Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.
Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.
In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.
Anti-Israel demonstrators atop a Trafalgar lion (Luke MacGregor/Reuters )
On the one hand, it is completely unsurprising that Europe has become a swamp of anti-Jewish hostility. It is, after all, Europe. Anti-Jewish hostility has been its metier for centuries. (Yes, the locus of much anti-Jewish activity today is within Europe’s large Muslim-immigrant population; but the young men who threaten their Jewish neighbors draw on the language and traditions of European anti-Semitism as much as they do on Muslim modes of anti-Semitic thought.)
On the other hand, the intensity, and velocity, of anti-Jewish invective—and actual anti-Jewish thuggery—has surprised even Eurocynics such as myself. “Jews to the gas,” a chant heard at rallies in Germany, still has the capacity to shock. So do images of besieged synagogues and looted stores. And testimony from harassed rabbis and frightened Jewish children.
But I find myself most bothered by what seems to have been, on the surface, a relatively minor incident. The episode took place last weekend at a Sainsbury’s supermarket in central London. Protesters assembled outside the store to call for a boycott of Israeli-made goods. Quickly, the manager ordered employees to empty the kosher food section. One account suggests that a staff member, when asked about the empty shelves, said “We support Free Gaza.” Other reports suggest that the manager believed that demonstrators might invade the store and trash it. (There is precedent to justify his worry.)
After a good deal of publicity following the incident, Sainsbury’s apologized to its Jewish customers. “This will not happen again,” its corporate-affairs director, Trevor Datsun, said, according to The Jewish Chronicle. “Managers will be told not to move kosher food because of some perceived threat.”
To the extent that it suggests that Israel and Judaism have been thoroughly conflated in the minds of many Europeans, the Sainsbury's kosher controversy is similar to other recent incidents. Kosher products—in the case of the Sainsbury’s branch in question, some apparently from the U.K. and Poland—were intuitively understood to be stand-ins for Israel itself, just as French Jewish males wearing kippot were understood by their attackers to be stand-ins for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
We have learned a number of unfortunate truths about the nature of the global anti-Israel movement this summer. One is that the war in Gaza is understood by many to be a continuation of Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, and not of the 1967 Six Day War. Which is to say, many protesters are challenging Israel’s very right to exist, not its policies in the territories it came to occupy in 1967 (or in Gaza’s case, territory it occupied in 1967 and then turned over to Palestinians in 2005). A second is that the line separating anti-Zionism—the belief that Jews have no right to an independent state in at least part of their ancestral homeland—and anti-Judaism, already reed-thin, has pretty much vanished.
And yet, the Sainsbury’s incident is disturbing not so much for what it says about the nature of European anti-Israelism, but for what it says about the broader response within Europe to forces of intolerance and hatred. Employees of the Sainsbury’s branch in central London seemed to have understood, based on an accurate reading of recent events, that anti-Israel activists posed a threat to their store, and perhaps to their own physical well-being. And so the manager made a decision to surrender to the mob and engage in what could only be called an act of self-preservational, but objectively anti-Semitic, preemption.
Cowering of this sort is a sign that a country is losing the ability to stand for the values it professes to maintain. In the U.K., it is also a sign that a society hasn’t fully grappled with the radical intolerance exhibited by some of its citizens.
The Sainsbury's incident happened in the same city in which recruiters for Islamic State, the too-radical-for-al-Qaeda group that executed American photojournalist James Foley, have been seen openly passing out propaganda. It happened in the same place where what appeared to be a jihadist flag flew outside a housing estate. As many as 1,500 Britons are apparently fighting for Islamic State's cause. There are said to be more British Muslims fighting on behalf of Islamic State than for the U.K.'s military. Foley’s executioner, currently the world’s most infamous terrorist, is widely believed to be a British subject.
Let me be clear—I am not equating street thugs who attempt to physically intimidate supermarkets into boycotting Israeli goods with the terrorists of Islamic State. I am not even equating the Muslim men who scream “Jews to the gas” with the terrorists of Islamic State. But I am arguing that there exists in Europe a continuum of prejudice, and that, on occasion, the U.K., like so many other European nations, has forgotten how important it is to be intolerant of intolerance.
The former secretary of state, and probable candidate for president, outlines her foreign-policy doctrine. She says this about President Obama's: "Great nations need organizing principles, and 'Don't do stupid stuff' is not an organizing principle."
President Obama has long ridiculed the idea that the U.S., early in the Syrian civil war, could have shaped the forces fighting the Assad regime, thereby stopping al Qaeda-inspired groups—like the one rampaging across Syria and Iraq today—from seizing control of the rebellion. In an interview in February, the president told me that “when you have a professional army ... fighting against a farmer, a carpenter, an engineer who started out as protesters and suddenly now see themselves in the midst of a civil conflict—the notion that we could have, in a clean way that didn’t commit U.S. military forces, changed the equation on the ground there was never true.”
Well, his former secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, isn’t buying it. In an interview with me earlier this week, she used her sharpest language yet to describe the "failure" that resulted from the decision to keep the U.S. on the sidelines during the first phase of the Syrian uprising.
“The failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad—there were Islamists, there were secularists, there was everything in the middle—the failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled,” Clinton said.
As she writes in her memoir of her State Department years, Hard Choices, she was an inside-the-administration advocate of doing more to help the Syrian rebellion. Now, her supporters argue, her position has been vindicated by recent events.
Professional Clinton-watchers (and there are battalions of them) have told me that it is only a matter of time before she makes a more forceful attempt to highlight her differences with the (unpopular) president she ran against, and then went on to serve. On a number of occasions during my interview with her, I got the sense that this effort is already underway. (And for what it's worth, I also think she may have told me that she’s running for president—see below for her not-entirely-ambiguous nod in that direction.)
Of course, Clinton had many kind words for the “incredibly intelligent” and “thoughtful” Obama, and she expressed sympathy and understanding for the devilishly complicated challenges he faces. But she also suggested that she finds his approach to foreign policy overly cautious, and she made the case that America needs a leader who believes that the country, despite its various missteps, is an indispensable force for good. At one point, I mentioned the slogan President Obama recently coined to describe his foreign-policy doctrine: “Don’t do stupid shit” (an expression often rendered as “Don’t do stupid stuff” in less-than-private encounters).
This is what Clinton said about Obama’s slogan: “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”
She softened the blow by noting that Obama was “trying to communicate to the American people that he’s not going to do something crazy,” but she repeatedly suggested that the U.S. sometimes appears to be withdrawing from the world stage.
During a discussion about the dangers of jihadism (a topic that has her “hepped-up," she told me moments after she greeted me at her office in New York) and of the sort of resurgent nationalism seen in Russia today, I noted that Americans are quite wary right now of international commitment-making. She responded by arguing that there is a happy medium between bellicose posturing (of the sort she associated with the George W. Bush administration) and its opposite, a focus on withdrawal.
“You know, when you’re down on yourself, and when you are hunkering down and pulling back, you’re not going to make any better decisions than when you were aggressively, belligerently putting yourself forward,” she said. “One issue is that we don’t even tell our own story very well these days.”
I responded by saying that I thought that “defeating fascism and communism is a pretty big deal.” In other words, that the U.S., on balance, has done a good job of advancing the cause of freedom.
Clinton responded to this idea with great enthusiasm: “That’s how I feel! Maybe this is old-fashioned.” And then she seemed to signal that, yes, indeed, she’s planning to run for president. “Okay, I feel that this might be an old-fashioned idea, but I’m about to find out, in more ways than one.”
She said that the resilience, and expansion, of Islamist terrorism means that the U.S. must develop an “overarching” strategy to confront it, and she equated this struggle to the one the U.S. waged against Soviet-led communism.
“One of the reasons why I worry about what’s happening in the Middle East right now is because of the breakout capacity of jihadist groups that can affect Europe, can affect the United States,” she said. “Jihadist groups are governing territory. They will never stay there, though. They are driven to expand. Their raison d’etre is to be against the West, against the Crusaders, against the fill-in-the-blank—and we all fit into one of these categories. How do we try to contain that? I’m thinking a lot about containment, deterrence, and defeat.”
She went on, “You know, we did a good job in containing the Soviet Union but we made a lot of mistakes, we supported really nasty guys, we did some things that we are not particularly proud of, from Latin America to Southeast Asia, but we did have a kind of overarching framework about what we were trying to do that did lead to the defeat of the Soviet Union and the collapse of Communism. That was our objective. We achieved it.” (This was one of those moments, by the way, when I was absolutely sure I wasn’t listening to President Obama, who is loath to discuss the threat of Islamist terrorism in such a sweeping manner.)
Much of my conversation with Clinton focused on the Gaza war. She offered a vociferous defense of Israel, and of its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, as well. This is noteworthy because, as secretary of state, she spent a lot of time yelling at Netanyahu on the administration's behalf over Israel’s West Bank settlement policy. Now, she is leaving no daylight at all between the Israelis and herself.
“I think Israel did what it had to do to respond to the rockets,” she told me. “Israel has a right to defend itself. The steps Hamas has taken to embed rockets and command-and-control facilities and tunnel entrances in civilian areas, this makes a response by Israel difficult.”
I asked her if she believed that Israel had done enough to prevent the deaths of children and other innocent people.
“[J]ust as we try to do in the United States and be as careful as possible in going after targets to avoid civilians,” mistakes are made, she said. “We’ve made them. I don’t know a nation, no matter what its values are—and I think that democratic nations have demonstrably better values in a conflict position—that hasn’t made errors, but ultimately the responsibility rests with Hamas.”
She went on to say that “it’s impossible to know what happens in the fog of war. Some reports say, maybe it wasn’t the exact UN school that was bombed, but it was the annex to the school next door where they were firing the rockets. And I do think oftentimes that the anguish you are privy to because of the coverage, and the women and the children and all the rest of that, makes it very difficult to sort through to get to the truth.”
She continued, “There’s no doubt in my mind that Hamas initiated this conflict. … So the ultimate responsibility has to rest on Hamas and the decisions it made.”
When I asked her about the intense international focus on Gaza, she was quick to identify anti-Semitism as an important motivating factor in criticism of Israel. “It is striking … that you have more than 170,000 people dead in Syria. … You have Russia massing battalions—Russia, that actually annexed and is occupying part of a UN member-state—and I fear that it will do even more to prevent the incremental success of the Ukrainian government to take back its own territory, other than Crimea. More than 1,000 people have been killed in Ukraine on both sides, not counting the [Malaysia Airlines] plane, and yet we do see this enormous international reaction against Israel, and Israel’s right to defend itself, and the way Israel has to defend itself. This reaction is uncalled for and unfair.”
She went on, “You can’t ever discount anti-Semitism, especially with what’s going on in Europe today. There are more demonstrations against Israel by an exponential amount than there are against Russia seizing part of Ukraine and shooting down a civilian airliner. So there’s something else at work here than what you see on TV.” Clinton also blamed Hamas for “stage-managing” the conflict. “What you see is largely what Hamas invites and permits Western journalists to report on from Gaza. It’s the old PR problem that Israel has. Yes, there are substantive, deep levels of antagonism or anti-Semitism towards Israel, because it’s a powerful state, a really effective military. And Hamas paints itself as the defender of the rights of the Palestinians to have their own state. So the PR battle is one that is historically tilted against Israel.”
Clinton also seemed to take an indirect shot at administration critics of Netanyahu, who has argued that the rise of Muslim fundamentalism in the Middle East means that Israel cannot, in the foreseeable future, withdraw its forces from much of the West Bank. “If I were the prime minister of Israel, you’re damn right I would expect to have control over security, because even if I’m dealing with [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas, who is 79 years old, and other members of Fatah, who are enjoying a better lifestyle and making money on all kinds of things, that does not protect Israel from the influx of Hamas or cross-border attacks from anywhere else. With Syria and Iraq, it is all one big threat. So Netanyahu could not do this in good conscience.”
She also struck a notably hard line on Iran’s nuclear demands. “I’ve always been in the camp that held that they did not have a right to enrichment,” Clinton said. “Contrary to their claim, there is no such thing as a right to enrich. This is absolutely unfounded. There is no such right. I am well aware that I am not at the negotiating table anymore, but I think it’s important to send a signal to everybody who is there that there cannot be a deal unless there is a clear set of restrictions on Iran. The preference would be no enrichment. The potential fallback position would be such little enrichment that they could not break out.” When I asked her if the demands of Israel, and of America’s Arab allies, that Iran not be allowed any uranium-enrichment capability whatsoever were militant or unrealistic, she said, “I think it’s important that they stake out that position.”
What follows is a transcript of our conversation. It has been edited for clarity but not for length, as you will see. Two other things to look for: First, the masterful way in which Clinton says she has drawn no conclusions about events in Syria and elsewhere, and then draws rigorously reasoned conclusions. Second, her fascinating and complicated analysis of the Muslim Brotherhood's ill-fated dalliance with democracy.
