The modern State of Israel is predicated upon non-dependence and the lack of faith. Its essential founding idea was that, through the centuries, wherever the Jews went, countries and peoples that initially claimed they would tolerate or protect Jews eventually turned against them. For Jews to have anywhere in the world that was truly safe long-term, they needed a Jewish homeland – a state that was overwhelmingly and permanently Jewish, so that Jews need not depend upon others for their security.
This founding central principle of Israel means that Arabs in Israel can never have full political rights. It means that Israel could never have contemplated annexing the West Bank and Gaza strip (since that would have implied adding millions of non-Jews to the Israeli population). It means that Israel can never accept reliance upon security guarantees from the United States or UK or other European nations at the expense of its ability to defend itself. It means that Israel always regards agreements with its neighbours or anybody else as contingent deals or momentary alliances. It means that, in Israel, Christians are forbidden from proselytising.
The mainstream British view (with which I agree, for what it’s worth) has always been that this central idea that Israel must be a Jewish state is wrong. That Jewish state was, after all, born in terrorist assault upon the British and the British seriously contemplated entering the 1948 Arab-Israeli war upon the Arab side. But then in Britain we think the central principles of lots of other states are wrong. We don’t agree with the Americans that sovereignty arises from “the people”. We don’t agree with the French view of rights or the balance between the citizen and the state. Britain has little problem with friendly intercourse and even alliance with states that we think are wrong about all kinds of things. So we may not believe that Israel ought to have been (or continue to be) the Jewish State that it is. But we did come to accept that it is the state that it is and we do not accept that others should be permitted to change or destroy it by force.
There is a lot of history and context one could offer about events in Israel and the Occupied Territories and about the misery of living under decades of occupation, living under the fear of rocket fire over the border, about the dangers of being a Fatah support in Gaza under murderous oppression by Hamas or about Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood. But after one had got through all that educational context, this question would remain: “What should Israel do in Gaza?” Not “What should it not do?” Not “Well what about Israel’s actions in the West Bank or the US actions in Iraq?” What should Israel do in Gaza?
That is the question that currently seems to embarrass the British chattering classes. I say: “Fine. You don’t like what Israel is doing in Gaza. What should they do instead, then?”
“Is the plan for them to grin and bear it when rockets are fired over the border at Israeli civilians?”
I don’t mean this question as a piece of mockery or absurdity. Most of the time, precisely what Israel does do is to grin and bear it. Every now and again Israel attacks instead. Perhaps the plan is that they should grin and bear it all the time? Maybe if Israel just grinned and bore it for long enough, Hamas would lose its appetite for murdering Israeli civilians. I’m a Christian, so I’d better believe that turning the other cheek does in fact work if you do it sufficiently sacrificially and for long enough. But is that really an option for Israel? If the Belgians fired rockets over into France every day, perhaps the French could just grin and bear it and eventually the Belgians might stop. But is that really the course of action you would recommend to the French?
(And on the other side can there really be peace without justice? If Israel has been unjust to Palestinians, are you asking those Palestinians just to accept that such injustice should go unchallenged?)
“Should Israel negotiate with Hamas?” But negotiate about what? Hamas is committed to the destruction of the state of Israel, so what would there be for Israel to negotiate with Hamas about other than the timetable and nature of its own immolation? I thought (and still think) Israel should have tried to negotiate with Hamas immediately after it was elected in Gaza. But that moment is now long passed.
Is the answer “Israel should and must act against Hamas, but must do so proportionately”?
Israel is often accused of acting “disproportionately”. But what is “proportionate” action in war? Does that mean killing only the same number of civilians or soldiers that were killed by the other side? In the 1990-91 Iraq War, there were 1,000 Kuwaiti civilians and 358 Coalition forces killed. On the Iraqi side there were some 20,000-35,000 military deaths and 3,700 civilian deaths, so a ratio of between 17 and 28 Iraqi death for everyone else’s deaths. In Operation Barras during the British intervention in Sierra Leone in 2000, the SAS and other forces rescued a Royal Irish Regiment patrol and 22 Sierra Leone civilians from the so-called West Side Boys, with one British soldier lost to 25 of the West Side Boys. We normally have no doubts that such a 25 to 1 ratio of losses for the other side to losses for our forces can be legitimate even when wildly disproportionate. Folk say: “Israel must do more to limit civilian casualties.” But what “more”? “More! More! More!” – Yes, I understand and even sympathise. But what? And what (other than the sheer number of deaths) makes you think they aren’t doing as much as can reasonably be done already?
Is the answer “Israel should and must act against Hamas, but (as well as acting proportionately) Israel must recognise in doing so that a military solution to the threats it experiences from Gaza is not possible”? Something along those lines appears to be the Labour Party position as expressed by Douglas Alexander. But what is a “military solution”? In the UK, the police arresting people is not a “solution to the problem of theft”, but it is part of the process of managing theft and keeping it to bearable levels. The Israelis appear at present to have become highly pessimistic about the possibility of any sort of lasting solution in Gaza. Their actions are not aimed at solving anything. They seek merely to keep the rocket attacks upon Israeli citizens to a bearable level that allows everyday life to go on in relative quietude.
I am a problem-solver by nature, and many of our politicians come from wonkish problem-solving backgrounds. They would like to imagine that if we pull the right lever, enact the right policy, say the right thing, give the right money to the right people, the conflicts between the Israelis and Palestinians will end. I would like to believe that too and will carry on dreaming up such schemes. But the sad reality is that some problems (e.g. theft) can’t be solved at all (at least in this life) and other problems (especially those that involve deep-seated hatred or fear) can only be “solved” by decaying away through time.
It would be nice to imagine that Israel would accept becoming a mixed Arab-Jewish state in which Arabs have full political rights and Christian proselytising is permitted. But that just ain’t gonna happen. It would be nice to imagine that other countries would provide robust security guarantees to Israel and to Palestinians alike that would then be enforced effectively. But that ain’t gonna happen and if it did happen then Israel would not (could not, by its very nature) accept and rely upon such guarantees. It would be nice to believe that the Palestinians would decide to live and let live. But that hasn’t happened these past near-70 years and how content should we be with insisting upon peace without justice, anyway? What would be really really nice would be if the Palestinians could produce some leaders that were both not corrupt and also willing and competent to act as a peace partner in a deal with Israel. I haven’t quite given up on that yet.
But in the meantime – in the long, mean time – perhaps the best anyone can really hope for is a period of relative quiet until the killing begins again. Not the most lofty of ambitions, perhaps, but (absent any real hope of a lasting just solution) a lot better than the alternative.