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Israel on Thin Ice, Gaza in Ashes

Updated: Feb 15

The Long Radicalization and October 7



An Unprecedented Attack

The morning of October 7 was an inflection point for the history of the Middle East. As the Iron Wall fell and the kibbutzim were brutally overrun, all stood still. 

In Jerusalem, a government preoccupied in a long-running feud with the courts and desperate efforts to placate its constituency in the settlements, found itself surprised that Hamas’ rickety operation was capable of breaching the Jewish State’s modern defenses. 

In Riyadh, the Saudi Kingdom, eager to normalize ties with token gestures towards Palestine, was unable to respond coherently. Mohammed bin Salman’s ambitions seemed tempered once more.

In Washington, an administration caught between its Asian ambitions and Ukrainian investments, was unprepared for the opening of a conflict at the heart of its Middle Eastern bulwark. Brussels, similarly, was at a loss for words and strategy.

As the sun set over the Levant that day, over 1,400 Israelis: men, women, and children lay dead. A further 253, this time including foreigners, were kidnapped, taken hostage in the vast network of tunnels and military installations Hamas had built under the Gaza Strip. An attack of comparable scale and intensity, and with such casualties, had not been seen in decades. Israeli civilians had not been similarly exposed to the fighting that marked the region’s history since the state’s very foundation, in 1948. 

Talking heads, thought leaders, and the leading lights of the fourth estate quickly filled the gaps that institutional paralysis had generated. Immediately asking cui bono, journalists of The Wall Street Journal rushed to argue for direct, unequivocal Iranian responsibility in funding, planning, and approving the attack, codenamed “Operation Al Aqsa Flood,” the following day. After all, it was Tehran that had the most to lose from the seemingly imminent normalization with Saudi Arabia that the massacres impeded. 

This was quickly contradicted by Washington, Israel, Iran, and Hamas itself. The militant group had been willing to admit direct Iranian funding for its operations, confirming an influx of around $70 million a year, but it was insistent that the responsibility for October 7 was its alone. Iran concurred, its leadership content with praising the attacks while reaping the benefits for their increased clout. Direct involvement was predictably denied. 

To this day, concrete evidence of the Islamic Republic’s direct involvement, or even approval, is hard to find. The desire to lay the exclusive blame for the attack on its mullahs, and thus on external factors, is perhaps symptomatic of a systemic underestimation of the distinctly Gazan factors which led to it. 

Hamas, the Arabic acronym for the Islamic Resistance Movement, was born as a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate in 1987, right in the midst of the First Intifada. Ideologically, it was radically different from the secular, leftist organizations which had thus far dominated the Palestinian liberation movement. A far cry from the Arab Socialism of Fatah or the Marxism-Leninism of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, it is a Sunni Islamist outfit, markedly sectarian and intransigent in its goals. 

The violence of the Intifada, led largely by the umbrella organization of the secular movements, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), ultimately set the stage for the Oslo Accords in 1993 and 1995. The moderate line espoused by Fatah’s Arafat as leader of the PLO had disillusioned a substantial minority of its ranks and was seen by Hamas, which by then had taken advantage of substantial Israeli support to undermine the unity of the Palestinian cause, as an opportunity to be exploited. 

It wasted no time in portraying itself as the dominant force of radical opposition to Oslo’s provisions. Initially, this opposition expressed the voice only of a small minority in the Palestinian political scene. But in the absence of concrete enforcement of Oslo’s path for peace, a decline in interest for its realization on the Israeli side, and persistent, occasionally violent dissatisfaction amongst the Palestinians, the terrain for Hamas to exploit became much more ample.

By 2005, a Fatah previously viewed with adulation in Palestine had been transformed by its prolonged governance of the Palestinian National Authority established in 1994. Corruption and cronyism had tainted the image of the former revolutionary movement, and popular dissatisfaction with its inability to realize the promise of the Oslo Accords had grown.