JEFFREY GOLDBERG: It seems that you’ve shifted your position on Iran’s nuclear ambitions. By [chief U.S. negotiator]Wendy Sherman’s definition of maximalism, you’ve taken a fairly maximalist position—little or no enrichment for Iran. Are you taking a harder line than your former colleagues in the Obama administration are taking on this matter?
HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: It’s a consistent line. I’ve always been in the camp that held that they did not have a right to enrichment. Contrary to their claim, there is no such thing as a right to enrich. This is absolutely unfounded. There is no such right. I am well aware that I am not at the negotiating table anymore, but I think it’s important to send a signal to everybody who is there that there cannot be a deal unless there is a clear set of restrictions on Iran. The preference would be no enrichment. The potential fallback position would be such little enrichment that they could not break out. So, little or no enrichment has always been my position.
JG: Am I wrong in saying that the Obama administration’s negotiators have a more flexible understanding of this issue at the moment?
HRC: I don’t want to speak for them, but I would argue that Iran, through the voice of the supreme leader, has taken a very maximalist position—he wants 190,000centrifuges and the right to enrich. And some in our Congress, and some of our best friends, have taken the opposite position—absolutely no enrichment. I think in a negotiation you need to be very clear about what it is going to take to move the other side. I think at the moment there is a big debate going on in Tehran about what they can or should do in order to get relief from the sanctions. It’s my understanding that we still have a united P5+1 position, which is intensive inspections, very clear limits on what they can do in their facilities that they would permitted to operate, and then how they handle this question of enrichment, whether it’s done from the outside, or whether it can truly be constrained to meet what I think our standard should be of little-to-no enrichment. That’s what this negotiation is about.
JG: But there is no sign that the Iranians are willing to pull back—freezing in place is the farthest they seem to be willing to go. Am I wrong?
HRC: We don’t know. I think there’s a political debate. I think you had the position staked out by the supreme leader that they’re going to get to do what they want to do, and that they don’t have any intention of having a nuclear weapon but they nevertheless want 190,000 centrifuges (laughs). I think the political, non-clerical side of the equation is basically saying, “Look, you know, getting relief from these sanctions is economically and politically important to us. We have our hands full in Syria and Iraq, just to name two places, maybe increasingly in Lebanon, and who knows what’s going to happen with us and Hamas. So what harm does it do to have a very strict regime that we can live under until we determine that maybe we won’t have to any longer?” That, I think, is the other side of the argument.
JG: Would you be content with an Iran that is perpetually a year away from being able to reach nuclear-breakout capability?
HRC: I would like it to be more than a year. I think it should be more than a year. No enrichment at all would make everyone breathe easier. If, however, they want a little bit for the Tehran research reactor, or a little bit for this scientific researcher, but they’ll never go above 5 percent enrichment—
JG: So, a few thousand centrifuges?
HRC: We know what “no” means. If we’re talking a little, we’re talking about a discrete, constantly inspected number of centrifuges. “No” is my preference.
JG: Would you define what “a little” means?
JG: So what the Gulf states want, and what the Israelis want, which is to say no enrichment at all, is not a militant, unrealistic position?
HRC: It’s not an unrealistic position. I think it’s important that they stake out that position.
JG: So, Gaza. As you write in your book, you negotiated the last long-termceasefire in 2012. Are you surprised at all that it didn’t hold?
HRC: I’m surprised that it held as long as it did. But given the changes in the region, the fall of [former Egyptian President Mohamed] Morsi, his replacement by [Abdel Fattah] al-Sisi, the corner that Hamas felt itself in, I’m not surprised that Hamas provoked another attack.
JG: The Israeli response, was it disproportionate?
HRC: Israel was attacked by rockets from Gaza. Israel has a right to defend itself. The steps Hamas has taken to embed rockets and command-and-control facilities and tunnel entrances in civilian areas, this makes a response by Israel difficult. Of course Israel, just like the United States, or any other democratic country, should do everything they can possibly do to limit civilian casualties.
JG: Do you think Israel did enough to limit civilian casualties?
HRC: It’s unclear. I think Israel did what it had to do to respond to the rockets. And there is the surprising number and complexity of the tunnels, and Hamas has consistently, not just in this conflict, but in the past, been less than protective of their civilians.
JG: Before we continue talking endlessly about Gaza, can I ask you if you think we spend too much time on Gaza and on Israel-Palestine generally? I ask because over the past year or so your successor spent a tremendous amount of time on the Israel-Palestinian file and in the same period of time an al Qaeda-inspired organization took over half of Syria and Iraq.
HRC: Right, right.
JG: I understand that secretaries of state can do more than one thing at a time. But what is the cause of this preoccupation?
HRC: I’ve thought a lot about this, because you do have a number of conflicts going on right now. As the U.S., as a U.S. official, you have to pay attention to anything that threatens Israel directly, or anything in the larger Middle East that arises out of the Palestinian-Israeli situation. That’s just a given.
It is striking, however, that you have more than 170,000 people dead in Syria. You have the vacuum that has been created by the relentless assault by Assad on his own population, an assault that has bred these extremist groups, the most well-known of which, ISIS—or ISIL—is now literally expanding its territory inside Syria and inside Iraq. You have Russia massing battalions—Russia, that actually annexed and is occupying part of a UN member state—and I fear that it will do even more to prevent the incremental success of the Ukrainian government to take back its own territory, other than Crimea. More than 1,000 people have been killed in Ukraine on both sides, not counting the [Malaysia Airlines] plane, and yet we do see this enormous international reaction against Israel, and Israel’s right to defend itself, and the way Israel has to defend itself. This reaction is uncalled for and unfair.
JG: What do you think causes this reaction?
HRC: There are a number of factors going into it. You can’t ever discount anti-Semitism, especially with what’s going on in Europe today. There are more demonstrations against Israel by an exponential amount than there are against Russia seizing part of Ukraine and shooting down a civilian airliner. So there’s something else at work here than what you see on TV.
And what you see on TV is so effectively stage-managed by Hamas, and always has been. What you see is largely what Hamas invites and permits Western journalists to report on from Gaza. It’s the old PR problem that Israel has. Yes, there are substantive, deep levels of antagonism or anti-Semitism towards Israel, because it’s a powerful state, a really effective military. And Hamas paints itself as the defender of the rights of the Palestinians to have their own state. So the PR battle is one that is historically tilted against Israel.
JG: Nevertheless there are hundreds of children—
HRC: Absolutely, and it’s dreadful.
JG: Who do you hold responsible for those deaths? How do you parcel out blame?
HRC: I’m not sure it’s possible to parcel out blame because it’s impossible to know what happens in the fog of war. Some reports say, maybe it wasn’t the exact UN school that was bombed, but it was the annex to the school next door where they were firing the rockets. And I do think oftentimes that the anguish you are privy to because of the coverage, and the women and the children and all the rest of that, makes it very difficult to sort through to get to the truth.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Hamas initiated this conflict and wanted to do so in order to leverage its position, having been shut out by the Egyptians post-Morsi, having been shunned by the Gulf, having been pulled into a technocratic government with Fatah and the Palestinian Authority that might have caused better governance and a greater willingness on the part of the people of Gaza to move away from tolerating Hamas in their midst. So the ultimate responsibility has to rest on Hamas and the decisions it made.
That doesn’t mean that, just as we try to do in the United States and be as careful as possible in going after targets to avoid civilians, that there aren’t mistakes that are made. We’ve made them. I don’t know a nation, no matter what its values are—and I think that democratic nations have demonstrably better values in a conflict position—that hasn’t made errors, but ultimately the responsibility rests with Hamas.
JG: Several years ago, when you were in the Senate, we had a conversation about what would move Israeli leaders to make compromises for peace. You’ve had a lot of arguments with Netanyahu. What is your thinking on Netanyahu now?
HRC: Let’s step back. First of all, [former Israeli Prime Minister] Yitzhak Rabin was prepared to do so much and he was murdered for that belief. And then [former Israeli Prime Minister] Ehud Barak offered everything you could imagine being given under any realistic scenario to the Palestinians for their state, and [former Palestinian leader Yasir] Arafat walked away. I don’t care about the revisionist history. I know that Arafat walked away, okay? Everybody says, “American needs to say something.” Well, we said it, it was the Clinton parameters, we put it out there, and Bill Clinton is adored in Israel, as you know. He got Netanyahu to give up territory, which Netanyahu believes lost him the prime ministership [in his first term], but he moved in that direction, as hard as it was.
Bush pretty much ignored what was going on and they made a terrible error in the Palestinian elections [in which Hamas came to power in Gaza], but he did come with the Roadmap [to Peace] and the Roadmap was credible and it talked about what needed to be done, and this is one area where I give the Palestinians credit. Under [former Palestinian Prime Minister] Salam Fayyad, they made a lot of progress.
I had the last face-to-face negotiations between Abbas and Netanyahu. [Secretary of State John] Kerry never got there. I had them in the room three times with [former Middle East negotiator] George Mitchell and me, and that was it. And I saw Netanyahu move from being against the two-state solution to announcing his support for it, to considering all kinds of Barak-like options, way far from what he is, and what he is comfortable with.
Now I put Jerusalem in a different category. That is the hardest issue, Again, based on my experience—and you know, I got Netanyahu to agree to the unprecedented settlement freeze, it did not cover East Jerusalem, but it did cover the West Bank and it was actually legitimate and it did stop new housing starts for 10 months. It took me nine months to get Abbas into the negotiations even after we delivered on the settlement freeze, he had a million reasons, some of them legitimate, some of them the same old, same old.
So what I tell people is, yeah, if I were the prime minister of Israel, you’re damn right I would expect to have control over security [on the West Bank], because even if I’m dealing with Abbas, who is 79 years old, and other members of Fatah, who are enjoying a better lifestyle and making money on all kinds of things, that does not protect Israel from the influx of Hamas or cross-border attacks from anywhere else. With Syria and Iraq, it is all one big threat. So Netanyahu could not do this in good conscience. If this were Rabin or Barak in his place—and I’ve talked to Ehud about this—they would have to demand a level of security that would be provided by the [Israel Defense Forces] for a period of time. And in my meetings with them I got Abbas to about six, seven, eight years on continued IDF presence. Now he’s fallen back to three, but he was with me at six, seven, eight. I got Netanyahu to go from forever to 2025. That’s a negotiation, okay? So I know. Dealing with Bibi is not easy, so people get frustrated and they lose sight of what we’re trying to achieve here.
JG: You go out of your way in Hard Choices to praise Robert Ford, who recently quit as U.S. ambassador to Syria, as an excellent diplomat. Ford quit in protest and has recently written strongly about what he sees as the inadequacies of Obama administration policy. Do you agree with Ford that we are at fault for not doing enough to build up a credible Syrian opposition when we could have?
HRC: I have the highest regard for Robert. I’m the one who convinced the administration to send an ambassador to Syria. You know, this is why I called the chapter on Syria “A Wicked Problem.” I can’t sit here today and say that if we had done what I recommended, and what Robert Ford recommended, that we’d be in a demonstrably different place.
JG: That’s the president’s argument, that we wouldn’t be in a different place.
HRC: Well, I did believe, which is why I advocated this, that if we were to carefully vet, train, and equip early on a core group of the developing Free Syrian Army, we would, number one, have some better insight into what was going on on the ground. Two, we would have been helped in standing up a credible political opposition, which would prove to be very difficult, because there was this constant struggle between what was largely an exile group outside of Syria trying to claim to be the political opposition, and the people on the ground, primarily those doing the fighting and dying, who rejected that, and we were never able to bridge that, despite a lot of efforts that Robert and others made.
So I did think that eventually, and I said this at the time, in a conflict like this, the hard men with the guns are going to be the more likely actors in any political transition than those on the outside just talking. And therefore we needed to figure out how we could support them on the ground, better equip them, and we didn’t have to go all the way, and I totally understand the cautions that we had to contend with, but we’ll never know. And I don’t think we can claim to know.
JG: You do have a suspicion, though.
HRC: Obviously. I advocated for a position.
JG: Do you think we’d be where we are with ISIS right now if the U.S. had done more three years ago to build up a moderate Syrian opposition?
HRC: Well, I don’t know the answer to that. I know that the failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad—there were Islamists, there were secularists, there was everything in the middle—the failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled.
They were often armed in an indiscriminate way by other forces and we had no skin in the game that really enabled us to prevent this indiscriminate arming.
JG: Is there a chance that President Obama overlearned the lessons of the previous administration? In other words, if the story of the Bush administration is one of overreach, is the story of the Obama administration one of underreach?
