’m about to say. And some of whom haven’t like the things that I said before on these subjects, and that’s really, really hard for me honestly. It’s really, really hard for me to disagree with people, not only who I admire so much in my own community, in the Jewish community, but also people who I know are going through such incredible grief and agony. But we all at the end of the day have to kind of, you know, follow our own conscience as best we can with the requisite humility.

So, first, let me say something about why I don’t think the ground invasion is going to be successful in producing Israeli security. So, the idea that Israel will look strong if it goes in on the ground and deposes Hamas, and shows Hezbollah and Iran that it’s strong, this only works if the invasion is a success. And when you look at whether the invasion is a success, you can’t ask simply to look at whether Israel can depose Hamas, which it probably can. You have to look at whether Israel can get out, right? Americans know very well that the United States was able to depose the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan, but we could not stand up a government that could stand in its place, which is why we had to stay there for a very, very long time. And over time, America, which initially had looked very strong in 2002-2003, ended up looking very weak, including to our adversaries, right?

So, it doesn’t ultimately strengthen you vis-à-vis Hezbollah and Iran if you get caught in a quagmire in an insurgency in Gaza. And it’s really striking to me that I’ve been listening hard for people to give a coherent, plausible answer about what happens after you depose Hamas. And I really have not heard one. Just a small snippet of the kind of thing you hear, it’s quite remarkable really. This is an interview between Dan Senor, who has a podcast, and Michael Oren, former Israeli government official, very plugged in, been on media a lot. Dan Senor says, ‘shouldn’t Israel have a plan for what a post-Hamas Gaza looks like before it goes in and eviscerates Hamas.’ And this is Michael Oren, who’s very close to Israeli government officials. His response is, ‘I damn well hope so.’ Right? That’s not very comforting, right? We know that if Israel tried to stay and occupy Gaza, it would be dealing with an insurgency, just an indefinite insurgency in that territory, which will be a horror, horror for Israeli soldiers.

And if Israel tries to prop up the Palestinian authority, the Palestinian Authority already has zero credibility, couldn’t stay in power in Gaza in 2007, and it’s much weaker than it was then. It just seems to me that unless Israel is literally guarding Mahmoud Abbas’s office in Gaza City, the minute it leaves, that government will be overthrown or any other governments—whichever Arab country or the Norwegians or whoever were foolish enough to try to basically be on the ground in Gaza, they would have exactly that same problem, right? So, maybe temporarily things might be quieter in the south. Israelis wouldn’t be dying in the south, thank God, but they’d be dying in Gaza, right, for probably as long as the eye can see. Not to mention the fact that the more Israel is bogged down on the ground in Gaza, the fewer troops it has to deal with not just Hezbollah and the northern border, but also the West Bank, East Jerusalem. And it’s also, of course, also making the possibility of a regional war greater because its actions in Gaza will inflame people in Lebanon, in the West Bank, in East Jerusalem. So, if you’re terrified of a regional war, which many Israelis are, it seems to me you’re more likely to get the regional war if you go in on the ground in Gaza than if you don’t go in on the ground in Gaza.

And not to mention the fact that, putting aside this question of strength and weakness, you know, it’s just simply not true that Palestinians only think about Israel in terms of strength and weakness. If you listen to Palestinians, a lot of what they talk about when they talk about their issues with Israel is about oppression, right. It’s about the abuses that they suffer, right, the degradation that they suffer. There will be far, far more of that if Israel goes in and stays in on the ground. And this is true also if you listen to the statements of Mohammed Deif, the Hamas military commander, in explaining their horrifying attack, he talked about the, ‘orgy of occupation, the denial of international law.’ The point is that Palestinians across the political spectrum are more likely to act against Israel when they see Israel committing more abuses against Palestinians, which it certainly will do if it goes in on the ground. And Gershon Baskin, who is one of the Israelis who knows Hamas better, made the point recently that Hamas literally recruits its next generation of fighters from the bereaved families immediately after the round of fighting, right? So, you have to factor this in, right? You’ve already killed 3,000 Palestinian children, right? How many more children? How many more orphans? How many more future Hamas fighters? Or if Hamas doesn’t exist, Hamas 3.0, right?

One of the things that I think is structuring this debate is the inability of Israelis and their supporters to imagine anything worse than Hamas. And Hamas is pretty, pretty god-awful. But that’s a failure of imagination. The same kind of fail of imagination that prevented Americans from imagining anything worse than Saddam, and America got ISIS and an empowered Iran, or Israel from imagining anything worse than the PLO when it went in in the early 1980s and ended up playing a role in creating Hezbollah, right? So, you have to think about what you think is likely to come out of that hellscape. And whether you really think it’s going to be a kind of politics out of this agony of suffering in Gaza that’s going to be more peace-loving than Hamas.

So, but that doesn’t answer the question of what’s the alternative, right. It’s easy to tear down the idea of a grand invasion. So, let me offer some really tentative thoughts that I know people can poke lots of holes in, though I’ll throw them out there anyway. My assumption is that Palestinians are going to resist Israel as long as they lack basic rights, but that Israel and the world’s behavior can have a role in shaping what kind of resistance there is, whether it’s more ethical or more unethical, and whether it’s more aimed at mutual coexistence or not. And so, that’s my fundamental prism. What can Israel and the United States do to shape the kind of resistance so hopefully it never again looks like the horror that Hamas committed, but it looks something that’s actually more ethical and aimed towards mutual coexistence?

