The Thrasybulus Syndrome: Israel’s War on Gaza
Francesco Guicciardini, the Florentine historian and diplomat, was the contemporary and friend of Niccolò Machiavelli. The latter now enjoys an everlasting fame (or infamy, as you please), having gotten an adjective named after him, but his friend Francesco, now forgotten, often had the better of Niccolò in argument. After Machiavelli’s death, Guicciardini read his Discourses on Livy’s Roman history in manuscript and wrote a lengthy analysis of it. Discussing Machiavelli’s observation that “a new prince in a city or province taken by him, must make everything new,” Guicciardini insisted on the weaknesses invariably incurred by force: “Violent remedies, though they make one safe from one aspect, yet from another . . . involve all kinds of weaknesses. Hence the prince must take courage to use these extraordinary means when necessary, and should yet take care not to miss any chance which offers of establishing his cause with humanity, kindness, and rewards, not taking as an absolute rule what [Machiavelli] says, who was always extremely partial to extraordinary and violent methods.”
The difference of opinion between Machiavelli and Guicciardini over the utility of force echoes down the ages. Every age presents some variation of it. But the old argument is displayed with a ferocious intensity in the ongoing controversy over Israel’s approach to Hamas and to the Palestinians. In dealing with its neighbors, there is no contemporary state more partial to extraordinary and violent methods than Israel. Israel has fought four major wars in the last eight years, including the Lebanon War of 2006 against Hezbollah and three devastating wars against Hamas in Gaza from late 2008 to the present (not counting several smaller operations from 2006 to 2008). It has assassinated Iranian nuclear scientists and bombed sites in Syria, Lebanon, and Sudan over the same time period, just as it has continually agitated for U.S. military strikes against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. In Israel, hawks have found a welcome abode; doves are an endangered species.
The regularity of Israel’s perceived need to use force is illustrated by the notorious expression, “mowing the lawn,” that one of its military officers used to describe strategy toward Gaza. It is reminiscent of the advice that Thrasybulus gave Periander of Corinth, recounted in Herodotus. Walking through a field, Thrasybulus broke off the tallest ears of grain by way of showing Periander’s envoy the best way to rule violently. The envoy couldn’t figure out his meaning, but Periander, the prototype of the ancient tyrant, understood immediately on hearing the envoy’s report. The analogy showed that violence could not be a one-time affair. New stalks would grow up. It would remain necessary to keep lopping off the top ones—i.e. mowing the lawn.
Machiavelli offers a view different from Thrasybulus. It is unfortunately all too true that Machiavelli did have a penchant for extraordinary and violent methods, as Guicciardini alleged, but his thought also reflected an appreciation of “the economy of violence.” “The indiscriminate exercise of force and the constant revival of fear,” as Sheldon Wolin observed of Machiavelli’s teaching, “could provoke the greatest of all dangers for any government, the kind of widespread apprehension and hatred which drove men to desperation.” This sense of the limits of force, even among one of its greatest partisans, was given expression in another of Machiavelli’s famous sayings, in which he advised, “One must be a fox to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten wolves. Those that wish to be only lions do not understand this.” Israel’s strategy toward Hamas—seeking peace by periodically pummeling the Palestinians, shedding the blood of numerous innocents—violates Machiavelli’s injunction. It generates hatred as well as fear. It produces desperate men.
The counterproductive and useless character of Israel’s uses of force has always seemed to me the best argument against them, the one most likely to gain some kind of purchase in officialdom. But the sad state of affairs is that the Israelis think they are succeeding. They also believe they are using force in a limited and proportionate way, and no exhibition of “telegenically dead Palestinians” will convince them otherwise.
Even more important, by way of criticism of Israeli strategy, is the point made by Guicciardini. The idea that Israelis might improve their relationship with the Palestinians by treating them with humanity, kindness and rewards seems alien and even risible to Israeli opinion. The Palestinians, the Israelis think, hate them and will hate them for eternity. It is worse than useless to take an interest in their well-being, because doing so has the fatal liability of demonstrating weakness. Much as this viewpoint must be regarded as a profound mistake, it is written all over the conduct of Israel toward Gaza since the withdrawal of soldiers and settlers in 2005. Ensconced in the world’s largest open-air prison, encircled by a stringent blockade, the inmates too often behaved like those locked up in solitary confinement, a dementia attributable in large part to their loss of dignity. Israel’s belief that it can solve the Palestinian problem by ever-larger doses of the old medicine appears delusional—but there it is.