HRC: You know, I don’t think you can draw that conclusion. It’s a very key question. How do you calibrate, that’s the key issue. I think we have learned a lot during this period, but then how to apply it going forward will still take a lot of calibration and balancing. But you know, we helped overthrow [Libyan leader Muammar] Qaddafi.
JG: But we didn’t stick around for the aftermath.
HRC: Well, we did stick around. We stuck around with offers of money and technical assistance, on everything from getting rid of some of the nasty stuff he left behind, to border security, to training. It wasn’t just us, it was the Europeans as well. Some of the Gulf countries had their particular favorites. They certainly stuck around and backed their favorite militias. It is not yet clear how the Libyans themselves will overcome the lack of security, which they inherited from Qaddafi. Remember, they’ve had two good elections. They’ve elected moderates and secularists and a limited number of Islamists, so you talk about democracy in action—the Libyans have done it twice—but they can’t control the ground. But how can you help when you have so many different players who looted the stuffed warehouses of every kind of weapon from the Qaddafi regime, some of which they’re using in Libya, some of which they’re passing out around the region?
So you can go back and argue either, we should we have helped the people of Libya try to overthrow a dictator who, remember, killed Americans and did a lot of other bad stuff, or we should have been on the sidelines. In this case we helped, but that didn’t make the road any easier in Syria, where we said, “It’s messy, it’s complicated, we’re not sure what the outcome will be.” So what I’m hoping for is that we sort out what we have learned, because we’ve tried a bunch of different approaches. Egypt is a perfect example. The revolution in Tahrir Square was not a Muslim Brotherhood revolution. It was not led by Islamists. They came very late to the party. Mubarak falls and I’m in Cairo a short time after, meeting the leaders of this movement, and I’m saying, “Okay, who’s going to run for office? Who’s going to form a political party?” and they’re saying, “We don’t do that, that’s not who we are.”
And I said that there are only two organized groups in this country, the military and the Muslim Brotherhood, and what we have here is an old lesson that you can’t beat somebody with nobody. There was a real opportunity here to, if a group had arisen out of the revolution, to create a democratic Egyptian alternative. Didn’t happen. What do we have to think about? In order to do that better, I see a lot of questions that we have to be answering. I don’t think we can draw judgments yet. I think we can draw a judgment about the Bush administration in terms of overreach, but I don’t know that we can reach a conclusion about underreach.
JG: There is this moment in your book, in which Morsi tells you not to worry about jihadists in the Sinai—he says in essence that now that a Muslim Brotherhood government is in charge, jihadists won’t feel the need to continue their campaign. You write that this was either shockingly sinister or shockingly naïve. Which one do you think it was?
HRC: I think Morsi was naïve. I’m just talking about Morsi, not necessarily anyone else in the Muslim Brotherhood. I think he genuinely believed that with the legitimacy of an elected Islamist government, that the jihadists would see that there was a different route to power and influence and would be part of the political process. He had every hope, in fact, that the credible election of a Muslim Brotherhood government would mean the end of jihadist activities within Egypt, and also exemplify that there’s a different way to power.
The debate is between the bin Ladens of the world and the Muslim Brotherhood. The bin Ladens believe you can’t overthrow the infidels or the impure through politics. It has to be through violent resistance. So when I made the case to Morsi that we were picking up a lot of intelligence about jihadist groups creating safe havens inside Sinai, and that this would be a threat not only to Israel but to Egypt, he just dismissed this out of hand, and then shortly thereafter a large group of Egyptian soldiers were murdered.
JG: In an interview in 2011, I asked you if we should fear the Muslim Brotherhood—this is well before they came into power—and you said, ‘The jury is out.” Is the jury still out for you today?
HRC: I think the jury would come back with a lesser included offense, and that is a failure to govern in a democratic, inclusive manner while holding power in Cairo. The Muslim Brotherhood had the most extraordinary opportunity to demonstrate the potential for an Islamist movement to take responsibility for governance, and they were ill-prepared and unable to make the transition from movement to responsibility. We will see how they respond to the crackdown they’re under in Egypt, but the Muslim Brotherhood itself, although it had close ties with Hamas, for example, had not evidenced, because they were kept under tight control by Mubarak, the willingness to engage in violent conflict to achieve their goals. So the jury is in on their failure to govern in a way that would win the confidence of the entire Egyptian electorate. The jury is out as to whether they morph into a violent jihadist resistance group.
JG: There’s a critique you hear of the Obama administration in the Gulf, in Jordan, in Israel, that it is a sign of naiveté to believe that there are Islamists you can work with, and that Hamas might even be a group that you could work with. Is there a role for political Islam in these countries? Can we ever find a way to work with them?
HRC: I think it’s too soon to tell. I would not put Hamas in the category of people we could work with. I don’t think that is realistic because its whole reason for being is resistance against Israel, destruction of Israel, and it is married to very nasty tactics and ideologies, including virulent anti-Semitism. I do not think they should be in any way treated as a legitimate interlocutor, especially because if you do that, it redounds to the disadvantage of the Palestinian Authority, which has a lot of problems, but historically has changed its charter, moved away from the kind of guerrilla resistance movement of previous decades.
I think you have to ask yourself, could different leaders have made a difference in the Muslim Brotherhood’s governance of Egypt? We won’t know and we can’t know the answer to that question. We know that Morsi was ill-equipped to be president of Egypt. He had no political experience. He was an engineer, he was wedded to the ideology of top-down control.
JG: But you’re open to the idea that there are sophisticated Islamists out there?
HRC: I think you’ve seen a level of sophistication in Tunisia. It’s a very different environment than Egypt, much smaller, but you’ve seen the Ennahda Party evolve from being quite demanding that their position be accepted as the national position but then being willing to step back in the face of very strong political opposition from secularists, from moderate Muslims, etc. So Tunisia might not be the tail that wags the dog, but it’s an interesting tail. If you look at Morocco, where the king had a major role in organizing the electoral change, you have a head of state who is a monarch who is descended from Muhammad, you have a government that is largely but not completely representative of the Muslim party of Morocco. So I think that there are not a lot of analogies, but when you look around the world, there’s a Hindu nationalist party now, back in power in India. The big question for Prime Minister Modi is how inclusive he will be as leader because of questions raised concerning his governance of Gujurat [the state he governed, which was the scene of anti-Muslim riots in 2002]. There were certainly Christian parties in Europe, pre- and post-World War II. They had very strong values that they wanted to see their society follow, but they were steeped in democracy, so they were good political actors.
JG: So, it’s not an impossibility.
HRC: It’s not an impossibility. So far, it doesn’t seem likely. We have to say that. Because for whatever reason, whatever combination of reasons, there hasn’t been the soil necessary to nurture the political side of the experience, for people whose primary self-definition is as Islamists.
JG: Are we so egocentric, so Washington-centric, that we think that our decisions are dispositive? As secretary, did you learn more about the possibilities of American power or the limitations of American power?
HRC: Both, but it’s not just about American power. It’s American values that also happen to be universal values. If you have no political—small “p”—experience, it is really hard to go from a dictatorship to anything resembling what you and I would call democracy. That’s the lesson of Egypt. We didn’t invade Egypt. They did it themselves, and once they did it they looked around and didn’t know what they were supposed to do next.
I think we’ve learned about the limits of our power to spread freedom and democracy. That’s one of the big lessons out of Iraq. But we’ve also learned about the importance of our power, our influence, and our values appropriately deployed and explained. If you’re looking at what we could have done that would have been more effective, would have been more accepted by the Egyptians on the political front, what could we have done that would have been more effective in Libya, where they did their elections really well under incredibly difficult circumstances but they looked around and they had no levers to pull because they had these militias out there. My passion is, let’s do some after-action reviews, let’s learn these lessons, let’s figure out how we’re going to have different and better responses going forward.
JG: Is the lesson for you, like it is for President Obama, “Don’t do stupid shit”?
HRC: That’s a good lesson but it’s more complicated than that. Because your stupid may not be mine, and vice versa. I don’t think it was stupid for the United States to do everything we could to remove Qaddafi because that came from the bottom up. That was people asking us to help. It was stupid to do what we did in Iraq and to have no plan about what to do after we did it. That was really stupid. I don’t think you can quickly jump to conclusions about what falls into the stupid and non-stupid categories. That’s what I’m arguing.
JG: Do you think the next administration, whoever it is, can find some harmony between muscular intervention—“We must do something”—vs. let’s just not do something stupid, let’s stay away from problems like Syria because it’s a wicked problem and not something we want to tackle?
HRC: I think part of the challenge is that our government too often has a tendency to swing between these extremes. The pendulum swings back and then the pendulum swings the other way. What I’m arguing for is to take a hard look at what tools we have. Are they sufficient for the complex situations we’re going to face, or not? And what can we do to have better tools? I do think that is an important debate.
One of the reasons why I worry about what’s happening in the Middle East right now is because of the breakout capacity of jihadist groups that can affect Europe, can affect the United States. Jihadist groups are governing territory. They will never stay there, though. They are driven to expand. Their raison d'être is to be against the West, against the Crusaders, against the fill-in-the-blank—and we all fit into one of these categories. How do we try to contain that? I’m thinking a lot about containment, deterrence, and defeat. You know, we did a good job in containing the Soviet Union, but we made a lot of mistakes, we supported really nasty guys, we did some things that we are not particularly proud of, from Latin America to Southeast Asia, but we did have a kind of overarching framework about what we were trying to do that did lead to the defeat of the Soviet Union and the collapse of Communism. That was our objective. We achieved it.
Now the big mistake was thinking that, okay, the end of history has come upon us, after the fall of the Soviet Union. That was never true, history never stops and nationalisms were going to assert themselves, and then other variations on ideologies were going to claim their space. Obviously, jihadi Islam is the prime example, but not the only example—the effort by Putin to restore his vision of Russian greatness is another. In the world in which we are living right now, vacuums get filled by some pretty unsavory players.
JG: There doesn’t seem to be a domestic constituency for the type of engagement you might symbolize.
HRC: Well, that’s because most Americans think of engagement and go immediately to military engagement. That’s why I use the phrase “smart power.” I did it deliberately because I thought we had to have another way of talking about American engagement, other than unilateralism and the so-called boots on the ground.
You know, when you’re down on yourself, and when you are hunkering down and pulling back, you’re not going to make any better decisions than when you were aggressively, belligerently putting yourself forward. One issue is that we don’t even tell our own story very well these days.
JG: I think that defeating fascism and communism is a pretty big deal.
HRC: That’s how I feel! Maybe this is old-fashioned. Okay, I feel that this might be an old-fashioned idea—but I’m about to find out, in more ways than one.
Great nations need organizing principles, and “Don’t do stupid stuff” is not an organizing principle. It may be a necessary brake on the actions you might take in order to promote a vision.
JG: So why do you think the president went out of his way to suggest recently that that this is his foreign policy in a nutshell?
HRC: I think he was trying to communicate to the American people that he’s not going to do something crazy. I’ve sat in too many rooms with the president. He’s thoughtful, he’s incredibly smart, and able to analyze a lot of different factors that are all moving at the same time. I think he is cautious because he knows what he inherited, both the two wars and the economic front, and he has expended a lot of capital and energy trying to pull us out of the hole we’re in.
So I think that that’s a political message. It’s not his worldview, if that makes sense to you.
JG: There is an idea in some quarters that the administration shows signs of believing that we, the U.S., aren’t so great, so we shouldn’t be telling people what to do.
HRC: I know that that is an opinion held by a certain group of Americans, I get all that. It’s not where I’m at.
JG: What is your organizing principle, then?
HRC: Peace, progress, and prosperity. This worked for a very long time. Take prosperity. That’s a huge domestic challenge for us. If we don’t restore the American dream for Americans, then you can forget about any kind of continuing leadership in the world. Americans deserve to feel secure in their own lives, in their own middle-class aspirations, before you go to them and say, “We’re going to have to enforce navigable sea lanes in the South China Sea.” You’ve got to take care of your home first. That’s another part of the political messaging that you have to engage in right now. People are not only turned off about being engaged in the world, they’re pretty discouraged about what’s happening here at home.
I think people want—and this is a generalization I will go ahead and make—people want to make sure our economic situation improves and that our political decision-making improves. Whether they articulate it this way or not, I think people feel like we’re facing really important challenges here at home: The economy is not growing, the middle class is not feeling like they are secure, and we are living in a time of gridlock and dysfunction that is just frustrating and outraging.
People assume that we’re going to have to do what we do so long as it’s not stupid, but what people want us to focus on are problems here at home. If you were to scratch below the surface on that—and I haven’t looked at the research or the polling—but I think people would say, first things first. Let’s make sure we are taking care of our people and we’re doing it in a way that will bring rewards to those of us who work hard, play by the rules, and yeah, we don’t want to see the world go to hell in a handbasket, and they don’t want to see a resurgence of aggression by anybody.
