There is a constituency of Jews out there who find themselves reduced to silence when contemplating the current conflict in Israel and Gaza. It is not just the fear of stepping out of line from the organized community’s lock-step support for the government of Israel. It is that the situation itself defies easy and pat talking points; consequently, the silent constituency doesn’t quite know what to say. Unlike the moral absolutists among us who have an unerring sense of certainty — while often holding to a very relativist view of the value of human life (i.e., Jew is greater than Arab) — the silent constituency sees right and wrong in both sides. It is deeply concerned about the well-being of Israel and friends and family there, but it has no tolerance for the expressions of self-congratulation and moral superiority that we sometimes hear in discussions about Israel and Gaza.
This constituency, to which I belong, believes that Israel has a right to defend itself from wanton rocket fire and terrifying tunnels that endanger its citizens. It harbors no illusions about the beneficence of Hamas. But it wonders if the kind of asymmetric conflict in which Israel is engaged ever yields a victor. The current war did not begin simply because Hamas lobbed rockets into Israel. Nor did it start with the horrific murders of the Israeli and Palestinian teenagers. It belongs to a larger sequence of events that commenced in 2005 when Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza. The war of today was preceded by a war with Hamas in 2012, which was preceded by a war with Hamas in 2008-09, which was preceded by the blockade that Israel imposed on the Gaza Strip after Hamas’ electoral triumph in 2006. Is there not an element of “Groundhog Day” in the current predicament?
Israel’s policy of regularly “mowing the grass” — the crude metaphor connoting its periodic need to degrade Hamas’ rocket-launching capacity — rests on the technological advantages of the Israel Defense Forces, but it also exposes a striking degree of strategic blindness. Simply put, how long? How long can the cycle continue? How many lives must be lost in Gaza? How much pain and misery must be exacted from those Gazans who survive? How much longer must Israelis live in terror and young soldiers, in the prime of their lives, put in harm’s way? And how much more erosion of its political and moral status in the world can Israel suffer?
The silent constituency wonders if Israel has lost sight of the long-term strategic forest for the short-term tactical trees. Israel’s huge military advantage deceives us into believing that the war can and must be won on the battlefield. Lamentably, the Palestinians, deeply and understandably frustrated about their 66-year exile, have often chosen the path of armed conflict. But there is also a deep current of militarism embedded in Israeli and Zionist thinking that now, sadly, permeates many facets of Israeli society. The historian Anita Shapira suggests that the shift in Zionism from a defensive stance to an offensive ethos occurred in the 1936 Arab general strike in Palestine. Whether we date it earlier or later, what is clear is that many Israelis have internalized the belief that violence is the only language spoken in the Middle East — and if so, then the Jews must be supremely fluent in it. In fact, the Jews have become supremely fluent in it — sometimes to the exclusion of other languages essential to their survival, such as the language of diplomacy.
But what options exist other than the status quo, one might ask? After all, one cannot ignore the odious Hamas charter nor the perpetually underdeveloped Palestinian political culture. Here the silent constituency wonders about the near-total absence of statecraft among recent Israeli leaders. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been widely lauded at home for his conduct of the war. But on his watch Israel’s status in the world has sunk to historic lows. Rather than thinking of how to construct an alternative to the status quo — for example, by building up a credible Palestinian partner rather than repeatedly stating that there is none — he plans only as far as the next tunnel to destroy (which is undeniably important, in the immediate term). It is the gift of statecraft , focused on the long term, that Netanyahu is sorely lacking. That quality, of thinking beyond the moment to imagine the lives of future generations, marked Yitzhak Rabin at the end of his life. And that quality, of thinking beyond one’s own ideological inhibitions, marked Menachem Begin, Netanyahu’s fellow Revisionist Zionist, when he arrived at a peace agreement with Egypt’s Anwar Sadat.
The constituency to which I belong laments the absence of that quality today. It fears that in its absence, we will return soon enough to another round of spasmodic violence. More Palestinians will be killed. More Israelis will be endangered. More hatred will be sowed, as the language of violence creeps deeper into both Israeli and Palestinian societies. More damage will be done to Israel’s political and moral standing. More anti-Israel (and baldly anti-Semitic) demonstrations will take place abroad. And more unlikely will be the two-state solution, the essential precondition to Israel remaining a Jewish state and Palestinians gaining national self-determination. Facing such a scenario, let us abandon our silence and demand more of our leaders.