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Delusions of victory

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Fred Kaplan lays out the Israel-Palestine conundrum clearly enough.

He points out that wars have three possible endings: one side defeats the other decisively; the two sides exhaust each other into an armistice; or outside powers impose an ending on the combatants.

Though he doesn’t quite reach this conclusion himself, it seems evident that none of these things are going to happen in the war between Israel and Palestine any time in the foreseeable future. Both sides are in the grip of a delusion that they can decisively defeat the other, and both sides have demonized each other to the point where any kind of lasting truce is impossible. That leaves an externally imposed peace, which sends Kaplan off into underpants gnome theorizing:

In any case, neither side in this war can achieve the “total victory” that its leaders say they seek. Hamas can’t drive Jews out of Israel, especially if Iran is unwilling to join in. Israelis can’t destroy Palestinian militancy, even if they wipe out Hamas’ last battalion, especially if they keep killing civilians and have no plan to rebuild Gaza—or reform Palestinian political authority—after the war is over. (Even as troops close in on Rafah, hoping to kill Hamas’ last holdouts, Israeli officials told the Times of Israel that Hamas’ leader, Yahya Sinwar, isn’t in Rafah, as the government has publicly claimed, but is still hiding in Khan Younis, which was heavily bombarded, apparently to little strategic effect.)

One lesson of history is that all of the Israeli-Arab wars over the past 76 years—since Israel’s founding as a state—have been ended by pressure from outside powers. In some cases, it was the U.S. pressuring Israel; in other cases, during the Cold War, it was the Soviet Union pressuring Syria or Egypt; in some cases, it was the United Nations pressuring all the combatants.

In those earlier wars, at least one outside power—in some cases all of them, working jointly—had the leverage and legitimacy to exert that pressure. But in crucial ways, they no longer do. The Soviet Union and its empire folded long ago. Some thought that the U.S. would thus emerge as “the sole superpower,” but in fact, it lost influence; some countries felt they could go their own way, no longer needing to tie their fates to the U.S. in exchange for protection from the Red Bear across the horizon. Israel, meanwhile, built up a powerful lobbying organization that made it much harder for American presidents to apply pressure. (President Ronald Reagan’s administration, hardly anti-Israel, cut off weapons to Israel on a few occasions and voted in favor of seven U.N. resolutions condemning Israel for some action or another. Reagan was never accused of being anti-Israel or antisemitic. Now presidents are lambasted on the few occasions they abstain from, rather than veto, critical resolutions.)

Meanwhile, the Sunni Arab leaders in the region have never stepped up to a leadership role in creating or preserving peace—though it’s time they do so. The Saudi royals very much want to “normalize” relations with Israel, but fear the response from their own people if they get too close while Israel is still bombing Gaza and refusing even to pay lip service to the idea of resuming negotiations toward a Palestinian state. Egypt tries to play it both ways. Its leaders never wanted any part in dealing with Palestinians; they have erected a wall on Egypt’s border with southern Gaza much higher than the wall Israel built on the northern border. They allowed Israeli troops to enter the Gaza–Egypt border on their way to Rafah—the troops couldn’t have crossed the border without Egypt’s active cooperation. And yet Egyptian officials now say they might rip up their peace treaty with Israel—which has been in effect for 50 years—if those same troops invade the town of Rafah outright.

The first casualty when war comes is truth,” as the old saw has it. This goes to the nth degree when it comes to war in this region, where illusion, hypocrisy, and mendacity reign as in few others. The players that have the power to exercise leadership need to start acting like leaders.

The American government — any American government — is not going to force Israel to withdraw from Gaza. The international community is not going to allow Israel, even with the full backing of a potential Trump administration, to ethnically cleanse Gaza and the West Bank. Any two state solution at this point appears to be a pure fantasy, as essentially no one in any position of power among either the Israelis or the Palestinians has any genuine interest in pursuing such a thing. Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians are going anywhere, so what the future holds for these two peoples is perpetual warfare in one form or another, until some resolution of that war that for the moment remains completely invisible and practically unimaginable.

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