JG: Do you think they understand your idea about expansionist jihadism following us home?
HRC: I don’t know that people are thinking about it. People are thinking about what is wrong with people in Washington that they can’t make decisions, and they want the economy to grow again. People are feeling a little bit that there’s a little bit happening that is making them feel better about the economy, but it’s not nearly enough where it should be.
JG: Have you been able to embed your women’s agenda at the core of what the federal government does?
HRC: Yes, we did. We had the first-ever ambassador for global women’s issues. That’s permanent now, and that’s a big deal because that is the beachhead.
Secretary Kerry to his credit has issued directions to embassies and diplomats about this continuing to be a priority for our government. There is also a much greater basis in research now that proves you cannot have peace and security without the participation of women. You can’t grow your GDP without opening the doors to full participation of women and girls in the formal economy.
JG: There’s a link between misogyny and stagnation in the Middle East, which in many ways is the world’s most dysfunctional region.
HRC: It’s now very provable, when you look at the data from the IMF and the World Bank and what opening the formal economy would mean to a country’s GDP. You have Prime Minister [Shinzo] Abe in Japan who was elected to fix the economy after so many years of dysfunction in Japan, and one of the major elements in his plan is to get women into the workforce. If you do that, if I remember correctly, the GDP for Japan would go up nine percent. Well, it would go up 34 percent in Egypt. So it’s self-evident and provable.
The aftermath of a 2003 Hamas bus bombing in Jerusalem, in which 20 people were killed (Reuters)
In the spring of 2009, Roger Cohen, the New York Times columnist, surprised some of his readers by claiming that Iran’s remaining Jews were “living, working and worshiping in relative tranquility.”
Cohen wrote: “Perhaps I have a bias toward facts over words, but I say the reality of Iranian civility toward Jews tells us more about Iran—its sophistication and culture—than all the inflammatory rhetoric.”
In this, and other, columns, Cohen appeared to be trying to convince his fellow Jews that they had less to fear from the Iran of Khamenei and (at the time) Ahmadinejad than they thought. To me, the column was a whitewash. It seemed (and seems) reasonable to worry about the intentions of those Iranian leaders who deny or minimize the Holocaust while hoping to annihilate the Jewish state, and who have funded and trained groups—Hezbollah and Hamas—that have as their goal the killing of Jews.
Cohen’s most acid critics came from within the Persian Jewish exile community. The vast majority of Iran’s Jews fled the country after the Khomeini revolution; many found refuge in Los Angeles. David Wolpe, the rabbi of Sinai Temple there, invited Cohen to speak to his congregants, about half of whom are Persian exiles, shortly after the column appeared. Cohen, to his credit, accepted the invitation. The encounter between Cohen and an audience of several hundred (mainly Jews, but also Bahais, members of a faith persecuted with great intensity by the Iranian regime) was tense but mainly civil (you can watch it here). For me, the most interesting moment came not in a discussion about the dubious health of Iran’s remnant Jewish population, but after Wolpe asked Cohen about the intentions of Iran and its allies toward Jews living outside Iran.
“Right now,” Wolpe said, “Israel is much more powerful than Hezbollah and Hamas. Let’s say tomorrow this was reversed. Let’s say Hamas had the firepower of Israel and Israel had the firepower of Hamas. What do you think would happen to Israel were the balance of power reversed?”
“I don’t know what would happen tomorrow,” Cohen answered. This response brought a measure of derisive laughter from the incredulous audience. “And it doesn’t matter that I don’t know because it’s not going to happen tomorrow or in one or two years.” Wolpe quickly told Cohen that he himself knows exactly what would happen if the power balance between Hamas and Israel were to be reversed. (Later, Wolpe told me that he thought Cohen could not have been so naïve as to misunderstand the nature of Hamas and Hezbollah, but instead was simply caught short by the question.)
At the time, Cohen suggested that he was uninterested in grappling with the nature of Hamas and its goals. “I reject the thinking behind your question,” he said. “It’s not useful to go there.”
“Going there,” however, is necessary, not only to understand why Israelis fear Hamas, but also to understand that the narrative advanced by Hamas apologists concerning the group's beliefs and goals is false. “Going there” also does not require enormous imagination, or a well-developed predisposition toward paranoia. It is, in my opinion, a dereliction of responsibility on the part of progressives not to try to understand the goals and beliefs of Islamist totalitarian movements.
(This post, you should know, is not a commentary on the particulars of the war between Israel and Hamas, a war in which Hamas baited Israel and Israel took the bait. Each time Israel kills an innocent Palestinian in its attempt to neutralize Hamas’s rockets, it represents a victory for Hamas, which has made plain its goal of getting Israel to kill innocent Gazans. Suffice it to say that Israel cannot afford many more “victories” of the sort it is seeking in Gaza right now. I supported a ceasefire early in this war precisely because I believed that the Israeli government had not thought through its strategic goals, or the methods for achieving those goals.)
While it is true that Hamas is expert at getting innocent Palestinians killed, it has made it very plain, in word and deed, that it would rather kill Jews. The following blood-freezing statement is from the group's charter: “The Islamic Resistance Movement aspires to the realization of Allah’s promise, no matter how long that should take. The Prophet, Allah bless him and grant him salvation, has said: ‘The day of judgment will not come until Muslims fight the Jews (killing the Jews), when the Jews will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say ‘O Muslims, O Abdulla, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.”
This is a frank and open call for genocide, embedded in one of the most thoroughly anti-Semitic documents you'll read this side of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Not many people seem to know that Hamas’s founding document is genocidal. Sometimes, the reasons for this lack of knowledge are benign; other times, as the New Yorker’s Philip Gourevitch argues in his recent dismantling of Rashid Khalidi’s apologia for Hamas, this ignorance is a direct byproduct of a decision to mask evidence of Hamas’s innate theocratic fascism.
[T]he Hamas Covenant of 1988 notably replaced the Marxist-Leninist conspiracy theory of world politics with the classic anti-Semitic tropes of Nazism and European fascism, which the Islamists had absorbed when they collaborated with the Nazis during World War II. That influence is apparent in Article 22, which asserts that “supportive forces behind the enemy” have amassed great wealth: "With their money, they took control of the world media, news agencies, the press, publishing houses, broadcasting stations, and others. With their money they stirred revolutions in various parts of the world with the purpose of achieving their interests and reaping the fruit therein. With their money, they took control of the world media. They were behind the French Revolution, the Communist revolution and most of the revolutions we heard and hear about here and there. With their money, they formed secret societies, such as Freemason, Rotary Clubs, the Lions and others in different parts of the world for the purpose of sabotaging societies and achieving Zionist interests. With their money they were able to control imperialistic countries and instigate them to colonize many countries in order to enable them to exploit their resources and spread corruption there."
The above paragraph of Article 22 could have been taken, almost word for word, from Nazi Germany’s anti-Jewish propaganda texts and broadcasts.
The question Roger Cohen refused to answer at Sinai Temple was addressed in a recent post by Sam Harris, the atheist intellectual, who is opposed, as a matter of ideology, to the existence of Israel as a Jewish state (or to any country organized around a religion), but who for practical reasons supports its continued existence as a haven for an especially persecuted people, and also as a not-particularly religious redoubt in a region of the world deeply affected by religious fundamentalism. Referring not only to the Hamas charter, Harris writes that, “The discourse in the Muslim world about Jews is utterly shocking.”
Not only is there Holocaust denial—there’s Holocaust denial that then asserts that we will do it for real if given the chance. The only thing more obnoxious than denying the Holocaust is to say that it should have happened; it didn’t happen, but if we get the chance, we will accomplish it. There are children’s shows in the Palestinian territories and elsewhere that teach five-year-olds about the glories of martyrdom and about the necessity of killing Jews.
And this gets to the heart of the moral difference between Israel and her enemies. ...
What do we know of the Palestinians? What would the Palestinians do to the Jews in Israel if the power imbalance were reversed? Well, they have told us what they would do. For some reason, Israel’s critics just don’t want to believe the worst about a group like Hamas, even when it declares the worst of itself. We’ve already had a Holocaust and several other genocides in the 20th century. People are capable of committing genocide. When they tell us they intend to commit genocide, we should listen. There is every reason to believe that the Palestinians would kill all the Jews in Israel if they could. Would every Palestinian support genocide? Of course not. But vast numbers of them—and of Muslims throughout the world—would. Needless to say, the Palestinians in general, not just Hamas, have a history of targeting innocent noncombatants in the most shocking ways possible. They’ve blown themselves up on buses and in restaurants. They’ve massacred teenagers. They’ve murdered Olympic athletes. They now shoot rockets indiscriminately into civilian areas.
The first time I witnessed Hamas’s hatred of Jews manifest itself in large-scale, fatal violence was in late July of 1997, when two of the group’s suicide bombers detonated themselves in an open-air market in West Jerusalem. The attack took 16 lives, and injured 178. I happened to be only a few blocks from the market at the time of the attack, and arrived shortly after the paramedics and firefighters. Over the next hours, a scene unfolded that I would see again and again: screaming relatives; members of the Orthodox burial society scraping flesh off walls; the ground covered in blood and viscera. I remember another Hamas attack, on a bus in downtown Jerusalem, in which body parts of children were blown into the street by the force of the blast. At yet another bombing, I was with rescue workers as they recovered a human arm stuck high up in a tree.
After each of these attacks, Hamas leaders issued blood-curdling statements claiming credit, and promising more death. “The Jews will lose because they crave life but a true Muslim loves death,” a former Hamas leader, Abdel-Aziz Rantisi, told me in an interview in 2002. In the same interview he made the following imperishable statement: “People always talk about what the Germans did to the Jews, but the true question is, ‘What did the Jews do to the Germans?’”
I will always remember this interview not only because Rantisi's Judeophobia was breathtaking, but because just as I was leaving his apartment in Gaza City, a friend from Jerusalem called to tell me that she had just heard a massive explosion outside her office at the Hebrew University (not far, by the way, from an attack earlier today). A cafeteria had just been bombed, my friend told me. This was another Hamas operation, one which killed nine people, including a young woman of exceptional promise named Marla Bennett, a 24-year-old American student who wrote shortly before her death, “My friends and family in San Diego ask me to come home, it is dangerous here. I appreciate their concern. But there is nowhere else in the world I would rather be right now. I have a front-row seat for the history of the Jewish people.”
Hamas is an organization devoted to ending Jewish history. This is what so many Jews understand, and what so many non-Jews don’t. The novelist Amos Oz, who has led Israel's left-wing peace camp for decades, said in an interview last week that he doesn't see a prospect for compromise between Israel and Hamas. "I have been a man of compromise all my life," Oz said. "But even a man of compromise cannot approach Hamas and say: 'Maybe we meet halfway and Israel only exists on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.'"
In the years since it adopted its charter, Hamas leaders and spokesmen have reinforced its message again and again. Mahmoud Zahar said in 2006 that the group "will not change a single word in its covenant." To underscore the point, in 2010 Zahhar said, "Our ultimate plan is [to have] Palestine in its entirety. I say this loud and clear so that nobody will accuse me of employing political tactics. We will not recognize the Israeli enemy."
In 2011, the former Hamas minister of culture, Atallah Abu al-Subh, said that "the Jews are the most despicable and contemptible nation to crawl upon the face of the Earth, because they have displayed hostility to Allah. Allah will kill the Jews in the hell of the world to come, just like they killed the believers in the hell of this world." Just last week, a top Hamas official, Osama Hamdan, accused Jews of using Christian blood to make matzo. This is not a group, in other words, that is seeking the sort of peace that Amos Oz—or, for that matter, the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas—is seeking. People wonder why Israelis have such a visceral reaction to Hamas. The answer is easy. Israel is a small country, and most of its citizens know someone who was murdered by Hamas in its extended suicide-bombing campaigns; and most people also understand that if Hamas had its way, it would kill them as well.
Mourners at the funeral of an Israeli soldier (Reuters)
It is too early to say anything definitive about the Hamas decision to apparently break the ceasefire and attack an Israeli position, except that if it is true, as reports indicate, that Hamas militants came through a tunnel and carried underground and back into Gaza a live Israeli captive, then this moment could represent not another terrible, dispiriting incident in a terrible, dispiriting mini-war, but a fairly decisive turning point in which all swords are unsheathed.