By 2006, Hamas had won the Palestinian legislative elections, campaigning on dissatisfaction with Fatah’s incompetence and corruption, pushing a violent line as the only correction to its failures. A precarious national unity government had been formed by the two factions in response to the upset. 

By 2007, the situation had worsened. The national unity government had collapsed, and Hamas seized Gaza in a violent coup d'état. Since then, not a single legislative election has been held in Palestine, despite both parties' periodic promises for unity and democracy. 

Since then, Hamas has consolidated an autocratic regime in Gaza’s territory. Controlling the 2 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip is a difficult task with scarce resources, and decades of deliberate Israeli “de-development” had only made it harder. 

Despite the withdrawal of settlements in 2005, Gaza remained strictly controlled by Israeli authorities, its borders closely monitored and its economy stringently limited. The policy of “de-development,” or growth without development, formulated by the Israeli authorities in the 1980s, had emphasized the creation of an economically dependent Gaza Strip, one incapable of creating an autonomous economy satisfying the population’s material needs. 

The Gazan economy, to be clear, has seen modest growth. But it is a growth historically driven by reliance on Israel, which outsourced tens of thousands of Gazan laborers for low-level manufacturing on its border, exploiting the cheap labor it offered. The kind of growth this generated, systematically seeking to prevent development in the Strip, has created record-high unemployment (circa 25% for most of 2023) and unbearable poverty for its inhabitants. For their part, Gazans have often found creative ways to adapt.

Gaza’s extensive tunnel infrastructure was born to contrast the effects of the population's deliberate impoverishment. Many tunnels were initially built to combat Israeli economic control, not by Hamas, but rather by entrepreneurs seeking to move consumer goods between Egypt and Gaza. Hamas has since found a way to license these tunnels and tax their trade, in the process generating a handsome profit while guaranteeing some work for the unemployed youth. But this was simply insufficient to resolve the profound obstacles that the Israeli state had imposed on it. 

Hamas’ corruption, authoritarianism, and administrative setbacks had only worsened the situation. In 2023, polls conducted in Gaza showed a regime mired in unpopularity and the marked distaste of its subjects. A decisive majority of Gazans between the ages of 18-29 showed either “no trust at all” in Hamas’ government (almost 45%) or “not a lot of trust” (over 20%). Similar statistics are found for the rest of Gaza’s population.

Almost 75% of Gazans felt that Hamas was “not very responsive” or “not responsive at all” to the needs of the population, while only around 27% chose Hamas as their preferred political party. Around 31%, by contrast, chose Fatah. 

In this context, Hamas had to do something to consolidate its support and put pressure on Israel. From the perspective of its leadership, an attack on Israel might just have been sufficient. Through a well-planned, secretive strike on the Jewish State, it hoped to consolidate its base and regain the faith of Gazan civilians, not least satisfy its restless fighters. Iranian encouragement was not even necessary to set the stage for Al-Aqsa Flood.


The Fallout of October 7

More than anything, the severity of the massacres on October 7 had laid out the mistakes of the Israeli approach for decades. For the goal of undermining the Palestinian cause, the Mossad was ready to finance and support a radically antisemitic opposition group. To perpetuate the poverty of Gaza's people, it was willing to pay the price of de-developing the Gaza Strip entirely, radicalizing its youth. 

For the ambition of consolidating its hold over the West Bank, it was willing to transfer much of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) assigned to securing the southwest, leaving the border with Gaza exposed. Despite a year of warnings and credible intelligence assessments from both friends and neighbors, Israeli authorities remained calm that any threat from Gaza, even in the form of detailed, well-drawn battle plans, was merely aspirational. 

A Palestinian question which had largely been numbed with the protection of the Iron Dome and the stagnant repression imposed by the Palestinian National Authority had now returned, with blood and suffering, to the national conversation. Suddenly, the Israeli strategy of cutting off historic Palestinian sponsors in the Sunni Arab world had been torn to shreds. The attacks, and the Netanyahu government’s rapid, merciless response, sent two messages to the Arab world. 

