Déjà Vu in Israel

Chaim Goldberg/POOL/AFP/Getty Images

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after speaking at an event celebrating Israel’s acceptance into the US Visa Waiver Program, Jerusalem, September 28, 2023

Israel has survived many wars, but none of them, not even the 1948 war in which casualties amounted to one percent of the country’s Jewish population, was as gruesome and cruel as what we have seen in the last few days. Hamas has shown its true colors (not that there was any real doubt about them): it is a murderous terrorist organization driven by an extreme, indeed lunatic fundamentalist ideology, a brutal travesty of Islamic tradition. In a single day, Hamas murdered over 1,200 Israelis—babies, children, the aged, women, and men, including soldiers and policemen. That was its goal, and it succeeded beyond its wildest dreams. What more is there to say?

But there is much to say about how Israel allowed this massacre to happen, and about who bears responsibility for it. An entire conceptual system that has dominated Israeli thinking, and also government policy, for the last several decades has been exposed, repeatedly, as dangerous and delusional. You cannot lock up two and a half million people for years in an open-air ghetto, with minimal necessities for survival, and expect them to remain docile. But at the heart of the present crisis lies an even deeper moral failure. In effect, the state of Israel has drifted remorselessly (in two senses of that adverb) toward hara-kiri.

On the one hand, the messianic settler hypernationalists and Jewish supremacists—also delusional in their own way—have effectively hijacked the state in pursuit of their annexationist goal. On the other hand, we have a prime minister who has undermined the central institutions of Israeli democracy, including, first and foremost, the courts, and who has betrayed in word and action the classical Jewish humanistic values that were foundational to the state from its inception. Netanyahu has brought the country to the brink of civil war by pursuing antidemocratic legislation that happens to serve his own narrow interests. He has also relegitimized the extreme-right Kahanists such as Itamar Ben Gvir, a convicted felon and now a government minister, who wants to take over the Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem, including the Al-Aqsa mosque. It’s a crazy idea, like so many incendiary ideas in the Middle East; but the Hamas murderers who crossed into Israel last weekend were shouting “Save al-Aqsa” as they broke through the fence.

The result that we have seen unfolding for the last nine months, since the present extremist right-wing government was set up, and that has now emerged even more starkly in what happened on the Gaza periphery is a dysfunctional state mired in internal conflict, hubris, and steep moral decline. The army and the intelligence services, committed to their ruling conception, failed to heed Egyptian warnings that Hamas was planning a major terrorist assault. The army has wasted years policing the West Bank in the service of the settlers; the Gaza border was only one of the areas (though a critical one) guarded by too few combat-ready soldiers. When the attack began, many soldiers and policemen were murdered in their headquarters and posts; some managed to fight back against overwhelming odds; it took the army long hours to concentrate units near Gaza—hours enough to allow the hundreds of Hamas militants to continue their murderous rampage largely undisturbed. All of this is sadly reminiscent of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Israel was taken by surprise by Egypt and Syria. Egyptian president Anwar Sadat had warned the Israelis at the time that if there were no progress toward a political solution—he was serious about making peace—there would be war.

That is where we are again today. The sense of déjà vu has deep roots in Israeli history, going back to the early Zionists in the pre-state era and their blindness or indifference to Palestinian rights, indeed to the very existence of a Palestinian people. Netanyahu is not the first, and by no means the last, to believe that Israel can destroy the Palestinian national movement and that the state can get along just fine by oppressing and controlling, or perhaps expelling, the Palestinians (and, with some luck, by making treaties with other Arab countries—Saudi Arabia, for example). But without a reasonable Palestinian solution and an end to the occupation, there will never be even a semblance of peace. For now, Netanyahu bears the responsibility for his misguided vision and, above all, for its long-term practical consequences. He lacks the common decency to acknowledge that the destruction and moral rot now threatening the state of Israel with collapse from within constitute his singular achievement.

Israel’s ruthless, hate-driven enemies are perfectly aware that its polity and society are unraveling; they clearly saw their opportunity. They prepared for it meticulously and successfully fooled Israeli intelligence. Now that it is too late, with the trauma engraved in our memories, we hear mostly the predictable, threadbare threats coming from the government, the Knesset, the army, and significant parts of the media. And, of course, from the prime minister, who no doubt still thinks that violent coercion—that is, slaughter and revenge—is the only viable path, whatever the cost. Vengeance is almost always a transient pleasure. I fear the cost will be devastating, beginning with what happened on October 7, 2023.


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