This is assuming—as seems probable, but not 100 percent certain—that this raid is even what the Hamas leadership wanted (for what it's worth, its leaders, at the moment, seem to be owning this raid, suggesting that they are indeed doubling down in their war on Israel). If the events of earlier today happened as initial reports depict, then Israel will consider this incident an engraved invitation from Hamas to launch something close to a full-scale invasion of Gaza. Here are the factors that could lead Israel to decide to go all-in:
a) The compact between the Israeli army and Israeli parents is simple: You give us your sons, and we will do whatever we can to keep them alive. This includes conducting operations that get other soldiers killed. There will be near-unanimity in Israel that this soldier should be rescued, regardless of price to Israel, or certainly to the Palestinians in Gaza.
b) There is near-unanimity in Israel already that Hamas represents an unbearable threat. Add in the perfidy of a raid conducted after a ceasefire went into effect and near-unanimity becomes total unanimity. The most interesting article I've read in the past 24 hours is an interview with the Israeli novelist Amos Oz, the father of his country's peace-and-compromise movement, who opened the interview with Deutsche Welle in this manner:
Amoz Oz: I would like to begin the interview in a very unusual way: by presenting one or two questions to your readers and listeners. May I do that?
Deutsche Welle:Go ahead!
Question 1: What would you do if your neighbor across the street sits down on the balcony, puts his little boy on his lap and starts shooting machine gun fire into your nursery?
Question 2: What would you do if your neighbor across the street digs a tunnel from his nursery to your nursery in order to blow up your home or in order to kidnap your family?
With these two questions I pass the interview to you.
The point is, if Amos Oz, a severe critic of his country's policies toward the Palestinians, sounds no different on the subject of the Hamas threat than the right-most ministers in Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing cabinet, then there will be a national consensus that it is not enough to manage the Hamas rocket-and-tunnel threat, but that it must be eliminated if at all possible. This doesn't mean that the Israeli government wants to see the Hamas government in Gaza replaced. What it could mean is that the Israeli public demands that its leaders ensure them that the tunnel threat, in particular, is neutralized in a decisive way.
c) For Israelis who are immune, unlike Amos Oz, to the criticism of outsiders, the world's inability, or unwillingness, to understand the Hamas threat in the way that Oz (and most everyone else in Israel) understands it suggests that there is nothing Israel can do, short of national suicide, to stop the condemnation of their country. Which, of course, frees Israel, in their minds, to take whatever action it deems necessary to take. In other words, don't be overly surprised by news later today of a massive Israeli army reserve call-up.
An Israeli officer in a Hamas tunnel (Jack Guez/Reuters)
Things change, of course—the only constant in the Middle East is sudden and dramatic change—but as I write it seems as if Israel is losing the war in Gaza, even as it wins the battle against Hamas’s rocket arsenal, and even as it destroys the tunnels meant to convey terrorists underground to Israel (and to carry Israeli hostages back to Gaza).
This is not the first time Israel has found itself losing on the battlefield of perception. Why is it happening again? Here are six possible reasons:
1. In a fight between a state actor and a non-state actor, the non-state actor can win merely by surviving. The party with tanks and planes is expected to win; the non-state group merely has to stay alive in order to declare victory. In a completely decontextualized, emotion-driven environment, Hamas can portray itself as the besieged upstart, even when it is the party that rejects ceasefires, and in particular because it is skilled at preventing journalists from documenting the activities of its armed wing. (I am differentiating here between Hamas's leadership and Gaza's civilians, who are genuinely besieged, from all directions.)
2. Hamas’s strategy is to bait Israel into killing Palestinian civilians, and Israel usually takes the bait. This time, because of the cautious nature of its prime minister, Israel waited longer than usual before succumbing to the temptation of bait-taking, but it took it all the same. (As I’ve written, the seemingly miraculous Iron Dome anti-rocket system could have provided Israel with the space to be more patient than it was.) Hamas’s principal goal is killing Jews, and it is very good at this (for those who have forgotten about Hamas's achievements in this area, here is a reminder, and also here and here), but it knows that it advances its own (perverse) narrative even more when it induces Israel to kill Palestinian civilians. This tactic would not work if the world understood this, and rejected it. But in the main, it doesn’t. Why people don’t see the cynicism at the heart of terrorist groups like Hamas is a bit of a mystery. Here is The Washington Post on the subject:
The depravity of Hamas’s strategy seems lost on much of the outside world, which — following the terrorists’ script — blames Israel for the civilian casualties it inflicts while attempting to destroy the tunnels. While children die in strikes against the military infrastructure that Hamas’s leaders deliberately placed in and among homes, those leaders remain safe in their own tunnels. There they continue to reject cease-fire proposals, instead outlining a long list of unacceptable demands.
3. People talk a lot about the Jewish lobby. But the worldwide Muslim lobby is bigger, comprising, among other components, 54 Muslim-majority states in the United Nations. Many Muslims naturally sympathize with the Palestinian cause. They make their voices heard, and they help shape a global anti-Israel narrative, in particular by focusing relentlessly on Gaza to the exclusion of conflicts in which Muslims are being killed in even greater numbers, but by Muslims (I wrote about this phenomenon here).
4. If you've spent any time these past few weeks on Twitter, or in Paris, you know that anti-Semitism is another source of Israel’s international isolation. One of the notable features of this war, brought to light by the ubiquity and accessibility of social media, is the open, unabashed expression of vitriolic Jew-hatred. Anti-Semitism has been with us for more than 2,000 years; it is an ineradicable and shape-shifting virus. The reaction to the Gaza war—from the Turkish prime minister, who compared Israel's behavior unfavorably to that of Hitler's, to the Lebanese journalist who demanded the nuclear eradication of Israel, to, of course, the anti-Jewish riots in France—is a reminder that much of the world is not opposed to Israel because of its settlement policy, but because it is a Jewish country.
5. Israel’s political leadership has done little in recent years to make their cause seem appealing. It is impossible to convince a Judeophobe that Israel can do anything good or useful, short of collective suicide. But there are millions of people of good will across the world who look at the decision-making of Israel’s government and ask themselves if this is a country doing all it can do to bring about peace and tranquility in its region. Hamas is a theocratic fascist cult committed to the obliteration of Israel. But it doesn’t represent all Palestinians. Polls suggest that it may very well not represent all of the Palestinians in Gaza. There is a spectrum of Palestinian opinion, just as there is a spectrum of Jewish opinion.
I don’t know if the majority of Palestinians would ultimately agree to a two-state solution. But I do know that Israel, while combating the extremists, could do a great deal more to buttress the moderates. This would mean, in practical terms, working as hard as possible to build wealth and hope on the West Bank. A moderate-minded Palestinian who watches Israel expand its settlements on lands that most of the world believes should fall within the borders of a future Palestinian state might legitimately come to doubt Israel’s intentions. Reversing the settlement project, and moving the West Bank toward eventual independence, would not only give Palestinians hope, but it would convince Israel’s sometimes-ambivalent friends that it truly seeks peace, and that it treats extremists differently than it treats moderates. And yes, I know that in the chaos of the Middle East, which is currently a vast swamp of extremism, the thought of a West Bank susceptible to the predations of Islamist extremists is a frightening one. But independence—in particular security independence—can be negotiated in stages. The Palestinians must go free, because there is no other way. A few months ago, President Obama told me how he views Israel's future absent some sort of arrangement with moderate Palestinians:
[M]y assessment, which is shared by a number of Israeli observers ... is there comes a point where you can’t manage this anymore, and then you start having to make very difficult choices. Do you resign yourself to what amounts to a permanent occupation of the West Bank? Is that the character of Israel as a state for a long period of time? Do you perpetuate, over the course of a decade or two decades, more and more restrictive policies in terms of Palestinian movement? Do you place restrictions on Arab-Israelis in ways that run counter to Israel’s traditions?
Obama raised a series of prescient questions. Of course, the Israeli government's primary job at the moment is to keep its citizens from being killed or kidnapped by Hamas. But it should work to find an enduring solution to the problem posed by Muslim extremism. Part of that fix is military, but another part isn't.
6. Speaking of the Obama administration, the cause of a two-state solution would be helped, and Israel's standing would be raised, if the secretary of state, John Kerry, realized that such a solution will be impossible to achieve so long as an aggressive and armed Hamas remains in place in Gaza. Kerry's recent efforts to negotiate a ceasefire have come to nothing in part because his proposals treat Hamas as a legitimate organization with legitimate security needs, as opposed to a group listed by Kerry's State Department as a terror organization devoted to the physical elimination of one of America's closest allies. Here is David Horovitz's understanding of Kerry's proposals:
It seemed inconceivable that the secretary’s initiative would specify the need to address Hamas’s demands for a lifting of the siege of Gaza, as though Hamas were a legitimate injured party acting in the interests of the people of Gaza — rather than the terror group that violently seized control of the Strip in 2007, diverted Gaza’s resources to its war effort against Israel, and could be relied upon to exploit any lifting of the “siege” in order to import yet more devastating weaponry with which to kill Israelis.
I'm not sure why Kerry's proposals for a ceasefire seem to indulge the organization that initiated this current war. Perhaps because Kerry may be listening more to Qatar, which is Hamas's primary funder, than he is listening to the Jordanians, Emiratis, Saudis, and Egyptians, all of whom oppose Hamas to an equivalent or greater degree than does their ostensible Israeli adversary. In any case, more on this later, as more details emerge about Kerry's efforts. For purposes of this discussion, I'll just say that Israel won't have a chance of winning the current struggle against Hamas's tunnel-diggers and rocket squads if its principal ally doesn't appear to fully and publicly understand Hamas's nihilistic war aims, even as it works to shape more constructive Israeli policies in other, related areas.
The responses to what I write about the Hamas war fall into several categories. My least favorite sort of response is the kind that invokes Hitler in some way. Here is an e-mail that is representative: “I hope Hitler kills you and your family.” (Yes, it was written in the present tense.) Then there are the messages from those who seek the elimination of Israel. These run along the lines of, “Jeffrey wants blood, give him more Palestinian blood!” (I’m not sure if this tweet was riffing off the blood libel or not.) Like many people, I am legitimately shocked (not “shocked, shocked” but actually shocked) by the level of grotesque anti-Jewish invective seemingly (though not actually) prompted by the war, particularly in Europe. I’ve been getting mail like this for a long time, so it is the intensity and volume, rather than the content, that is so surprising.
One of my other least-favorite types of responses comes from the opposite end of the spectrum, from people who ask me why the media is so biased against Israel, and then cite the work of this reporter or that reporter—in this war, usually someone currently stationed in Gaza—who appears, to my interlocutor, to have an anti-Israel agenda. It’s a question I’ve seen for years, and it is usually asked by people who believe that Israel only has public relations problems, as opposed to actual problems, in addition to public relations problems.
I can’t speak with great knowledge about the reporters from European and other overseas outlets (I do have an understanding of the sympathies of many British reporters), but I tend to think that journalists from American outlets are doing a fine job in dangerous conditions of covering a horrible war. It is true that Hamas makes it difficult to report on matters it would rather not see come to light (this is why you see so few photos, if any, of armed Hamas fighters). It is also true that reporters in the field could do a more thorough job of asking Hamas leaders harder questions (such as, Why are you rejecting ceasefire offers; why did you place your command bunkers under hospitals; and so on), but working conditions are very difficult, and they are trying the best they can. (I’ve covered various of these mini-Middle East wars in the past, and, believe me, working conditions makes it difficult enough just to write down what you’re seeing six inches in front of your face.) In any case, these questions are sometimes best raised by analyzers and editorialists.
There is another question about media coverage that has been bothering me, however, one of proportionality. I was struck, over the weekend, by the lack of coverage of the Syrian civil war, in which the death count recently passed 170,000. By Sunday night, it had become clear that the weekend in toll in Syria would stand at roughly 700 dead—a larger number, obviously, than the weekend toll in Gaza (and more than the total number of deaths in this latest iteration of the Gaza war to date.) I tweeted the following in response to this news out of Syria: “I sincerely hope the @nytimes covers the slaughter in Syria – 700 dead in 48 hours – in tomorrow’s paper. Very important story as well.”
This was my sincere hope, and it was to my sincere surprise that Monday’s newspaper contained no information whatsoever about the weekend slaughter in Syria. The front page was devoted mainly to Gaza and Ukraine. But there was nothing inside either, and nothing on the website. As far as I can tell, the Times, as of this writing, has not addressed this most recent round of Syria carnage in an even semi-comprehensive way. It goes without saying that continuing violence in Libya, Egypt, Nigeria, Yemen, and so on, has not received much attention from the Times in recent days. (I’m singling out the Times because it is America’s best, most thorough and most important newspaper. I suppose you could accuse me of having a double standard. So be it.)
There are a couple of very good reasons why coverage of Israel and its troubles is so broad, and even obsessive. The first is a simple, technical one: Journalists can best cover what they can see. Hamas, despite its various restrictions, makes it easy for journalists to observe scenes of destruction in Gaza. It is much harder to operate in Syria (or rural Nigeria), and it is safer to operate in Gaza than it is in parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan. (For those of you who are wondering: In my time in Gaza, Hamas officials often gave me more access, and more respect, than officials of the more moderate Fatah, which at one point had me kidnapped and interrogated.)
