The Guardian / October 9, 2023
The so-called international community must also make up for its neglect of Israel-Palestine: there has to be a ceasefire.
Why is Benjamin Netanyahu still prime minister of Israel? More than any other single political leader, on either side of the Israel-Palestine divide, he is responsible for the spiralling tensions, divisions and anger that preceded this horrific catastrophe. Disastrously, Israelis and Palestinians are again at war. Yet Netanyahu’s first duty was to prevent such an eventuality. He has failed miserably, and the measure of his failure is the unprecedented number of civilian dead. He promised security. He created a sea of tears. If he has any integrity left, any shame at all, he should not wait for the inevitable inquests. He should resign immediately.
Netanyahu’s long political career has been characterized by fear and confrontation. Now, typically, his vengeful response to the weekend’s atrocious Hamas onslaught is to pledge yet more violence, greater escalation. He warns Gaza’s besieged people to leave their homes as Israel’s aerial bombing intensifies and its ground forces assemble en masse. But they are locked in on all sides. Where should they go? Into the sea? This is not a rational, humane or sustainable policy. Netanyahu continuing in power, fighting to justify and excuse his own mistakes, will only make matters worse.
Many Israelis understand this full well, even if Netanyahu and his culpable, deliberately provocative, far-right coalition allies do not. “The prime minister, who has prided himself on his vast political experience and irreplaceable wisdom in security matters, completely failed to identify the dangers he was consciously leading Israel into when establishing a government of annexation and dispossession,” an editorial in the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper snarled. By adopting a policy that “openly ignored the existence and rights of Palestinians”, Netanyahu made a collision inevitable.
The explosion of Palestinian anger was not unexpected. It had been coming for months, amid almost daily, lethal violence in the West Bank, where right-wing Israeli settlers, egged on by extremist ministers such as Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, appeared to act with impunity. The relentless expansion of illegal settlements and an increased Jewish presence on Temple Mount, by al-Aqsa mosque, when taken in the context of Netanyahu’s refusal to contemplate any kind of negotiated “peace process”, added fuel to the smouldering fire.
Amid such dread portents, the surprise was in the timing, location – southern Israel – and scale of the explosion, the mass hostage-taking by Hamas, and the Israeli political and security establishment’s painfully evident lack of preparedness. When the post-mortems begin, Netanyahu, on past form, may try to shift blame on to military and intelligence chiefs who failed to anticipate the looming storm. Another stunning failure was Israel’s huge, $1.1bn, 65km-long, six metre-high Gaza barrier wall, which the attackers overcame with apparent ease. Yet it’s the country’s prime minister, not breeze blocks and barbed wire, on whom security ultimately depends.
Informal talks have already begun about establishing a national unity government to confront Israel’s worst crisis since the 1973 Yom Kippur war [October War] – what its UN ambassador calls “Israel’s 9/11”. Some argue that changing leaders at such a moment would indicate weakness. But any government will struggle if Netanyahu, the principal target of recent, mass pro-democracy protests over his judicial “reforms” and the subject of compromising criminal proceedings, is part of it. He is a liability to Israel, an embarrassment to its friends. He must go.
That said, there must be no mealy mouthed obfuscation by Israel’s critics of the immediate issue. There is no justification whatsoever for what just happened. Hamas’s murderous, inhuman actions are wholly inexcusable, whatever its grievances. Their purpose appears to be to inflict maximum pain, then to dare Israel to do its worst as the world looks on appalled. If Hamas’s strategic aim was to regain attention for the Palestinian cause and disrupt the trend towards Israeli-Arab normalization, it has already succeeded. But it has done that cause a grave and lasting disservice.
An extraordinarily threatening and complex security situation now obtains. As it considers its next step, Israel’s Gaza choices are all bad. The very idea of negotiations with Hamas at this point is repugnant. But the group can be expected to seek talks over the release of 100 or more Israeli hostages in exchange for freeing a disproportionate number of Palestinians held in Israeli jails. That may have been another key aim behind its incursion. Alternatively, Israel could continue or ramp up its aerial assaults on Gaza, risk the hostages’ lives and face being blamed internationally for additional civilian deaths.
Another option is to tighten the existing Gaza blockade, which appears to be happening, with the defence minister saying Israel has imposed a “complete siege”. Again, the resulting human suffering will be laid at Israel’s door. Most riskily of all, it could mount a ground invasion, re-occupying an area it vacated in 2005 and exposing itself to the prospect of protracted urban warfare. In declaring Israel to be at war, Netanyahu vowed to destroy Hamas and eliminate likeminded, foreign-backed groups such as Islamic Jihad. That is unrealistic hyperbole. An occupation of Gaza, if it is launched in the coming days, is more likely to ensure that violence is perpetuated indefinitely.
A ceasefire and talks will have to happen, sooner or later, and this is where the so-called international community can and should make up for many years of neglecting the Israel-Palestine conflict. If Joe Biden wants to rescue Israel-Saudi normalisation and the exclusionary Abraham accords, if the US and Europe want to prevent a wider war drawing in Hezbollah in Lebanon and Iranian-backed, anti-Israel militias in Syria and Iraq, if the western democracies want to keep Russia (and China) from further extending regional influence, they must end the hands-off approach to the Palestinian question that has effectively empowered hardliners on all sides.
Declaring undying, unquestioning solidarity with Israel, as Rishi Sunak and other western leaders did at the weekend, is easy – and potentially problematic. They need to act, not pose. They must take leadership responsibility, too, and get directly involved in making a reality of what, despite everything, remains the only available, plausible, lasting solution – an independent, sovereign Palestinian state peacefully coexisting with Israel.
Simon Tisdall is a foreign affairs commentator; he has been a foreign leader writer, foreign editor and US editor for The Guardian