It’s Not About Tunnels. So What Is the Gaza Conflict About?

Gershom Gorenberg

My new column is up at The American Prospect. Since the article went up last night, Hamas rejected extending the ceasefire and resumed rocket fire less than one minute after it ended. Israel has resumed missile and artillery fire. Alas.

I.

At four o’clock after the war—which is to say, 4 p.m. Tuesday—a Hebrew news site carried a telegraphic bulletin: The head of the Israeli army’s Southern Command announced that residents of the area bordering Gaza could return to their homes and feel safe. The reassuring message was undercut by the bulletin that appeared on the same site one minute earlier: “IDF assessment: Hamas still has at least two to three tunnels reaching into Israel.”

At the end, if Gaza War of 2014 has ended, if the ceasefire holds, it was about tunnels—some as deep as forty meters (130 feet) below the surface, dug from inside the Gaza Strip and reaching hundreds of meters into Israel, into farming villages and to the edge of the town of Sderot —tunnels from which Hamas fighters could suddenly surface to attack civilians or soldiers. To be precise, this is how the war is most immediately remembered in Israel: as an offensive aimed at removing the subterranean threat. In the rubble of Gaza, where nearly 1,900 people were killed by Israeli fire, where 460,000 are homeless, the presumed purpose of the war will surely be remembered very differently.

Let’s return, though, to the Israeli perception: People remember backwards, viewing earlier events through the lens of later ones. The Israeli government’s announced goal in fighting since the ground invasion of Gaza on July 17 was finding and destroying attack tunnels. This, therefore, is remembered as an original purpose of the war. A friend, left of center politically, asked me the afternoon after the war why Israel had earlier accepted an Egyptian proposal for a ceasefire that was set to start before the ground invasion, since the government obviously knew it would need to invade Gaza to get rid of the tunnels.

But the crisis wasn’t about tunnels when it started. The Israeli government’s tactical goals shifted repeatedly. At no point, it appears, has Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had a strategic political vision. Yet the story of the tunnels leads inevitably to the need for a political resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Read moreIt’s Not About Tunnels. So What Is the Gaza Conflict About?

This Is Your Brain On War

Gershom Gorenberg

My new column is up at The American Prospect:

As I write, the livestream from Gaza of news about death continues. If I give a casualty count, it may be outdated before I finish typing it. It won’t include those Palestinians—civilians and Hamas fighters—who may be buried in rubble in the Sajaiya neighborhood of Gaza City, which the Israeli army has invaded in search of rockets and of tunnels leading into Israel. Nor will it include recent deaths of Israeli soldiers; the military often delays such announcements for hours. Collapsing under the weight of the Gaza reports is whatever initial support Israel had in the West as its cities came under rocket fire. The same reports have fed criticism of Hamas in the Arab world.

he war isn’t a hurricane; it didn’t happen by itself. Leaders on both sides made choices. In Israel, despite an unusual number of protests so early in a war, most of the public seems to think the government is doing the right thing, perhaps too timidly. I doubt anyone can judge public opinion accurately amid the chaos and fear in Gaza, but credible estimations are that support for the Hamas government rises in proportion to Israeli attacks.

Maybe just to keep my own sanity, I have to ask: How do leaders believe that such flawed decisions were the only reasonable choices? How can masses of people keep supporting those policies even as they prove disastrous? What’s wrong with our heads? By that I mean not just the heads of Israelis and Palestinians but of human beings, since I don’t have any cause to think that the sides in this conflict are being uniquely irrational.

Read moreThis Is Your Brain On War

In the Jerusalem Mourning Tent For a Murdered Teen

 

Members of the family of Muhammad Abu-Khdeir receive Israeli visitors who came to share in their grief in the Palestinian neighborhood of Shuafat in Jerusalem. The poster in the background reads: "The Palestinian National Liberation Movement, Fatah, Jerusalem area, mourns for the righteous son of Jerusalem, Muhammad Abu Khdeir, murdered as a martyr..."
Members of the family of Muhammad Abu-Khdeir receive Israeli visitors who came to share in their grief in the Palestinian neighborhood of Shuafat in Jerusalem. (Photo © Gershom Gorenberg)

Gershom Gorenberg

My latest column is up at The American Prospect:

The air-raid silence sounded at three minutes to ten at night in Jerusalem. Two distant booms followed. Afterward, they seemed like an orchestral finale: abrupt, followed by silence, the only notes of a long day that were unmistakable in their meaning.

That afternoon, I’d gone with busloads of Israelis to Shuafat, a Palestinian neighborhood of East Jerusalem, to visit the family of Muhammad Abu-Khdeir. A huge mourners’ tent had been set up: The ceiling was made of blue tarps; one side was open to the street; the other three sides walled with tapestries and printed banners showing pictures of Muhammad. In the pictures, Muhammad looked very young for 16, his age last week when, on his way to Ramadan prayers, he was pulled into a car and doused with gasoline, murdered by immolation. The suspects, now in custody, their names still under a gag order, are six young Israelis from the Jerusalem area. The motives were revenge and hatred—call it national, or ethnic, or tribal.