The second reason is audience interest. Stories about Israel, and about Jews, almost automatically rise to the top of the Times’ “most-emailed” list. Stories about Miramshah or Fallujah, not nearly as much. I’m guessing this is true for other American outlets as well. And then there is a sound political reason why this conflict becomes the focus of so much coverage. Israel is a close ally of the U.S., and a recipient of American military and non-military help. This may make you very happy, or very unhappy, but the fact of it is incontrovertible. Therefore, the U.S. has a direct relationship with one of the players in this conflict (both, actually, because the Palestinian Authority is the recipient of a great deal of American aid as well). There is also the issue of double standards, which I wrote about here at length, but in short, Israel is a Western-style democratic state and so reporters are more apt to be interested in its behavior, and judgmental about its behavior, than in the behavior of despotic regimes.
But the Arab Spring (or Awakening, or whatever word you choose) has given lie to the idea—shorthanded as “linkage”—that the key to American success in the broader Middle East is dependent on finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This idea, that all roads run through Jerusalem, has traditionally motivated a great deal of journalistic and foreign policy expert interest in this conflict. Finding a solution to this conflict is very important to the future of Israelis and Palestinians, of course, but not nearly so much to Americans. A peaceful resolution to this conflict would do little to bring about good governance in Arab states, or an end to Islamist extremism in the greater Middle East. Which brings me back to Syria. The war in Syria (and Iraq, since it is more or less a single war now) is of greater national security importance to the United States than the war in Gaza, and it should be covered in a way that reflects this reality.
In Damascus, Bashar al-Assad, the closest Arab ally of America’s main Middle East adversary, Iran, wages a brutal war against his country’s Sunni Muslim majority, a war that has prompted, in turn, the explosive growth of Al Qaeda-style Sunni extremist groups that now control broad swaths of both countries. These groups pose a direct national security threat to the United States, as the Obama administration has acknowledged. The Syria conflict is also one of the greatest humanitarian catastrophes of the post-World War II era. So from a moral perspective, and from a national security perspective, what happens in Syria should be of first-order interest to the U.S. media. But it is clearly not.
Why is this so? I can spend all day speculating, but one explanation for this lack of coverage is a relative lack of interest in the Syria/Iraq theater by Arabs and Muslims, or at least relative lack of interest in comparison to the obvious interest in the Gaza crisis. The American media takes at least some of its cues on Syria from the intensity of coverage in the Arab world. The Washington bureau chief of Al-Hayat, Joyce Karam, was one of the few people to notice the weekend death toll in Syria. She tweeted, in reference to anti-Israel protests in Pakistan, “Syria is essentially Gaza x320 death toll, x30 number of refugees, but no protest in Pakistan…”
I asked her why she thought this is so. Her answer: “Only reason I can think of is Muslim killing Muslim or Arab killing Arab seems more acceptable than Israel killing Arabs.”
Judging by the number and scale of anti-Assad protests (or anti-ISIS protests) in the Muslim world, she is obviously on to something. The Muslim world does seem more interested in Arabs who are killed by Jews than in Arabs killed by Arabs, and I’m guessing that this influences the scope and scale of the Gaza coverage as well. Why this is so—why the horrific levels of violence across the Arab world don’t seem to prompt such intense feelings, either in the Muslim or non-Muslim worlds, is a subject for another time. What is true for now is that Syria should be covered with the same focus and intensity that is applied to the war in Gaza.
A scene from a Hamas rally in March (Mohammed Salem/Reuters)
1. We can thank former President Bill Clinton for perfect clarity in his comments about the chaos and horror of Gaza. In an interview on Indian television, Clinton—who told us in his memoir that Palestinian self-destructiveness (in the form of Yasir Arafat’s various delusions and prevarications) undid his effort to bring about a two-state solution to the Middle East conflict—blames the Muslim Brotherhood’s Gaza affiliate, Hamas, for adopting a policy of deliberate self-murder in order to present Israel with a set of impossible dilemmas. “Hamas was perfectly well aware of what would happen if they started raining rockets in Israel,” Clinton said. “They fired a thousand of them. And they have a strategy designed to force Israel to kill their own civilians so that the rest of the world will condemn them.”
2. We can thank Hamas for bringing its own form of clarity to this situation. This is the manner in which Hamas works: It builds reinforced bunkers for its leaders (under hospitals and other must-avoid targets) but purposefully neglects to build bomb shelters for the civilians in its putative care. From their bunkers, the leaders order rocket teams to target Israeli civilians. Hamas, which was responsible for the deaths of several hundred Israeli civilians during the second Palestinian uprising alone, has lately been less effective at killing Israelis, but nevertheless, the rockets keep launching. When you repeatedly fire rockets at civilian targets in a neighboring country, that country usually responds militarily. Civilians get killed during the Israeli response in part because Hamas rocket teams operate from sites that are among Gaza's most densely populated, and in part because Hamas stores its weapons in schools and mosques.
The goal of Hamas—the actual, overarching goal—is to terrorize the Jews of Israel, through mass murder, into abandoning their country. If generations of Palestinians have to be sacrificed to that goal, well, Hamas believes such sacrifices are theologically justified.
3. Bill Clinton is far from the only Western leader to understand Hamas' strategy. President Obama himself has spoken strongly about Israel's right to self-defense. Here is what he said Wednesday: "As I’ve said repeatedly, Israel has a right to defend itself from rocket attacks that terrorize the Israeli people. There is no country on Earth that can be expected to live under a daily barrage of rockets."
Not everyone understands this principle. I am not talking about anti-Jewish propagandists such as Turkey's Tayyip Recep Erdogan, a serial human rights violator who cynically accuses Israel of committing "genocide." I think he understands the principle discussed by Obama and rejects it because Obama is applying it to a Jewish country. I'm talking now about the myopia of otherwise well-meaning people. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the institution that cares for Palestinians but whose actual raison d'être is the perpetuation of the stateless status of the descendants of refugees from 1948, recently tweeted this thought to its followers: “Palestinian children in #Gaza are experiencing severe trauma for the 3rd time in 5 years. The effects are lasting.” Entirely, miserably, true. An alternative to this current horrible reality presented itself in 2005, when the Israeli government—after years of foolish and destructive colonization—expelled thousands of Jewish settlers from Gaza and then withdrew its army. The Palestinian leadership could have taken the opportunity created by the Israeli withdrawal to build the nucleus of a state. Instead, Gaza was converted into a rocket-manufacturing and -launching facility. But here’s a bit of good news: The people of Gaza, who suffer from Hamas rule, appear to be tired of it. In a recent Pew poll, 63 percent of Gazans surveyed disapproved of Hamas. Perhaps this is because the people have come to realize that Hamas has brought them nothing but grief, sloganeering, and military defeat.
4. Hamas is not only isolated inside Gaza. This latest round of the Hamas-Israel fight is notable for two reasons: The first is the seeming success of the Israeli-developed, American-funded Iron Dome anti-rocket system, which has helped thwart Hamas' plan to terrorize and murder civilians in Israel. The second reason is that Hamas has been shown to be almost entirely friendless in the region. The Egyptian government blames Hamas for this conflict, as do commentators across the Gulf. Relations between Hamas and its traditional backers, the Iranians and the Syrians, have deteriorated markedly. Hamas is in a weaker position than it has been in years, which gives Israel an opportunity, if it chooses to take it.
5. A ground operation by Israel to destroy the tunnels that are used to convey terrorists under Gaza’s border and into Israel seems like a prudent move (more prudent than aerial bombardment, which, because of its imprecision, helps Hamas achieve its goal of creating Palestinian martyrs). Operating against extremists committed to killing Jewish civilians seems like a necessary part of any Israeli national security strategy. But what happens after the inevitable ceasefire matters as well, and we lack signs that the Netanyahu government is thinking strategically. Setting back the cause of extremists is half the battle; buttressing moderates is the other half. Netanyahu and his ministers are notably inexpert at helping the more moderate Palestinian factions strengthen their hold on the West Bank, and they specialize in putting their collective thumb in the eye of Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority. A clever post-conflict Israeli strategy would be to help the Palestinian Authority extend its mandate more deeply into Gaza (I’ll have more about the troubled P.A.-Hamas unity government later), because there is no permanent military solution to Israel’s rocket problem, only a political one.
Some commentators, like the excellent Shlomo Avineri, believe that even Palestinian moderates such as Abbas are incapable of making final-status compromises, because they are "genuinely uninterested in a solution of two states for two peoples because they’re unwilling to grant legitimacy to the Jewish right of self-determination." I don't disagree that many, many Palestinians fall into this category. But I'm not giving up yet. Where Avineri is right is in his argument that Israel must take the interim steps, regardless of Palestinian participation, to protect its democratic character. Israeli moderates must "demand a complete halt to construction in the settlements, the evacuation of illegal outposts, a reexamination—once the current tension has ebbed—of the Israel Defense Forces’ deployment in the West Bank, and the removal of what remains of the Gaza blockade (possibly in coordination with Egypt after the current fighting ends)."
I'm not hopeful at all that the Netanyahu government will listen to such advice. Because myopia has shown itself to be the enemy of compromise and progress in Israel, and not just in Gaza.
David Horovitz, the editor of the indispensable Times of Israel, noticed something on Friday that other observers did not. At a press conference, the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been on record for several years now supporting the idea of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, essentially said, "Never mind." Here's Horovitz:
[Netanyahu] spoke only in Hebrew, and we are in the middle of a mini-war, so his non-directly war-related remarks didn’t get widely reported. But those remarks should not be overlooked even in the midst of a bitter conflict with Gaza’s Islamist rulers; especially in the midst of a bitter conflict with Gaza’s Islamist rulers. The prime minister spoke his mind as rarely, if ever, before. He set out his worldview with the confidence of a leader who sees vindication in the chaos all around. He answered those fundamental questions.
It is not that Netanyahu renounced his rhetorical support for a two-state solution. He simply described such a state as an impossibility.
[W]hile [Netanyahu] initially stuck to responses tied to the war against Hamas, its goals, and the terms under which it might be halted, he then moved—unasked—into territory he does not usually chart in public, and certainly not with such candor.
For some, his overall outlook will seem bleak and depressing; for others, savvy and pragmatic. One thing’s for sure: Nobody will ever be able to claim in the future that he didn’t tell us what he really thinks.
He made explicitly clear that he could never, ever, countenance a fully sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank. He indicated that he sees Israel standing almost alone on the frontlines against vicious Islamic radicalism, while the rest of the as-yet free world does its best not to notice the march of extremism. And he more than intimated that he considers the current American, John Kerry-led diplomatic team to be, let’s be polite, naive.
It is correct to note that the Middle East is a cauldron of Islamist extremism; it is correct to note that the Palestinian Authority of President Mahmoud Abbas is weak and faltering; it is also correct to note that on two previous occasions, Israel evacuated Arab territory—southern Lebanon in 2000, Gaza in 2005—only to see those territories soon enough come under control of extremists with rockets. So Netanyahu isn't crazy to note the dangers to Israel of an independent Palestinian entity on the West Bank. But he knows perfectly well that permanent occupation (and please don't doubt that an arrangement in which a Palestinian "state" isn't fully sovereign means, in fact, permanent occupation) is no solution for Israel, either.
Netanyahu is not crazy, and he's also not delusional, in the manner of certain political figures to his right, who believe that Israel can keep control of the Arabs of the West Bank forever without profound moral and political consequences. He knows, as he suggested to me in an interview this spring, that the status quo is not sustainable:
The first point of [Israeli national] consensus is that we don’t want a binational state. Another point of consensus is that we don’t want an Iranian proxy in territories we vacate. We want a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the nation-state of the Jews.
If Netanyahu has convinced himself that a Palestinian state is an impossibility, then he has no choice but to accept the idea that the status quo eventually brings him to binationalism, either in its Jim Crow form—Palestinians absorbed into Israel, except without full voting rights—or its end-of-Israel-as-a-Jewish-state form, in which the two warring populations, Jewish and Arab, are combined into a single political entity, with chaos to predictably ensue. (Recent events in the Middle East suggest that it is not a place ripe for experiments in coexistence.)
Netanyahu's admission that he doesn't see a path to a truly independent Palestinian state serves no purpose except to convince that diminishing number of Palestinians who believe that the two-state solution is the best solution that they have no partner for compromise. As such, Netanyahu's comments are the rhetorical equivalent of settlement expansion in the West Bank. When West Bank Palestinians see new roads being built to connect settlements to Israel proper; when they see existing settlements growing, and hear of tenders for yet more dramatic growth, they ask themselves—as any observant person would—if the Israeli government is serious about allowing a viable Palestinian state to be born on land the Palestinians consider to be theirs.
