Israel vs Hamas: Beyond right, wrong, smart, and stupid

David Schraub gives a thoughtful rebuttal to arguments from the American Left and Right on the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza, trying to push beyond some of the slogans to find better ground.  He easily dispenses with the asinine “proportionality” argument and rejects the right vs wrong equation, preferring to ask whether Israel has acted wisely in their actions:

The proper frame for looking at Israel’s response isn’t whether, in some cosmic sense, it is “justified” in attacking Gaza this way. The proper frame is asking “is this attack going to accomplish anything?” LGM’s own military expert, Robert Farley, gives four reasons to be skeptical that anything good will come out of Israel’s operation, while nonetheless noting that the operation itself has been quite discriminating and has done a good job minimizing civilian casualties. His arguments — particularly the problems with “sending a message” — make sense to me. We might still understand why the government is behaving “as expected”, and we might affirm that, in terms of moral judgment, we shouldn’t hold Israel morally liable for a super-obligation where other countries are given relatively free passes. But none of that requires us to answer in the affirmative the remaining (and to my mind, far more important question): Is Israel’s response a smart one?

Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons the contemporary discourse surrounding Israel/Palestine seems stuck on debating “right and wrong”, instead “smart or stupid”. Anti-Israel speakers are unsatisfied with the idea that the state is merely behaving unwisely — they are insistent that it is a qualitatively evil regime that must be treated as such, even when such demands make it concretely less likely for the Palestinian people to receive their just due. Pro-Israel writers, responding to such rhetoric, devote their time to defending the moral appropriateness of any Israeli action, to the exclusion of any long-term considerations about whether it ends up helping or harming Israeli interests (not to mention the interests of a lasting peace and liberation of the Palestinian people from occupation). This is why I’m such a fan of J Street: They call for Israel to ceasefire, not because Kadima is now the Middle East’s version of the Nazi Party — but because, based on their considered judgment, they don’t think that the operation actually gives Israel anything of substantial, long-term value, and instead simply entrenches the never-ending cycle of tit-for-tat that hasn’t gotten anywhere for decades.

As I mentioned previously, the question of whether Israel is behaving unwisely in this particular case is one that I am not qualified to answer (though Farley is, and he answers “no”). But the point is that restricting the field to merely “who is in the right”, rather than stepping up to the plate and saying “what actions should Israel, Palestine, and every other relevant party take to the current situation that best advances its security interests, the prospects of permanent peace, and justice for the Israeli and Palestinian actors”, is a discourse that doesn’t actually help anyone. So what I’d like to see — from America and from everyone else — is a commitment to cool it with the moral hyperbolics which don’t accomplish anything, and focus on what matters: the reasonable, concrete policy moves both sides can do to advance the cause of peace and justice.

That construct suffers from one problem — the lack of recognition of Israeli actions in the past.  Israel has tried military action, occupation, withdrawal, a peace plan (Oslo), another peace plan (Wye River), yet another peace plan (Annapolis), blockade, ending the blockade, and a series of so-called “truces” that allowed the Palestinians to play a triangle offense and provoke Israel into action.  What do all of these actions have in common?  None of them worked.

The question really isn’t right or wrong.  Israel has a right to defend its citizens from attack, and Hamas had launched over 200 rocket and mortar attacks on civilian populations in the week before this operation.  It’s not smart or stupid, either, since Israel has done everything to “advance the cause of peace and justice” except surrender and die, which remains Hamas’ explicitly stated aim.  It’s about a lack of options in dealing with a group determined to conduct terrorist attacks and destroy Israel until its last breath.  A targeted campaign against Hamas while avoiding a wider war is the one option the Israelis still had yet to try.

The better question is whether it will work, which is David’s implied test in his smart-or-stupid construct.  We don’t know.  What we do know is that Israel has very few options left outside of suicide, and we can’t see whether this will work until it’s tried.