First, that the attacks themselves underscored the widespread anger Palestinians felt over a broken peace process, by now abandoned for decades. The rhetoric of the Abraham Accords, that the Arab states could normalize relations while imposing minimal conditions on Tel Aviv, had been exposed as propaganda.

Second, and most importantly, Israel’s brutal bombardment and invasion (and the 28,000 Gazans, overwhelmingly women and children, dead thus far) generated so much condemnation as to put normalization indefinitely on hold for any responsible Arab state. Even Bahrain’s legislature, ostensibly representative of the most important of the Abraham Accords’ signatories insofar as Bahrain is an open client state of Riyadh, had even urged its government to reverse the decision to normalize.

Worse still is the absence of a long-term vision in Israel’s cabinet and high command. While its right flank, embodied by many of Benjamin Netanyahu’s fellow Likudniks and their Kahanist counterparts in Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, openly call for settlement and annexation, such an approach is transparently unrealistic.
 
Even if it were implemented, at grave cost to a civilian population which could only be violently deported or massacred tout court, it would in itself permanently ruin an already tarnished Israeli image in the region, inevitably provoking regional war. 

But even in the long term, if this option is excluded, there is no strategy in Tel Aviv for passing from military response to sustainable occupation. And fundamentally, there is no idea for passing from sustainable occupation to the kind of proto-reconciliation conducive to regional normalization.

Iranian proxies and militant groups have seized on the situation to show their support for Gaza. The Houthis in Yemen have wreaked havoc on Red Sea shipping lanes, explicitly linking their actions to a ceasefire in Gaza, while Iraqi groups have launched sporadic attacks on American positions and Lebanon’s Hezbollah regularly exchanges fire with the IDF.

In the meantime, the popular anger of the Arab world over the war crimes, and possible genocide, allegedly committed by Israel in Gaza has been pronounced at historic levels. Riots and protests in solidarity with Palestine engulfed the region, with tensions escalating particularly in Jordan and Lebanon. American embassies were oftentimes in some level of danger at the hands of the massed crowds.

Established, institutional actors were highly concerned. Arab autocrats have not forgotten the Arab Spring, when some observers noticed a symbiotic relationship between anger over economic stagnation and bad governance and fury over the plight of the Palestinians.
 
This relationship, for the foreseeable future, is unlikely to change. Normalization, for any of these states, has been postponed to the distant future. When increasing Iranian prestige is taken into account, even the eternal battle for dominance between the Sunni states and Tehran’s Axis of Resistance becomes relevant. Never before have the Arab dictatorships, first and foremost Saudi Arabia, been so clear on a concrete path to peace as the only precondition for reconciliation.


A Country Transformed

But what do dynamics within the Jewish State itself tell us about the future of the conflict, and the potential for change? Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has come under wide criticism abroad for his handling of the war with seeming total indifference to civilian suffering. Domestically, the Israeli public seems most focused on hammering the fact of the attack itself alongside the continuation of the hostage crisis.

In November of 2023, polls within the country indicated only 27% of Israelis saw Netanyahu as the best figure to lead the government. Trust and popularity between the towering figure of Israeli politics and its citizens has only declined since. This begs the question of the probable outcomes of a political transition on the country’s embattled democracy. Although Netanyahu is totemically associated with the occupation and the brutality of the military repression in Gaza, even his likely demise is unlikely to lead to a change in Palestinian policy. 

The generation of Yitzhak Rabin, one dominated by the Israeli left, seems to have slowly wilted since the former prime minister’s assassination in 1995. He was the last titan of an Israeli left which, despite its close links to the IDF, was nonetheless committed to peaceful and equitable resolution of the Palestinian conflict, albeit on its own terms. 

After all, the Israeli project was born in a predominantly socialist chord, with Labor Zionist politicians dominating the land’s early history as their parties (Mapai and Mapam, eventually Labor and Meretz), their union (the Histadrut), and their kibbutzim built the foundations of the Israeli state. Three factors contributed to the death of Labor Zionism.