Yes, yes, I know—there's no particular reason to believe that a Palestinian state will be a success, or that it wouldn't fall prey to the same strains of extremism that are spreading through the rest of the Arab Middle East. But I remain convinced that creative minds, and large-hearted people, can eventually devise a way to bring about a semi-amicable divorce between Israelis and Palestinians in a way that protects the security and dignity of both peoples. The fact that divorce is the only option that doesn't end in total disaster should also encourage the prime minister to think harder about the choices facing his country.
The Iron Dome intercepts a rocket from Gaza in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod (Baz Ratner/Reuters)
Mahmoud Abbas, the sometimes moderate, often ineffectual leader of the Palestinian Authority, just asked his rivals in Hamas a question that other bewildered people are also asking: “What are you trying to achieve by sending rockets?”
The Gaza-based Hamas has recently fired more than 500 rockets at Israeli towns and cities. This has terrorized the citizenry, though caused few casualties, in large part because Israel is protected by the Iron Dome anti-rocket system.
In reaction to these indiscriminately fired missiles, Israel has bombarded targets across Gaza. Compared with violent death rates in other parts of the Middle East, the number of dead in Gaza is small. (More than 170,000 people have been killed in the Syrian civil war to date.) But it is large enough to suggest an answer to Abbas’s question: Hamas is trying to get Israel to kill as many Palestinians as possible.
Dead Palestinians represent a crucial propaganda victory for the nihilists of Hamas. It is perverse, but true. It is also the best possible explanation for Hamas’s behavior, because Hamas has no other plausible strategic goal here.
The men who run Hamas, engineers and doctors and lawyers by training, are smart enough to understand that though they wish to bring about the annihilation of the Jewish state and to replace it with a Muslim Brotherhood state (Hamas is the Palestinian branch of the Brotherhood), they are in no position to do so. Hamas is a militarily weak group, mostly friendless, that is firing rockets at the civilians of a powerful neighboring state.
The Israeli military has the operational capability to level the entire Gaza Strip in a day, if it so chooses. It is constrained by international pressure, by its own morality, and by the understanding that the deaths of innocent Palestinians are not in its best political interest. The men who run Hamas—the ones hiding in bunkers deep underground, the ones who send other people’s children to their deaths as suicide bombers—also understand that their current campaign will not bring the end of Israel’s legitimacy as a state.
I’ve been struck, over the last few days, by the world’s indifference to Gaza’s fate. Perhaps this conflict has been demoted to the status of a Middle East sideshow by the cataclysms in Iraq and Syria. Perhaps even the most accommodationist European governments know that Israel is within its rights to hunt down the people trying to kill its citizens. Regardless of the cause, Israel seems under less pressure than usual to curb its campaign.
There is no doubt that Hamas could protect Palestinian lives by ceasing its current campaign to end Israeli lives. The decision is Hamas’s. As the secretary-general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, said earlier this week, "We face the risk of an all-out escalation in Israel and Gaza, with the threat of a ground offensive still palpable—and preventable only if Hamas stops rocket firing."
I understand that this latest round in the never-ending Israel-Gaza war was, in many ways, a mistake. Israel was uninterested in an all-out confrontation with Hamas at the moment, and Hamas, which is trying to manage a threat to its control of Gaza from—believe it or not—groups even more radical and nihilistic than it is, is particularly ill-prepared to confront Israel.
The politics of the moment are fascinating and dreadful, but what really interests me currently is a counterfactual: What if, nine years ago, when Israel withdrew its soldiers and settlers from Gaza, the Palestinians had made a different choice? What if they had chosen to build the nucleus of a state, rather than a series of subterranean rocket factories?
This thought is prompted by something a pair of Iraqi Kurdish leaders once told me. Iraqi Kurdistan is today on the cusp of independence. Like the Palestinians, the Kurds deserve a state. Unlike most of the Palestinian leadership, the Kurds have played a long and clever game to bring them to freedom.
This is what Barham Salih, the former prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government, told me years ago: “Compare us to other liberation movements around the world. We are very mature. We don’t engage in terror. We don’t condone extremist nationalist notions that can only burden our people. Please compare what we have achieved in the Kurdistan national-authority areas to the Palestinian national authority. … We have spent the last 10 years building a secular, democratic society, a civil society.” What, he asked, have the Palestinians built?
So too, Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, once told me this: “We had the opportunity to use terrorism against Baghdad. We chose not to.”
In 2005, the Palestinians of Gaza, free from their Israeli occupiers, could have taken a lesson from the Kurds—and from David Ben-Gurion, the principal Israeli state-builder—and created the necessary infrastructure for eventual freedom. Gaza is centrally located between two large economies, those of Israel and Egypt. Europe is just across the Mediterranean. Gaza could have easily attracted untold billions in economic aid.
The Israelis did not impose a blockade on Gaza right away. That came later, when it became clear that Palestinian groups were considering using their newly liberated territory as a launching pad for attacks. In the days after withdrawal, the Israelis encouraged Gaza’s development. A group of American Jewish donors paid $14 million for 3,000 greenhouses left behind by expelled Jewish settlers and donated them to the Palestinian Authority. The greenhouses were soon looted and destroyed, serving, until today, as a perfect metaphor for Gaza’s wasted opportunity.
If Gaza had, despite all the difficulties, despite all the handicaps imposed on it by Israel and Egypt, taken practical steps toward creating the nucleus of a state, I believe Israel would have soon moved to evacuate large sections of the West Bank as well. But what Hamas wants most is not a state in a part of Palestine. What it wants is the elimination of Israel. It will not achieve the latter, and it is actively thwarting the former.
Tariq Khdeir with his mother in Jerusalem, on July 6 (Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)
The torture and murder by fire in Jerusalem of Muhammad Abu Khdeir, allegedly by a gang of Israeli hooligans, initially prompted in me a desire to say, "But," but then this short piece, by Rabbi David Wolpe, of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, came over the wire:
Please, please don’t say ‘but.’ The words after ‘but’ invalidate everything that comes before—“He’s a nice person, but he does steal from the company.” You see? “But” is a meaning duster, sweeping all that precedes it.
So everyone who has written condemning the murder of Muhammad Abu Khdeir, and then goes on to say “but of course” Palestinian society does not condemn their own murders, or Israel is raising up in anguish, or anything else, is missing the point. The point is to be ashamed and to grieve, not to use this murder to prove we are nonetheless better, or they are nonetheless guiltier.
When we beat our chests on Yom Kippur, we do not say before God, “But the man in the seat next to me is far worse.” That is not contrition; it is self-justification disguised as repentance. At a time of national self soul-searching it is too facile and false to use a Jewish crime as a stick to beat our enemies. Jews did this. Blind hatred did this. We should look inside, and be ashamed.
And so, no "but." Except for this semi-unrelated one:
But I think that while the murder of 16-year-old Muhammad Abu Khdeir is a terrible crime, the non-fatal beating of his cousin, the Palestinian-American teenager Tariq Khdeir, by Israel's Border Police, is, in one way, more consequential. Obviously, murder is the ultimate crime, but this murder was committed, we believe, by thugs operating independent of state authority. The beating of Tariq Khdeir was conducted by agents of the state. We judge countries not on the behavior of their criminal elements, but on 1) how they police their criminal elements; and 2) how they police their police. Those of you who have seen images of the beating of Tariq Khdeir know that this assault represents a state failure.
Unfortunately, this is not a one-off failure. On too many occasions, Israeli police officers and soldiers have meted out excessive punishment to Palestinians in custody. I've witnessed some of these incidents myself, both as a reporter and as a soldier. More than two decades ago, I served in the Israeli military police at the Ketziot prison camp, by Israel's border with Egypt. This was during the first Palestinian uprising (which is remembered now, of course, as the "good" uprising, of stone-throwing and Molotov cocktails, rather than suicide bombers) and the prison held roughly 6,000 Palestinians, many of them street fighters, but many from the leadership of the uprising as well. It was at the prison that I witnessed—and broke up—one of the more vicious beatings I have ever seen. I wrote about this incident, and others, in my book about my time in Ketziot, Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. Rather than summarize my account of this beating, I'm going to post the account straight from the book. It starts when I come across a friend of mine, a fellow soldier, named Yoram, trying to beat senseless a Palestinian man called Abu Firas:
Abu Firas was a disagreeable and smug man, but his sourness was not a mortal sin. Yoram, whom I knew to be gentle but at that moment had blood in his face, was beating Abu Firas on the head with the handset of an army radio. The handset weighed five or six pounds, and it was sharp-edged. Abu Firas was hurt. Most men taking a beating like this would scream blue murder, but Abu Firas didn’t. I was impressed. Yoram didn’t stop when I came upon him. I took hold of his arm, knocking the radio to the ground.
Yoram was a religious Jew, and his kippah, knit and multicolored in the style of the modern Orthodox, stayed pinned to his head through his exertions. It was quite a sight—a yeshiva Jew, a God-fearer, delivering a bloody beating.
You don’t understand,’ Yoram said, gasping for breath. “You don’t understand.”
Abu Firas was on his knees, grabbing at his head. His hair shone with blood. He was barely coherent. He pleaded for water. Yoram tried to jack Abu Firas up onto his feet, but he couldn’t move. Yoram, still panting, didn’t tell me what it was I didn’t understand.
“What the fuck are you doing?” I asked Yoram.
We stared at each other. Yoram looked as if he were ready to take a swing.
Abu Firas sat on the ground, watching now, his pain salved by the spectacle of two Jews at daggers drawn.
“Don’t be a manyak,’ Yoram said. A manyak is an asshole.
How am I a manyak?
“Get this dog out of here,” he said, pointing to Abu Firas.
Abu Firas, who evidently understood Hebrew, spit out, ‘Cus amak,’ at Hebrew. Yoram lunged for him. Cus amak means ‘your mother’s cunt’ in Arabic.
I held Yoram back. I told Abu Firas to move. Then I went in search of someone to take Abu Firas to the infirmary. I found another military policeman, and handed off the wobbling prisoner, who was by now bleeding on me, “He fell,” I lied.
Yoram was not, in my experience, a sadist. He was an appealing person, usually. His parents were refugees from North Africa, a typical Sephardic family, as he described it. They kept kosher, and went to soccer matches on Shabbat. Yoram was kind, not coarse, and patient. Native-born Israelis are blessed with many qualities, but politesse and patience are not among them. That is why the beating surprised me; Yoram did not have a tripwire Middle Eastern temper.
The beating, I deduced, was prompted by something Abu Firas said. The prison had been especially tense in the first months of 1991. Yoram lived in Tel Aviv, which was, for a time, the target of Iraqi Scud missiles (Saddam Hussein was desperately trying to draw Israel into the Gulf War as a way of splitting the coalition arrayed against him). Abu Firas, in the course of a petty argument about some minor procedural matter, told Yoram that he would ask Allah to help Saddam burn Yoram’s family to death. The Palestinian prisoners did not keep their opinions of Saddam’s efforts to themselves. At night, when the air raid sirens warned of an incoming Scud, the prisoners in their tents would let out a roar of approval. “Ya ya, Saddam,” they would sing, and sometimes ,when their sap was high, “Falastin baladna, wa Yahud kalabna," "Palestine is our land and the Jews are our dogs.” They wouldn’t stop until we threatened to fill their tents with tear gas.
Okay, so Abu Firas is an asshole, I told Yoram. What’s the big deal?
“Don’t you understand, Yoram asked. “You can’t let them talk to you that way."
So what if he curses you? It’s the game. His role is to provoke you, yours is to ignore him. I kept going: Beating a man won't solve anything. It just drives the hatred deeper inside him.
I was embarrassed for Yoram. I thought we were the same, but I realized at that moment that were different, crucially: Unlike Yoram, I never hit a Palestinian who wasn’t already hitting me.
But if I was embarrassed for Yoram. for his brutality, for his darkness of mind, he was embarrassed for me, for my stupidity and my softness. I read his face: it said, manyak American, with your stupid American ideas. I had only been in the prison for a month but I had already made for myself a reputation as a yafei nefesh, literally a “beautiful soul”—a bleeding heart.
They want to kill us all, Yoram said.
Beating them will make it worse, I said.
“You can’t beat them enough,” he said.
I left Yoram to check on Abu Firas. A medic had cut away some of his hair and his skull was yellow with antiseptic. I stood there watching the stitches go in. Abu Firas said nothing. I was expecting him to say thank you. He didn’t. Instead, he dead-eyed me, until I left.