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In the early days of Israel’s existence, it was the policy of the Jewish state to make friendships outside the circle of immediate enmity with the Arabs. Thus with the Turks, the Persians and non-Islamic Africans, there was some hope for good relationships that would put a countervailing pressure on the Arabs. Israel continues that policy in Africa, but has lost its once important relations with Iran and Turkey. The first loss came thirty-five years ago, in 1979, with the Islamic Revolution in Iran. The Iran-Iraq War that followed from 1980 to 1988 actually served that countervailing purpose quite well; Israel was happy to see those states, both potential enemies, weaken themselves in war. Enjoying an equality of ignominy in Israel’s eyes, Iraq and Iran were seen as potent threats for many years, but for the last decade at least Iran has counted as by far the greater enemy for Tel Aviv.
The collapse of Israel’s relationship with Turkey is more recent but also, one should think, a very serious liability to Israel’s policy in Gaza. The recent fulminations of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, even more vitriolic than those of Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, attest to the extreme deterioration of a once important and long-lasting modus vivendi between Israel and Turkey. On any sensible accounting, this is an important cost of the Gaza campaigns, but it seems like the Israelis could care less.
Of course, Israelis do care about their larger standing in the world and rightly fear isolation, but they figure they are safe so long as they have American public opinion in their corner. Indeed, the key prize in their geopolitical strategy of leaping over their opponents to find allies on the other side has been to secure a vital redoubt in American public opinion and in the organs of American state power. Here they have shown extraordinary success, the most potent symbol of which (not counting the annual bill of over $3 billion in military aid) is the twenty-nine standing ovations given to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he addressed Congress in May 2011. (Who sat down first? One wonders.) Israel’s enemies are America’s enemies; those whom they denominate as terrorists, we denominate as terrorists: Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, Syria, Sudan. This support does not simply reflect the adeptness of AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups in granting and withholding favors from members of Congress, but exists throughout the corporate commentariat and is well rooted in broad swathes of U.S. domestic opinion. The latest polls show that 57 percent of Americans believe Israel’s actions in Gaza are justified, with 40 percent opposed. An earlier Pew poll from 2013 showed that 51 percent of Americans sympathize with Israel; only 14 percent sympathize with the Palestinians. The findings are remarkably stable over time. According to a CNN poll, the same 57 percent thought Israel’s actions were justified against Hamas in 2012. In 2009, the approval rate was 63 percent. (The margins are closer in Gallup polling, with a July 22-23 poll showing a 42-39 split on whether Israel’s actions are justified and—disturbing for Israel—a 25-51 split among people aged 18-29.)
Israel has also made very considerable progress with European governments, if not so much with public opinion. While European opinion shows majorities in Germany and France looking skeptically on Israel’s claims, governments in Europe, east and west, show strong verbal support for Israel’s right to defend itself and offer only weak criticisms, if at all, of the methods by which it has done so. Even Vladimir Putin (no doubt with diabolical motives) weighed in on Israel’s behalf. The great verbal support that Arab heads of state once lavished on the Palestinians is no more; they have been mostly silent spectators to Israel’s war. Yes, the Israelis are vociferously condemned on the Arab street and the broader Islamic street (one of whose addresses is Europe), but Israelis never enjoyed any support in that venue and it would seem absurd to them that they might ever get any. The Kurds, whose independence Israel champions (in a throwback to its old policy of cultivating peoples who have bad problems with Arabs) want this relationship kept hush-hush.
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There are three expert timelines of the Israeli assault on Gaza published by John Judis, Larry Derfner, and Scott McConnell. They make clear that the first rockets fired by Hamas, after having observed a cease-fire since November 2012, came after a wide range of Israeli provocations. Israel had to deal with intermittent rocket fire from Gaza splinter groups, especially Islamic Jihad, throughout the previous eighteen months, but Hamas kept its fire. In March 2014, Netanyahu acknowledged that the number of rocket attacks from Gaza in the previous year was the “lowest in a decade.” The shock of the three Jewish teenagers kidnapped on June 12 led to widespread official calls for collective punishment, 1500 building searches, and some 500 arrests in the West Bank in the following two weeks, even though the government had every reason to believe that the teenagers were dead and that a group antagonistic to Hamas was behind the kidnappings. The clear purpose was to disrupt the accession of Hamas to the Palestinian “national consensus” government in early June. Israel not only arrested fifty-one Hamas members released in the exchange for Gilad Shalit, but also conducted thirty-four airstrikes on Gaza on July 1 and killed six Hamas men in a bombing raid on a tunnel in Gaza on July 6. After these Israeli actions, came a big volley of Hamas rockets, then Operation Protective Edge.
