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The horrific massacres waged by Hamas against Israeli civilians and the horrific Israeli counterstrikes that have caused a humanitarian crisis in Gaza have prompted extreme and callous responses. Fringe far-left outfits, campus groups, and some pro-Palestinian activists have justified Hamas’ vile attacks, while Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) endorsed wiping out Gaza, not just Hamas. As I noted in a previous newsletter, any dehumanization that allows for a blasé attitude toward the murder of civilians is condemnable. But when such a stance is adopted by persons with power and influence, it especially warrants opprobrium. On Fox News, when asked about the dire conditions, destruction, and deaths in Gaza caused by the Israeli assault, Cotton showed no compassion: “As far as I’m concerned, Israel can bounce the rubble in Gaza. Anything that happens in Gaza is the responsibility of Hamas…If we can back Ukraine for as long as it takes, surely we can back Israel for as long as it takes.”
Back Israel for as long as it takes. That has often been the sentiment within the United States—a bipartisan consensus in which supporting Israel means fully embracing its government and policies. For the diehard pro-Israel lobby, the goal has always been to cut off criticism of Israel, even when vigorous debate has waged within Israel about its actions. Once again, we have seen the emergence of the Israel-can-do-no-wrong crowd. Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.), for example, called for Israel to use “overwhelming force” in Gaza, as its airstrikes kill, injure, and displace thousands of Palestinian civilians. He rationalized this by insisting that all Palestinians in Gaza are antisemitic.
DeSantis and other Republican 2024 contenders slammed GOP frontrunner Donald Trump for daring to criticize Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for being ill-prepared for the Hamas attack. (Trump was probably more ticked off that Netanyahu never supported his Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen from him.) In the face of this pounding from his rivals, Trump quickly backtracked and posted “#IStandWithIsrael” and “#IStandWithBibi” on social media.
Equating Netanyahu and Israel is a problem for those who profess support for Israel. He has been disastrous for Israel. Accused multiple times of corruption, he has elevated racist ultra-nationalists to the highest ranks of the Israeli government, and he has pursued measures to weaken Israeli democracy and consolidate power within his own office—prompting mass protest and bitterly dividing the nation. He has allowed the expansion of settlements and done nothing but exacerbate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Netanyahu miscalculated and ignored a fundamental challenge for Israel.
As Michael Hirsh put it in Foreign Policy:
Netanyahu suddenly faces a long, bloody war with the Palestinians after spending most of his political career sidelining, short-shrifting, and underestimating them, all the while relying on his country’s military superiority—including its Iron Dome anti-missile system—to protect Israel… Netanyahu’s policies helped create the conditions that led to the bloodiest few days in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Netanyahu not only disregarded Palestinian grievances while chasing after normalization accords with Arab states. He connived to solidify Hamas’ standing in Gaza as a means to undercut the Palestinian Authority—which allowed him to duck serious negotiations to reach a permanent resolution. As the Wall Street Journal pointed out, “Netanyahu pursued a divide-and-conquer strategy by propping up Hamas, while at the same time weakening the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, said Yohanan Plesner, a former lawmaker and head of the Jerusalem-based think tank the Israel Democracy Institute.” A 19-year-old Israeli summed it up rather simply: “Bibi chose to give us Iron Dome instead of a diplomatic solution.”
And Netanyahu’s most immediate screwup of all: He failed to foresee or prepare adequately for the heinous attacks from Gaza.
With this record, unqualified support for Netanyahu makes no sense. As many commentators have opined, this moment is reminiscent of the post-9/11 period in the United States. Here’s one sad similarity: There were plenty of reasons to oppose George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, and a key one was that Bush would be in charge of the war. It was evident that he did not have the experience, judgement, vision, values, or know-how to oversee such a difficult and consequential endeavor. Bush had no clue what to do after the US assault toppled Saddam Hussein. It was no surprise the war turned out to be a disaster that ended the lives of several thousand American soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians and that did little good for the region and world.
After all of Netanyahu’s failures and miscalculations, who wants to bet on him now? He deserves no blank check. While it is encouraging to see President Joe Biden issue a statement that suggested Israeli should not bounce the rubble—“We must not lose sight of the fact that the overwhelming majority of Palestinians had nothing to do with Hamas’s appalling attacks, and are suffering as a result of them”—it remains unclear whether Biden has directly pressured Netanyahu on this point. How far will he go to rein in Netanyahu? The appalling images coming out of Gaza before the expected ground assault are not reassuring on this front. As I write this, Biden is in Israel huddling with Netanyahu. This strikes me as a mistake that could possibly be viewed as a vote of confidence in Netanyahu and that could tie the United States further to the devastation underway in Gaza.
Many Israelis have no faith in Netanyahu. There have been calls on him to resign—for both his actions (or inaction) prior to and following the Hamas attacks. Haaretz, the liberal newspaper, ran an op-ed headlined “Netanyahu: Resign Now!” Another column in the paper began, “Benjamin Netanyahu should be removed as prime minister immediately—not ‘after the war,’ not after a plea bargain in his corruption trial, not after an election.” A veteran Israeli television broadcaster tweeted, “don’t wait. Put him on trial now. He is a war criminal.” Members of Netanyahu’s cabinet have been driven out of hospitals by hecklers enraged with the government. Another minister was denied entry into a southern Israeli community when the man on guard started shouting at him, “Shame on you and on your government! Get out of here.”
💥Netanyahu's 31-year-old minister-for-god-knows-what @ItshakWaserlauf is denied entry into a southern Israeli community when the man on guard sees who he is. "Shame on you & on your government! Get out of here." A government without a country! pic.twitter.com/Q31Urb4gXA
— Noga Tarnopolsky נגה טרנופולסקי نوغا ترنوبولسكي💙 (@NTarnopolsky) October 15, 2023
The Biden administration cannot defer to Netanyahu. As Israel’s number-one underwriter—to the tune of $3.9 billion a year—it has leverage, and it ought to use it to prevent further Netanyahu miscalculation and more brutality in Gaza. This man cannot be trusted—especially not to lead a military action with possible consequences for the entire planet.
Back to Cotton and his cavalier call for the razing of Gaza. It should not be difficult to empathize with Israelis murdered by Hamas’ vile attack and with Palestinian civilians being killed and terrorized by Israel’s assault on Gaza. I find it unbearable to watch videos from the rave where 260 young Israelis were slaughtered or the footage of injured children being carried into Gaza hospitals overflowing with bombing victims. (The explosion Tuesday at the al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza City—whoever was responsible for it—yielded gruesome images and a heartbreaking death count of hundreds.) The goal is peace, security, and dignity for both sides. I don’t know how that will be achieved. But we can be sure that Netanyahu is not the man for this job.
Let’s end with a moving moment that occurred when Maoz Inon, an Israeli whose parents were killed during the Hamas attacks, was interviewed by the BBC. He began to cry, and he explained:
I’m not crying for my parents. I’m crying for those who are going to lose their life in this war. We must stop the war. The war is not the answer. I beg all the viewers and listeners to do everything in their power to put pressure on everyone that is relevant to stop the war immediately… In our family, we are not seeking revenge. Revenge will just lead to more suffering. And to more casualties. And even though it’s the most horrible day—it was the most horrible loss of life in Israel since the foundation of the country—I’m afraid that the numbers can be much bigger… I’m afraid for the soldiers, for the civilians from both sides in Gaza and in Israel that will pay [with] their life. This is why I am crying.
"I'm not crying for my parents – I am crying for those who will lose their lives in this war. We must stop the war."
— Helena Humphrey (@helenachumphrey) October 16, 2023