A few days later, I fell into conversation with one of the leaders of the prisoners. I had become quite relaxed with a number of them. This one prisoner—Capucci … was a particular favorite. At the time, he was the shaweesh, the prisoner representative of his sub-block, but he was also said to be high in the ranks of Fatah. We talked through barbed wire. He already knew what had happened. “Are you a Communist?” Capucci asked. He wasn’t smiling. He was seigneurial, and grave. He had a quiet in him that was most unusual. He was only thirty-five, but the other prisoners spoke to him as an imam speaks to God.
Capucci had heard that I had done something humane for a prisoner. Therefore he suspected I was a Communist. ...
I saw a handful of other beatings, and broke them up as well. (I also saw kindness, by the way, but that is not the subject of this post.) I would not cover-up again for a soldier who was committing a crime. I was too angry about this behavior to acquiesce in any form. There were occasions, obviously, in which justifiable force was used—in my own case (referred to elliptically above), I had to defend myself from a Hamasnik who was trying to break my skull with a metal pipe. We flailed at each other and then wrestled on the ground for a bit, until one of my comrades came to the rescue (very deftly, and with a minimum of force, by the way). The prison was a nasty place, and it was not the role of the Palestinians prisoners to make it easy, and it was not the role of the soldiers to run it as a summer camp.
On the other hand, I could not believe, at my tender age, that Jews would resort to the use of punitive violence.
It is often said that Israel is judged by a double-standard. This is not true. Often, Israel is judged by a quadruple standard. There is one standard for developing-world countries; a second for Europe; a third, more stringent standard, for the U.S., and a fourth, impossible, standard for Israel. Often, this quadruple standard bothers me, especially when it is deployed by Judeophobes. But the truth is that I judge Israel by a higher standard than I judge other countries, precisely because it is a Jewish country. Jews gave the world the gift of ethical monotheism, and the idea that all people—not just kings—are created in the image of God. Judaism holds that Muhammad Abu Khdeir, and Tariq Khdeir, are created in the image of God, and therefore, to abuse them, to destroy them, is to desecrate God's name. Each time a Palestinian is abused in custody by Israeli authorities, those who commit the beating are violating the spirit and promise of their country.
Is this a tough standard? Yes. Is it impossible to reach during times of strife, when Israel's enemies are trying to murder as many Jews as possible? Maybe. But moments like these are tests. And they represent tests worth passing.
The view through a broken window in the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp, near the Lebanese port city of Sidon. (Ali Hashisho/Reuters)
A brief note on a new Elliott Abrams essay in Politico Magazine that appears under the eye-catching headline, “The Man Who Broke the Middle East.” The man in question is not Sykes or Picot or Nasser or Saddam or Khomeini or George W. Bush or Nouri al-Maliki, but Barack Obama. I often agree with Elliott, but I could not let this one go by without a response. Don’t worry. This won’t take long.
Here is Elliott’s thesis:
The Middle East that Obama inherited in 2009 was largely at peace, for the surge in Iraq had beaten down the al Qaeda-linked groups. U.S. relations with traditional allies in the Gulf, Jordan, Israel and Egypt were very good. Iran was contained, its Revolutionary Guard forces at home. Today, terrorism has metastasized in Syria and Iraq, Jordan is at risk, the humanitarian toll is staggering, terrorist groups are growing fast and relations with U.S. allies are strained.
A few points. The first is to note that the Middle East Obama inherited in early 2009 was literally at war—Israel and the Gaza-based Hamas were going at each other hard until nearly the day of Obama's inauguration. Obama managed to extract himself from that one without breaking the Middle East.
In reference to a “contained” Iran, I would only note that Iran in 2009 was moving steadily toward nuclearization, and nothing that the Bush administration, in which Elliott served, had done seemed to be slowing Iran down. Flash forward to today—the Obama administration (with huge help from Congress) implemented a set of sanctions so punishing that it forced Iran into negotiations. (Obama, it should be said, did a very good job bringing allies on board with this program.) Iran's nuclear program is currently frozen. The Bush administration never managed to freeze Iran's nuclear apparatus in place. I'm not optimistic about the prospects for success in these negotiations (neither is Obama), but the president should get credit for leading a campaign that gave a negotiated solution to the nuclear question a fighting chance.
It's also worth noting that when Obama came to power, he discovered that the Bush administration had done no detailed thinking about ways to confront Iran, either militarily or through negotiations. There was rhetoric, but no actual planning. Obama applied himself to this problem in ways that Bush simply did not.
Elliott writes that, in 2009, U.S. relations with Arab allies were good. But these relations, in many cases, were built on lies and morally dubious accommodations. He states that "the most populous Arab country is Egypt, where Obama stuck too long with Hosni Mubarak as the Arab Spring arrived, and then with the Army, and then the Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi, and now is embracing the Army again."
Let's break this down for a minute. It was the policy of several administrations to maintain close relations with Egypt's military rulers. It was Bush administration policy to maintain close relations with Mubarak. Perhaps the 2011 uprising in Egypt could have been avoided had the Bush administration, in honoring its "Freedom Doctrine," engineered Mubarak's smooth departure several years before Cairo exploded. Obama inherited a dysfunctional relationship with Egypt from his predecessor. This is not to excuse the administration's faltering and sometimes contradictory approach to the Egypt problem today, but simply to set it in some context.
On the peace process, Elliott writes,
Obama began with the view that there was no issue in the Middle East more central than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Five years later he has lost the confidence of both Israeli and Palestinian leaders, and watched his second secretary of state squander endless efforts in a doomed quest for a comprehensive peace. Obama embittered relations with America’s closest ally in the region and achieved nothing whatsoever in the “peace process.” The end result in the summer of 2014 is to see the Palestinian Authority turn to a deal with Hamas for new elections that—if they are held, which admittedly is unlikely—would usher the terrorist group into a power-sharing deal. This is not progress.
I'm sure Elliott remembers that in 2006, the Bush administration helped bring the terrorist group Hamas to power, by engineering elections that neither the Palestinian Authority nor Israel actually wanted. I'm sure he also remembers that President Bush (along with a series of presidents before him) failed utterly to bring about a peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians. It seems a bit unfair to single-out Obama for failing at something presidents of both parties, for 40 years, have also failed to accomplish.
On Syria and Iraq, Elliott is on somewhat firmer ground. I've argued that an earlier intervention in Syria, in the form of support for what was then a more-moderate rebel coalition, might—might—have changed the balance of power.
On a deeper level, the idea of blaming any American president for the terrible state of the Middle East seems somewhat dubious. I argue this question with myself and with my friends all the time, because I do recognize that the U.S. has a singular role to play in the world's most volatile and dysfunctional region, and I agree with Robert Kagan, who argues that superpowers don't have the luxury of taking vacations from responsibility. But on the other hand, conditions in Iraq, while aggravated by certain Obama policies, cannot be pinned on him alone. For that matter, the man who truly broke Iraq was not George W. Bush, but Saddam Hussein, who through murder, rape, pillage, torture, and genocide destroyed millions of Iraqi lives.
What I would like is to read Elliott on this question: To what extent is this really about us at all?
The Atlantic's late-2007 rendering of what the Middle East might eventually look like (The Atlantic)
So as I was saying….
First, a bit of housekeeping. I’m back at The Atlantic full-time. I’m going to be working mainly on stories for the magazine (I’m thinking of writing something on the case for reparations, for instance), but I’ll be back here in the traditional Goldblog space as well (I’m also going to continue contributing columns to Bloomberg View, which, I should point out, is a great source for sophisticated commentary on finance, politics, foreign affairs, and much else). Why am I back? Because I love everything about The Atlantic.
But on to new business—which, in this case, is old business. Almost seven years ago, I wrote a cover story for this magazine about the coming collapse of the post-World War I Middle East map. I conducted the reporting for the story, which we eventually called “After Iraq: What Will the Middle East Look Like,” in the fall of 2007—pre-Obama, pre-Arab Spring, pre-a lot of things—but even back then, it was fairly obvious that the age of Middle East stability (relatively speaking) was coming to an end.
The map you see above, and also embedded below, was the main illustration for the piece, which appeared in the January/February 2008 issue. I introduced the conceit of the story this way:
As America approaches the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, the list of the war’s unintended consequences is without end (as opposed to the list of intended consequences, which is, so far, vanishingly brief). The list includes, notably, the likelihood that the Kurds will achieve their independence and that Iraq will go the way of Gaul and be divided into three parts—but it also includes much more than that. Across the Middle East, and into south-central Asia, the intrinsically artificial qualities of several states have been brought into focus by the omnivorous American response to the attacks of 9/11; it is not just Iraq and Afghanistan that appear to be incoherent amalgamations of disparate tribes and territories. The precariousness of such states as Lebanon and Pakistan, of course, predates the invasion of Iraq. But the wars against al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and especially Saddam Hussein have made the durability of the modern Middle East state system an open question in ways that it wasn’t a mere seven years ago.
It used to be that the most far-reaching and inventive question one could ask about the Middle East was this: How many states, one or two—Israel or a Palestinian state, or both—will one day exist on the slip of land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River?
Today, that question seems trivial when compared with this one: How many states will there one day be between the Mediterranean and the Euphrates River? Three? Four? Five? Six? And why stop at the western bank of the Euphrates? Why not go all the way to the Indus River? Between the Mediterranean and the Indus today lie Israel and the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Long-term instability could lead to the breakup of many of these states.
I also made a couple of predictions, informed by various experts:
The most important first-order consequence of the Iraq invasion, envisioned by many of those I spoke to is the possibility of a regional conflict between Sunnis and Shiites for theological and political supremacy in the Middle East. This is a war that could be fought by proxies of Saudi Arabia, the Sunni flag-bearer, against Iran—or perhaps by Iran and Saudi Arabia themselves—on battlefields across Iraq, in Lebanon and Syria, and in Saudi Arabia’s largely Shiite Eastern Province, under which most of the kingdom’s oil lies.
One of the reasons I don’t find myself overly exercised by the apparent collapse of Iraq (and one of the reasons I don’t think it would be wise for the U.S. to rush into Iraq in order to “fix” it) is that I’ve believed for a while that no glue could possibly hold the place together. This is a case in which President Obama’s natural caution, and his understandable desire to steer clear of Middle Eastern slaughterhouses, is a good thing. And I agree with Colin Kahl that Obama did not “lose” Iraq (though I still wish that he had come in early in support of what was then a more moderate Syrian rebellion).
I’m also firmly in the Kurdish nationalist camp (vicariously, of course). The cause of Kurdish independence is a just one, which is another way of saying that the denial of the right of self-determination to the Kurds—the world’s largest stateless people—over the past 100 years has been a terrible injustice. Iraqi Kurdistan, as I note in the piece, was already functionally independent; it is much more so today. It would be a very good thing if a truly independent Kurdistan emerges from the current chaos, liberated once and for all from Iraqi Arab domination.
When we were preparing the map that accompanied the article, we erred on the side of whimsy, and exaggeration. However, in looking it over today, it doesn’t seem entirely fanciful. We predicted the break-up of Sudan into two countries (although we called what is today known as South Sudan “New Sudan”). We created a “Hezbollahstan” in part of Lebanon, and this certainly exists, de facto. North of Hezbollahstan is “The Alawite Republic,” along what is now Syria’s Mediterranean coast. This is a semi-plausible near-term consequence of Syria’s Assad-directed destruction. Syria also loses territory, on our map, to a “Druzistan” that touches the northern border of “Greater Jordan.” Iraq is, of course, divided into three states, and the Kurdish state even takes in parts of Turkish-ruled Kurdish territory. One semi-perspicacious addition to the map—the Bedouin Autonomous Zone—is what could have developed in the Sinai Peninsula before the most recent Egyptian military coup, and the Egyptian military’s re-energized plan to seize Sinai back from jihadist tribesmen.
In the article, I was very critical of the imperial hubris that motivated the Sykes-Picot division of the Middle East by the British and French. But I’ve warmed to the argument that the Sykes-Picot arrangement was, in one sense, inadvertently progressive. The makers of the modern Middle East roped together peoples of different ethnicities and faiths (or streams of the same faith) in what were meant to be modern, multicultural, and multi-confessional states. It is an understatement to say that the Middle East isn’t the sort of place where this kind of experiment has been shown to work. (I’m thinking of you, one-staters, by the way.) I don’t think it is worth American money, or certainly American lives, to keep Iraq a unitary state. It is, of course, important to invest in plans that forestall the creation of permanent jihadist safe havens, and about this the U.S. should be vigilant, more vigilant than it has been. But Westphalian obsessiveness—Iraq must stay together because it must stay together—just doesn’t seem wise.
More on all this later, but I’ll leave you with one quote from the story that struck me on re-reading, in part because it may represent what President Obama secretly feels about the Middle East. At one point, I asked David Fromkin, the author of A Peace to End all Peace, the definitive account of the making of the modern Middle East, whether he would speculate about the region’s future. This is what he said in 2007: “The Middle East has no future.”