The Thrasybulus Syndrome: Israel’s War on Gaza

The Thrasybulus Syndrome: Israel’s War on Gaza

"In Israel, hawks have found a welcome abode; doves are an endangered species."

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.