The previous experience with the cease-fire should have shown that it was possible to maintain a relationship of deterrence with Hamas, and not really possible to eliminate, save at a horrific cost, its capacity to lob inaccurate rockets into Israel—rockets that, in the aggregate, could kill no more people than a few traffic accidents. Though Hamas was in all likelihood not responsible for the kidnappings, its leader did publicly laud them, an incendiary and reprehensible comment. Israel was looking for an excuse; Hamas provided it. But Israel was wrong to attempt the disruption of the unity government, the terms of which required Hamas to subordinate itself to the far more conciliatory platform of the Palestinian Authority. It was deeply cynical for Netanyahu to use the kidnapping and death of the three teenagers as a cover for that purpose. In no way can the formation of the unity government be seen as a threat that would justify the war that Israel has fought.
The capacity of one symbolic incident to set the Israelis on a big war has many precedents. In 1982, the assassination of Shlomo Argov, the Israeli ambassador in London, provoked Israel to invade Lebanon, to pummel Beirut in that dreadful summer, to force the PLO’s removal to Tunisia, and to occupy the south of Lebanon for another eighteen years, creating Hezbollah. In 2006, Israel made the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers and the death of three others along the Lebanese border the occasion for a major war during which the southern suburbs of Beirut, where Hezbollah has its headquarters, were flattened. Hezbollah’s rockets flew into Israel after Israel began its air attack, not before. The preliminaries to the three campaigns in Gaza since 2008-09 show the same tendency. In the Israeli psyche, these incidents stand as a mortal threat to their existence. The wars that follow invariably cause more Israeli casualties than the initial incidents themselves. The only compensation for that is the devastation inflicted on the enemy, for which the incidents provide a convenient excuse. Then the Israelis go back to the previous policy of deterrence, until they feel compelled to mow the lawn again.
When war is one of choice and not necessity, the criticism of inhumane methods has even greater force. The Israelis, to be sure, claim fidelity to the laws of humanitarian warfare—Rob Dermer, Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, recently nominated the Israel Defense Forces for a Nobel Peace Prize for their contributions on this score. The standards for receiving this august award have admittedly declined a bit lately; even so, it seems unlikely that the IDF will get the medal. And they definitely don’t deserve it, because their war methods inevitably cause large civilian casualties. Eminent authorities such as Michael Walzer (writing about U.S. methods in Vietnam) might be cited on the point, but we will have to make do with the recent headline in The Onion: “Israel: Palestinians Given Ample Time to Evacuate to Nearby Bombing Sites.” The policy of targeted assassination of the enemy’s leadership—together with their homes, children and immediate environs—is especially obnoxious: among all the older authorities on the law of warfare one would search in vain for a justification of such a practice.
That America should be deeply associated with these Israeli attacks on Arabs and Muslims cannot be beneficial to American security. Osama bin Laden once revealed that he got the idea for blowing up skyscrapers from witnessing the Israeli shelling of Beirut in 1982; and the plan took shape after he observed the devastation wrought upon Iraq by Desert Storm in 1991. Everyone says that it was the stationing of U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia that most offended bin Laden, but it was what the United States did with those forces—the war and the ensuing large civilian death toll in Iraq—that was the greater offense in his book. Violence motivates people, often to kill; that is a universal trait of our divided and depraved humanity.
No prudent foreign policy should ignore the motive for retaliation we give by recklessly using force in the Islamic world ourselves or by identifying the United States so closely with Israel. Adverting to this phenomenon two centuries ago, then-diplomat John Quincy Adams wrote that to take an eye for an eye allowed the allied powers ranged against France to “glut their vengeance for the wrongs” they had received from France, but Adams believed that they were “laying up stores of wrath for the day of wrath in revenge for those which they are inflicting.” Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority who has sincerely tried to bring peace for the last decade, spoke on July 22 in a similar vein:
The time has come for everyone to raise their voices and tell the truth, clearly and powerfully, in the face of the Israeli killing and destruction machine. The oppressing occupation forces have crossed every line and [have broken] all the laws. They have deviated from all standards of human and international morality in their ferocity and barbarism. . . . We will go anywhere in order to stop the aggression and the confiscation of our legitimate rights, and we will hunt down those who commit crimes against our people, no matter how long it takes. These crimes will not go unprosecuted and unpunished.
To the people in Gaza, he said: “Words cannot describe our emotions and what our heart feels for you. Your wound is our wound and is the great anger that is within us. We will never forgive and never forget.”
