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Ceasefires, Plans, and Activism
What would I have the Biden administration do on Gaza? There are answers, but they're not exactly great.
Whenever I question or criticize Israel’s increasingly destructive response to Hamas’ October 7th attack, someone will inevitably ask me: well, Shadi, what would you do? I get it. It’s all too tempting to hunch our shoulders in despair and concede that there are no good options. But this doesn’t mean that all those otherwise bad options are equally bad.
While I now work for a media organization, I’m also a foreign policy analyst. So I’ve felt that it’s important to outline my own alternative “proposals,” in the hope that it might spur others to think constructively about what can be done. Because, as I’ve said elsewhere, the Biden administration has agency. The Israeli government has agency. Anyone who insists that Israel has been “forced” to pummel Gaza into oblivion is making not just a political error, but a moral one as well. It also reminds me of what former Prime Minister Golda Meir once said, “We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children. We can never forgive the Arabs for making us kill theirs.”
Anyway, over the weekend, I wrote about what I think should happen. Here’s a slightly edited version, but feel free to skip past if you’ve already read it.
Prioritize and push for periodic ceasefires to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza.
Degrade and dismantle Hamas' military capabilities (although this has already happened to a significant degree).
In exchange for Israel halting its bombardment of Gaza and any ground invasion, Hamas agrees to release all hostages and offload governing responsibilities in Gaza onto the Palestinian Authority. A ceasefire would allow for this to be negotiated.
Israel, like any country, has the right to defend itself. This means accepting that it will kill or arrest senior Hamas military commanders. But this also means accepting that not everyone associated with Hamas can or should be killed or arrested. The latter would entail a bloodbath and contribute to further radicalization. Moreover, Hamas is a mass movement with tens of thousands of members and hundreds of thousands of supporters and sympathizers, so it would be simply untenable even if it were desirable.
After a cessation of hostilities, the U.S. must put pressure on the Israeli government to accept a Palestinian state and commit to a peace process that would lead to the establishment of two states—but this time any "peace process" would need to be real, not the pretend one of the past 15 years.
Future U.S. military assistance to Israel must be made contingent on Israel committing in good faith to pursuing this path. In other words, the Israeli government couldn’t just say that it accepted a Palestinian state; it would need to take concrete and tangible measures towards the establishment of a Palestinian state, including by entering into direct and unconditional negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.
Wisdom of Crowds is about interrogating first principles—in other words, what motivates us and why do we end up believing the things we say we believe? So let me offer some thoughts as to why coming up with these points was challenging, and why it appears to have disappointed not just foes but also some friends.
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Over the past couple days, a number of activist friends have taken me to task for not calling for an unconditional ceasefire. I wish an unconditional ceasefire was possible. That would at least stop the killing and provide some much needed time for various actors to develop an actual strategy (Israel still doesn’t seem to have much of an endgame here). But Israel unconditionally agreeing to a ceasefire is a nonstarter. Israel deciding to prioritize Palestinian lives, after not prioritizing them for decades, is something close to a fantasy. Like most countries, in a time of war, Israel will prioritize its own goals (to the extent it has them) and its own citizens, even if that means wreaking havoc and destruction on an entire people. Israel, as Damir might remind us, is not a human rights organization. Moreover, Israel—being a democracy—is accountable to its people, and the Israeli public would never never go along with anything remotely dovish for understandable reasons, at least for now.
Activists can call for a ceasefire in whatever way they like. There is a place for what activists do, by keeping the pressure on progressive Democratic politicians to be more vocal about the plight of Gazans and extending the Overton window. But I’m not an activist. My role—at least as I understand it—is different, and I do worry that there’s something a bit myopic about prioritizing moral purity and righteousness over results, however understandable that might be. If we're talking about policy, we have to be realistic about what's possible. In the end, Israel can't simply be compelled to do something completely against its own desires, especially after an attack as horrific as the one on October 7. The U.S. has leverage on Israel but there are also limits to this leverage.
In short, saying you want a ceasefire might be a good start, but it's not enough unless we can discuss what happens after a ceasefire. After what Hamas did, if you’re speaking to anyone from the “pro-Israel” side, you have to be able to explain how Hamas will be constrained or degraded or how its rule over Gaza might come to an end. But I get that that’s not the priority of most pro-Palestinian voices at this moment. The priorities of pro-Palestinian advocates and pro-Israel advocates are, in this sense, completely divergent.
But it’s also true that many pro-Israel voices would find point no. 3 and the possible future participation of Hamas members in elections—after some process of disarming—to be similarly unacceptable. This is a group that slaughtered your friends, family, and fellow citizens in a truly despicable manner. How could you possibly be okay with members and even leaders of such a group being reconstituted in a potentially future Palestinian state right next door to you?
I don’t necessarily have answers to these questions, because I’m not sure there are answers.
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