So, I would say, first Israel should say that it will go after and hunt down the people who masterminded and committed these attacks to the end of their days, till the end of the earth. That provides some deterrent effect, it seems to me, and it seems to me one can also morally justify that, given what happened. You don’t go in on the ground. And maybe you have some kind of international force that is a buffer for a certain period of time between Gaza and Israel, maybe even with US soldiers, if they would allow it. And then you start to move towards bolstering those forces in Palestinian society that will resist more ethically with a visual of mutual coexistence. I am a supporter of one equal state, but we are further away from that today than we were on October 7th. So, I think you have to start where you can with talk of the idea of two states with the idea of, eventually I think, moving those two states towards integration into one equal state, whether it’s a federation or confederation or whatever.

So how would I do that? First of all, I would start letting out non-Hamas political prisoners who can make the Palestinian Authority and the PLO a legitimate force again, rather than the quisling that it looks like today. The most important person would be Marwan Barghouti, who does have a record of violent resistance but has actually said some things from in prison that suggests that he is open to the idea of mutual coexistence and even potentially a two-state solution. You have to reinvigorate the non-Hamas Palestinian political parties, and most of their most legitimate political leaders are in jail, right? So, you’re not going to be able to do that while they’re all in jail. And then you need to have, it seems to me, some kind of elections, at least in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, that can produce some kind of legitimate political process and leadership. It’s inconceivable that Israel would allow Hamas to run in those now, but at least you could have an election among independents and Fatah to try to produce a more politically legitimate negotiating partner than what you have now in Mahmoud Abbas.

Then, I would say that you’re going to negotiate towards normalization with the Saudis with the Saudi Peace Initiative, the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 at its heart, which is to say at the heart of the normalization is the deal that was offered by the Saudis and all of the other Arab countries: a Palestinian state near the ‘67 lines with a just solution for the refugee question. Only once that is solved, will there be normalization. So, you put the Palestinian question back at the heart, rather than making Palestinians feel that they were completely marginalized. Then, as a down payment to that, you stop settlement growth, and you begin withdrawing large settlements from the interior of the West Bank. And you also reaffirm the status quo with the Al-Aqsa Mosque and stop right-wing elements in Israel from undermining and disrupting that status quo. Then you begin negotiations with that strengthened and re-legitimized Palestinian leadership in the West Bank—and also allow East Jerusalem to be part of that, their leaders as well—towards this plan of two states as a stage at least perhaps towards ultimately one equal country. And you tell Hamas that if it will respect the will of the Palestinian people if they vote on a referendum on any agreement, and they respect a ceasefire during the course of this process, then they can begin to be integrated back into Palestinian politics, and be allowed to participate in Palestinian elections. Because you can’t ultimately never allow Hamas to participate politically. And if you do, they’re just going to be a spoiler. But I think you can condition that participation, not even on them accepting the idea that they would support two states, but saying that they should respect the will of the Palestinian people if the Palestinian people vote to support that.

And is any of this possible under this Israeli government? No, absolutely not. Not in a million years. It’s not possible. But I—if I were the Americans and the Europeans—would use this vision and try to sell certain Israelis on this vision as a wedge to go to new elections so you have a different kind of Israeli government, one that might have elements that would that would find part of this vision more appealing, right? We know that there’s likely to be a political earthquake in Israel, that Netanyahu’s been completely discredited, the Likud has been politically discredited. We don’t know what the alternatives would be, but it seems to me into that political vacuum you could propose this as a very different vision, and hope that there might be opponents of Netanyahu who would pick up on all or at least some of it and run with that, and maybe they might be empowered by Israeli elections.

Now, there are lots of good critiques of all of this. These are far from foolproof plans. But when you when you judge this alternative, I think one has to judge it against what Israel is starting to do now, this ground invasion that I fear will really only lead to tremendous pain and suffering for Palestinians who are already going through indescribable pain and suffering, and ultimately not produce the safety that Israeli Jews deserve. And I think it’s really, really important in moments like this for us to try to do what Americans—including myself very much—failed to do after 9/11, which is to think outside the narrow terms of the debate that are created for us by political leaders and often reaffirmed by the media. And I want to just end with a quote that I was recently sent by Edward Said talking about this very point: the importance of thinking outside the narrow and often very inhumane categories that are presented to us. He writes: ‘no social system, no historical vision, no theoretical totalization, no matter how powerful can exhaust all the alternatives or practices that exist within its domain. There is always the possibility to transgress.’

And that’s what I think we need at this moment. We need the willingness intellectually and morally to transgress the brutal and narrow and inhumane terms of the debate that are being foisted upon us not just by the Israeli government but by the American government, and in a sense also by Hamas. And to me, the most inspiring this about those Israelis who are now bereaved—they’re not a majority of the bereaved Israelis—but that extraordinary minority that doesn’t want a ground invasion is that they are transgressing in the way that Said asked us all to. And so this is my effort to flesh out one path of what that transgression might look like. Again, on Friday at noon we’ll be talking with Ofer Cassif and Iyad El-Baghdadi for paid subscribers. I hope many of you will join us.

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Peter Beinart