Here’s the very brief timeline: On June 30, Israeli troops found the bodies of three Israeli teensEyal Yifrah, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Fraenkelwho’d been kidnapped by Palestinian extremists while hitchhiking in the West Bank. The next afternoon, as their funerals were broadcast on national TV and radio, downtown West Jerusalem became a riot zone. Bands of angry Jews, most in their teens, virtually all male, chanted “Death to Arabs!” They tried to beat up Palestinian workers in the open market, and threw stones at cars, randomly, without any sign that they cared whether the driver was Jewish or Arab. Before dawn the next day, Abu-Khdeir was abducted and murdered.

Read moreIn the Jerusalem Mourning Tent For a Murdered Teen

Pyromaniacs

In a region already in flames, a Palestinian terror attack and Netanyahu’s response could light another fire

My latest column is up at The American Prospect

Gershom Gorenberg

Life in Israel in recent months has been preternaturally tranquil, as long as you keep no more than a quarter of an ear on the news. Jerusalem cafés are packed. If you take a summer hike in the Galilee, nothing in the mountain breeze reminds you that a few dozen kilometers to the east is a failed state called Syria, where a war of all against all has driven nearly half the population from their homes, or that the realm of chaos extends all the way through Iraq.

For that matter, the land on the other side of Israel’s northern border is best described as Hezbollah territory, even if maps show a state called Lebanon there. Across the border in the south, the Sinai is a battleground between jihadist rebels and the Egyptian government. Jordan is still a functioning state—unless the fighting in Iraq and Syria spills over its borders. Feeling calm in Israel is like sipping lemonade in your living room while your neighborhood is in flames.

In truth, Israelis have actually had their ears entirely, obsessively on the news since the kidnapping of three teenage Israeli hitchhikers in the West Bank two weeks ago. The greeting, “Is there news?” means, “Have they been found? Are they alive? ” While the Shin Bet security service released the names of two suspects yesterday, which it identified as known members of the military wing of Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic movement, neither they nor the victims have been located. What’s clear is that the both kidnapping itself and the Israeli government’s reaction threaten to bring the fire much closer to home.

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Palestinians Won PR Battle Over Pope’s Visit. Will It Matter?

Gershom Gorenberg My apology to readers; I’ve been mostly absent from this blog while teaching for a semester at Columbia University. But I’m back, and here’s my latest piece from The American Prospect: “The Vatican treats this as a pilgrimage. We consider it a pilgrimage it with political implications.” So a Palestinian official involved in … Read morePalestinians Won PR Battle Over Pope’s Visit. Will It Matter?

Frankly, Scarlett, You Should Give a Damn

Gershom Gorenberg

and my latest column is also up @theprospect:

Outside of being celebrities and having Jewish mothers, Benjamin Netanyahu and Scarlett Johansson aren’t usually thought of having a lot in common. But they’ve been displaying another shared quality of late: the ability to act clueless about the suddenly snowballing economic boycott of Israeli settlements.

To be fair, it’s a lot more likely that Netanyahu is the one putting on an act. Johansson sincerely appeared to have little idea about what she was getting into when she agreed to be the straw-sipping poster girl of SodaStream, the Israeli maker of home fizzy-drink devices that produces wares in the industrial park of a West Bank settlement. “I never intended on being the face of any social or political movement… or stance,” she said in a press statement responding to criticism of her role advertising the firm. This sounds painfully naïve: Nothing having to do with Israeli settlements in occupied territory comes packaged without a political stance, but Johansson may have noticed this only after the ink was dry on the contract. Politics isn’t her profession.

It is Netanyahu’s trade, though. So when he responded to a comment by John Kerry as if the secretary of state had personally threatened Israel with economic sanctions, either Netanyahu knew better or he should have.

Read moreFrankly, Scarlett, You Should Give a Damn

What Truman Got Wrong About a Jewish State

Gershom Gorenberg

My review of John Judis’s “Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict” is now online at The American Prospect:

On May 12, 1948, President Harry Truman convened a tense Oval Office meeting. In less than three days, Britain would leave Palestine, where civil war already raged between Jews and Arabs. Clark Clifford, Truman’s special counsel, argued the position of American Zionist organizations and Democratic politicians: The president should announce that he would recognize a Jewish state even before it was established. Secretary of State George Marshall was incensed. “I don’t even know why Clifford is here,” Marshall said. “He is a domestic advisor, and this is a foreign policy matter.”

Marshall was asking for an impossible division. Foreign policy and domestic politics can’t be kept apart in a democracy, nor should they be. But this incident, described in John Judis’s Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict, shows that the question of whether U.S. policy toward Israel is captive to a special-interest group has existed even longer than Israel has.

Read moreWhat Truman Got Wrong About a Jewish State

Avigdor Lieberman Smiles at John Kerry. Be Suspicious

Gershom Gorenberg My new column is up at The American Prospect: On Sunday morning it seemed that Israeli scientists, or perhaps John Kerry, had learned how to do personality transplants. The first operation was reserved for Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, heretofore the growling voice of unreconstructed Israeli ultra-nationalism. “I want to express my true appreciation … Read moreAvigdor Lieberman Smiles at John Kerry. Be Suspicious

Is This Freedom Road?