The announced purpose of Israel’s war has been to destroy Hamas, but its result will in all probability be to destroy Abbas. Perhaps that was after all the real intention of Netanyahu and his war cabinet: the extremists invariably seek to undermine the moderates.
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The settlement of the Palestinian question through a two-state solution is desirable from the standpoint of both American interests and values. We have a strong interest in containing the violence, and it is our duty to respect both the Palestinian right of self-determination and the Israeli right of self-defense. (The Palestinians have the right of self-defense too, but Abbas has accepted demilitarization in his peace proposals.) Despite the evident attractions of a peaceful settlement, it seems virtually impossible to imagine the circumstances in which the United States would make a serious attempt to force Israel to change its course. It is and has been so much easier to look the other way, especially for politicians. All the candidates of the major parties are squarely in the pro-Israel camp. Rand Paul, otherwise reputed to be an isolationist, is emphatically in favor of engagement on behalf of Israel (and has introduced a bill in the Senate to cut off all aid to the Palestinian Authority). Elizabeth Warren, the darling of the progressive left, is as regressive as Hillary Clinton on this particular issue.
About the only thing that might seriously disrupt this solid consensus would be a sea-change in the outlook of American Jewry. Despite strong discontent among many younger Jews, and stiff protests from some older ones, there are few real signs of that. Even J Street and Americans for Peace Now champion those annual $3 billion charitable donations, which equip the forces used in the attacks to which they object. To their credit, the liberals don’t accept the proposition that the only thing the Palestinians understand is force, but they do believe that the Israelis respond only to U.S. love—that is, that Israelis would never make concessions unless they were persuaded that America absolutely had their back.
I used to believe that too, or at least accepted the argument that U.S. reassurance to Israel was vital in getting it to make concessions to the Palestinians. The analogy was to the way the U.S. commitment to Britain and France after 1947 made possible a more lenient treatment of Germany—an adroit maneuver that must still be regarded as one of the finest moments of twentieth-century American statecraft. But the argument today, as applied to Israel, appears increasingly otherworldly; it founders on the fact that the Israelis don’t want to make peace with the Palestinians at any reasonable price and have nothing close to a governing coalition willing to make the concessions required. After all these years of negotiation, the Israelis refuse to produce a map for a peace accord they would find acceptable, as if vague generalities would suffice for a serious proposal. One can only conclude that unlimited and unconditional U.S. support has bolstered and will continue to bolster the expansionists among them. Certainly it has done nothing to weaken or restrain them. Fifteen years after the breakdown of Oslo, the settlement project continues, with 650,000 Israelis living in the occupied territories as of May 2011. There were 129,200 in 1995. This is not the conduct of a government and people who wish to give these territories up. It also dooms Israel to eternal domination of and conflict with the Palestinians. Truly, the Israelis have got the wolf by the ear, and can neither hold him, nor safely (so they believe) let him go.
Realists are among the sharpest critics of Israel but, realistically, there seems nothing in prospect that would dislodge the force of Israel’s support in America. It would be wishing for a different political system, a different culture, a different intellectual milieu from those which we have come to inhabit. I hope that change will come; I do not see it on an even intermediate horizon. If the four great thrashings of the last eight years have not sufficed to bring about a change in view, what would? Bad as the current war is, it is as yet no worse than Operation Just Reward in Lebanon (2006) or Operation Cast Lead in Gaza (2008-09).
The American people’s deep reluctance to venture on another Middle Eastern war does operate as a strong barrier to the war Israel wants America to fight with Iran, but that reluctance may not be sufficient to get a nuclear agreement with Iran or, if one is gotten, to get it passed through Congress. At least, however, there are now potent forces in American domestic opinion barring a preventive war against Iran; nothing comparable to that exists with respect to restraining Israel’s actions in its immediate neighborhood.
We are thus forced back, for want of anything better, to hoping for a change in Israeli consciousness on two key points: one would have them be far more discriminate in the use of force; the other would have them use more humanitarian methods (e.g., lifting the siege of Gaza) as a way of encouraging more pacific tendencies in the Palestinian population. More Machiavellian economy in their approach to force, let us say, and more Guicciardinian kindness in their administration of the occupied territories. These days, however, either wish seems more like an impossible dream than a plausible future course. Israel wants to follow the method of Thrasybulus, and its own untroubled conscience is just about the only thing that stands in the way.
David C. Hendrickson is professor of political science at Colorado College. He is the author of Union, Nation, or Empire: The American Debate over International Relations, 1789-1941. (Kansas, 2009). His blogs include What They Think and IR and All That.
Image: Flickr/Israel Defense Forces/CC by-nc 2.0