The first was the gradual collapse of the social democratic economic model built in the country’s early history. Despite stratospheric growth and sustainable social development uninterrupted since its foundation in 1948, the managed capitalism built by the Israeli left had reached a crisis by the late 1970s. 

Inflation was increasing drastically, while the debt crisis of the kibbutzim and the pressure of skyrocketing growth in military expenditure (close to 30% of GDP in the more violent part of the 1980s), had rendered some kind of economic reform necessary. It was the 1985 Economic Stabilization Plan presented by Shimon Peres’ Labor government which began to undo the system built by his predecessors. 

Despite its remarkable success in restoring macroeconomic indicators to their expected health, it had the side-effect of reducing the size and scope of the Histadrut, which had already suffered greatly as a result of a 1983 bank stock crisis. Further privatizations and economic liberalization under Peres’ successor, Likudnik Yitzhak Shamir, had only further weakened the bond between the Israeli labor movement and its party, fully broken in 1994. By then, a now-successful neoliberal development path had been consolidated. 

Although Labor had reacted, and adjusted accordingly to this new terrain, it would also be defeated in its next great project: the peace process. The Oslo Accords, successfully born of Rabin’s collaboration with Arafat, were always only a road to peace, not a painless panacea. As implementation became more difficult following his death, and internal security strengthened, the unpopular task of following through with the difficult changes Oslo implied for Israel (namely, some compromise with Palestinians on the question of the ever-growing settlements), coupled with continued conflict with Palestinian groups, had led to their practical abandonment by the political establishment.

Furthermore, these two political setbacks which unraveled decades of achievements won by the Israeli left were further consolidated by rapid demographic change. The Israeli left was always strongest amongst the secular Ashkenazim, the generally irreligious heirs to the universalism typical of Mitteleuropa’s Jewry. The stunning population growth in the vastly more religious Sephardim and Mizrahim have altered a delicate demographic balance, and allowed for increased settlement creation to go hand-in-hand with increasing vote shares for right-wing parties. 

As a result, Meretz, the most pro-peace wing of the Israeli labor movement, has virtually disappeared. The Labor Party, meanwhile, is widely considered to be incapable of governing a country which has abandoned its previous priorities. 

Most importantly, with the decline of the peace process, the Israeli opposition’s domestic priorities have united around a broadly centrist ideological project. The Israeli opposition, varied in composition, is primarily focused on judicial reform, anti-corruption campaigning, and secondary domestic concerns.

This new generation of centrists, led most prominently by Yair Lapid, the charismatic former journalist leading Yesh Atid, and Benny Gantz, the experienced general who joined former Likudnik Gideon Sa’ar in National Unity, is markedly different in political outlook from its leftwing predecessors. In addition to not sharing their socialist ideology, it sees the settlers and national security hawks formerly the exclusive preserve of the Likud’s right wing as voters to be courted, not problems to be resolved.

Lapid and Gantz themselves are hardly doves on the matter of Palestine. Yesh Atid, for instance, has no qualms about including aggressive hawks like MK Meirav Ben Ari within its ranks. A representative quotation from Ben Ari was recently uttered in an October debate on the Knesset’s floor: “...the children of Gaza have brought this upon themselves.” It would be unfair to characterize the whole of the Israeli center in this light, but the differences are more rhetorical than substantive.

Yet the decline of the left has not only led to the renewal of the center, but also to the birth of the far-right. Parties like Naftali Bennett’s New Right, Itamar Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit, and Bezalel Smotrich’s National Religious Party are markedly to Netanyahu’s right. Ben Gvir is even openly Kahanist, heir to Rabbi Meir Kahane’s unabashedly fascist Zionism.

While the center is mildly supportive of the occupation of Palestinian land, albeit preferring to concentrate on anti-corruption issues and mismanagement to contest Bibi’s hegemony, the far-right openly contests elections with a desire to radicalize Israeli discourse on Palestine. Despite these distinctions, what is most important is this: neither faction is willing to sacrifice political capital to build a sustainable, negotiated peace with the Palestinians.