Gershom Gorenberg

Photo by Gershom Gorenberg

My new column is up at The American Prospect:

They simply left.

As soon as they got the chance, the refugees from Darfur and other parts of Sudan and from Eritrea walked out of the guarded camp in the Negev desert and marched north in bitter winter weather toward Jerusalem. There they stood Tuesday afternoon, on an icy sidewalk facing the Knesset, holding up brown cardboard signs with handwritten slogans, chanting in eerily subdued voices halfway between determination and desperation, until they were arrested, manhandled onto buses and sent back to the desert.

This is the condensed version of the refugees’ dramatic three-day protest this week. It is also a condensed version of their lives: They are people—young men, almost all—who made the dangerous decision to leave their countries because staying was even more dangerous. They headed north into Egypt, then crossed the Sinai desert into Israel, hoping for freedom and safety, and were imprisoned as “infiltrators.” But the end of the protest this week is not the end of story. The battle continues—not just between the refugees and immigration authorities, but also between Israeli human rights advocates and a government with contempt for constitutional restraints.

Read moreIs This Freedom Road?

The psychology behind Netanyahu’s fury: Agreement Anxiety Disorder

Gershom Gorenberg

My new column is up at The American Prospect:

To explain Benjamin Netanyahu’s frenzied reaction to the Geneva agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, let me begin with the stack of brown cardboard boxes under my wife’s desk.

Each of the five cartons contains a gas mask and related paraphernalia for a member of my family to use in the event of a chemical-weapons attack. They were delivered last January, as part of the gradual government effort to prepare every household in Israel for a rain of Syrian missiles. I suppose that having “defense kits” in the house could be macabre, but what we usually notice is that they’re a nuisance: another thing on which to bang your toe in an overstuffed city flat.

What’s more, they’re apparently an obsolete nuisance. A couple of weeks ago, the usual nameless military sources told the local media that the Defense Ministry would recommend ending production of  gas masks for civilians. According to the leaks, intelligence assessments said that the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons was successfully reducing Syria’s poison-gas arsenal.  In other words, the U.S.-Russia agreement on Syria’s chemical weapons is working, and one result is a significant improvement in Israeli security.

To put it mildly, this isn’t what Prime Minister Netanyahu expected in September when President Barack Obama opted for a diplomatic solution rather than a punitive attack on the Assad regime for using chemical arms.

Read moreThe psychology behind Netanyahu’s fury: Agreement Anxiety Disorder

That’ll Be the Day — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

The American ambassador wearily removed a cleaning cloth from the black case he’d placed on the prime minister’s desk. He shook it open, gazed sadly at the dust that danced in the beam of the ceiling light, puffed on his lenses, and rubbed the cloth over them. Holding his glasses up to the light, considered the flexible frames that had cost him an arm and a leg, and saw that they were still smudged. But at this point he no longer cared. Perhaps, he thought, Israel’s leader was better viewed blurrily. The prime minister seemed to be shouting in a deep, throaty voice.

       illustration by Avi Katz

       illustration by Avi Katz

“Come on everybody, clap your hands!” the blurry premier seemed to be saying. “Are you lookin’ good?”

The ambassador tried to collect his thoughts. He knew he did not look good at all, and this did not seem to be the prime minister’s voice.

He felt two strong hands grab his and pull him out of his chair. “We’re gonna do the twist and it goes like this!” the voice explained.

“Weren’t we talking about American aid?” he mumbled as the body before him gyrated like a dervish with an inner ear infection.

Then he saw that the voice was coming not from the prime minister but from the large plasma screen on which the pm generally monitored the BBC for anti-Semitic news coverage. A black man in a suit was singing: “Yeah, let’s twist again, twistin’ time is here!”

Read moreThat’ll Be the Day — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

In Catalonia, a Warning on One-State Solutions

Gershom Gorenberg

My latest column at The American Prospect debunks new and old arguments that a one-state solution will work because nationalism is dead:

From the balconies above the narrow stone-paved streets of Girona hung gold-and-red striped flags. A blue triangle and white star adorned most of them, transforming the banner of the autonomous region of Catalonia into the standard of Catalonian independence. Here and there a legend emblazoned a flag: Catalunya, Nou Estat D’Europa—”Catalonia, A New State in Europe.”

I’d taken the train north from Barcelona to see Salvador Dali’s personal museum in Figueres and then explore Girona’s medieval old city. I was on vacation from the Middle East. But a political writer’s time off can so easily become a busman’s holiday. I looked at the flags and thought of the arguments about how to solve the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio, about political scientist Ian Lustick’s very recent New York Times essay despairing of a two-state outcome, and about the furies that the late Tony Judt released almost precisely 10 years ago when he came out for a one-state solution. Nationalism was passé, the great historian of modern Europe wrote; nation-states had been replaced by “pluralist states which have long since become multiethnic and multicultural… as any visitor to London or Paris or Geneva will know.”

In Catalonia, as any visitor to Girona or Barcelona will know, nationalism is alive and very 21st-century.

Read moreIn Catalonia, a Warning on One-State Solutions