This is reflected in the repeated alliances made between the center, the right, and the far-right in recent years. Gantz and Netanyahu openly governed together in 2020, signing the Abraham Accords (opposed by Bennett in favor of annexation of the West Bank altogether) before Gantz’s political incompetence led to the coalition’s collapse. Immediately after, Lapid and Bennett formalized a short-lived alliance in 2021-2022 which led to another coalition government between the center and the far-right, succeeded in short order by a coalition between Netanyahu, Smotrich, and Ben Gvir in 2022.

What some analysts have called a “9/11 Moment” for Israel on October 7 is not an exaggeration: the same climate of national unity which succeeded the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York City was born in the Jewish State. Gantz, perhaps out of inveterate gullibility or a veteran general’s sense of duty, immediately formed a national unity cabinet with Netanyahu, Smotrich, and Ben Gvir. With the ostensible aim of moderating its goals, this move seems to have had little concrete influence on policy. 

Despite the notable, commendable opposition of a few liberal and left-wing Israelis on the streets and the pages of Haaretz, there seems to be little of a left-wing opposition to the current government, let alone one ready to take power following Netanyahu’s comeuppance. The political alternatives to the current course on Gaza seem, thus far, nonexistent. 


Tel Aviv and its Allies

It is no secret that Israel relies on the ironclad diplomatic and military support of the United States for its survival. After all, Washington intervened countless times to deflect criticism of the war in Gaza in international institutions, blocking any mention of ceasefire in the Security Council time and time again. The Biden administration did not limit its aid to its diplomatic influence, drastically expanding arms shipments to the Mediterranean statelet and even fighting its proxy war in Yemen against Houthi incursions. 

American power is crucial for aid to Israel. Over the lifetime of the Jewish State, around $300 billion have been transferred from the American taxpayer to Israeli coffers. Although it is worth noting that this statistic includes substantial arms purchases, it is nonetheless a notable number. 

While today only 1% of Israeli GDP, or 20% of its defense spending, is due to American aid, this was not the case historically. For a brief period of the 1980s, Washington’s assistance comprised almost 20% of the entire Israeli economy. No other country comes even remotely close to this kind of support.

To any informed observer, it would be evident that, in the absence of domestic forces leading towards a concrete political change in Israel vis-à-vis the Palestinians, only its foreign sponsors wield the power necessary to change the state’s behavior. Only unprecedented outside pressure from Israel from Washington (and its European allies) is conceivably capable of leading Tel Aviv to negotiate and end the conflict permanently.

For the United States, it is now increasingly obvious that only a permanent end to this conflict will break the cycle of violence which prevents Arab autocracies from normalizing relations with Israel, and thus the ultimate fulfillment of the conditions necessary for a successful Pivot to Asia. Due to a particular alignment of military-industrial interests, political norms, and powerful lobbies like the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, no particular actor within the United States seems likely to take the risk necessary to pressure the Jewish State to changing its behavior, and thus guaranteeing the desired regional realignment. 

Neither the incumbent Biden administration, nor its most likely opponent Donald Trump, seems minimally interested in effecting serious pressure on Netanyahu. Recent changes in policy, such as the conditioning of military aid to Israel on adherence to international law, has cut-outs inserted within it allowing the devastating, and probable, attack on Rafah for the next 45 days. Even the possible recognition of a Palestinian state is moot without a discussion of Israeli settlement policy and the future entity’s borders, one which necessitates a serious policy change towards Tel Aviv.

In the absence of such change, the Pivot to Asia will be sluggish and strained, as Washington’s diverse responsibilities abroad will run aground on its domestic instability. When Congress cannot even agree on aiding Ukraine or bipartisan border deals, the absence of a regional realignment could have serious consequences for American grand strategy, devastating effects on Palestinian lives, and long-term results for Israel’s safety.



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