Israel, Gaza, and the stupidity of leaders

by Emrys Westacott

Like millions of other people, I found the recent Israel-Gaza conflict sickening and depressing. After fifty days of military exchanges from July 8 to August 26, over 2,000 Gazans had been killed of which, even according to Israeli government estimates, over half were civilians. Around 11,000 Gazans had been injured, and several hundred thousand had been displaced from their homes and needed emergency assistance. On the Israeli side, 62 soldiers and 6 civilians were killed, and around 1,300 were injured. To what end? Images

While it went on I read, watched and listened to dozens of interviews and debates about the conflict. These involved Israeli government ministers, leaders of Hamas (the governing party in Gaza), journalists, scholars and political analysts, some highly critical of the Israeli government, others defending its actions. Two things struck me about what I heard.

First, there was a great deal of repetition: “Israel has the same right as any other country to defend itself against attacks.” –”The people of Gaza have the right to resist occupation.” – “Israel is ultimately responsible for the conflict because they continue to impose intolerable living conditions on the Palestinians.” –”Hamas is responsible because they committed the first acts of violence.” –”Israel targets civilians in breach of basic moral principles and international law.” ­–”So does Hamas.” –”Hamas still won't recognize the right of Israel to exist.” –”Israel continues to undermine the possibility of a viable Palestinian state by constructing new settlements.” Listening to these debates is like being on a merry go round, going round in circles, seeing the same sights come and go; you hear the same points being made again and again in more or less the same order.

Second, the points made by the parties to the debates typically pass each other like skew lines, not quite engaging. Question: “Isn't the Israeli governments showing a callous disregard for the lives of Palestinian civilians?” Answer: “It's Hamas with their rockets that is targeting civilians. And why is Israel being singled out for special criticism when other countries also kill civilians when they're fighting a war?” Question: “Does Hamas accept the right of Israel to exist?” Answer: “The Israeli occupation of Palestine is illegal under international law.” So often, the answers don't engage with the questions. This aspect of the debates is most frustrating.

Time and again, people on both sides will make their statements, many of which seem quite plausible. (Not all, though. I can't take seriously either the Israeli government's protestations that they bend over backwards to minimize civilian casualties, or Hamas' denial that they deliberately employ tactics that will increase their civilian casualties.) But the parties don't recognize or even adequately engage the other side's perspective. Added to this is the unfortunate phenomenon of the reductive “Which side are you on?” mentality. Someone posts a link to a news item about children being killed by Israeli shells while playing on the beach, and the antenna of one side twitch with suspicion. Someone else points out that Hamas spokesmen regularly declare the holocaust a fiction, and the party of the second part assumes that person must be a lackey or a dupe of the Israeli government. Someone tries to enter the debate without immediately alienating readers of either stripe and they'll be accused straight away of failing to recognize the moral imbalance between what the Israeli government does and the actions of Hamas.

But for what it's worth, here is my view of the conflict. I believe the long-term policies and the short term tactics of the Israeli government have been cynical, callous, and stupid. I think the actions of Hamas, on the other hand, have been cynical, callous, and stupid.

The reasons for viewing both sides as cynical and callous are precisely those that the critics of both sides repeat endlessly, so I won't repeat them here. The cynicism is revealed by the obvious discrepancies between the words and deeds of the principal actors. The callousness is evident from their apparent indifference to the suffering their actions bring about. So let me explain, instead, why I view both sides as acting stupidly.

It's common for analysts to assume that political leaders are smart. Whether they're writing about Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, Nixon, Kissinger, Yasser Arafat, Saddam Hussein, Vladimir Putin, Benjamin Netanyahu, or Bashar al Assad, the default perspective tends to be that these people, and those around them, are, to be sure, cynical, scheming, callous, manipulative, and egocentric; but they're really clever in their Machiavellian way. They're shrewd. They're cunning. They're masters of the game of realpolitik. There are exceptions to prove the rule, of course: George W Bush was never accused of being especially clever. But then W. was widely seen as the puppet of Dick Cheney, who was viewed this way.

But this assumption about the intelligence of leaders is very often mistaken. These people may be good at scoring small short-term victories over their rivals and enemies, but they're typically very bad at securing their deeper, longer-term objectives. They are like chess players who excel at spotting opportunities to win a bishop or a pawn, but who don't actually win their games—which is and should be the longer term goal. What Plato says about tyrants applies to many of these supposedly clever political players. They may seem able to get what they want, but in fact they invariably end up failing completely to get what they really want.

Take the situation of the Palestinians in Gaza. Suppose you could go back in time and interview ordinary Palestinian men and women sixty years ago, and you were able to show them the situation in Gaza as it is today. Would they be pleased? Would they say: “That's encouraging! Sixty years of struggle leads to 1.8 million of us penned up on a tiny strip of land with widespread poverty, failing infrastructure, a failing economy, no control over imports or exports, total dependence on Israel for many basic needs, and hardly any other countries willing to offer meaningful aid or support. That shows that our leaders have been extremely clever at advancing the interests of their people?” Or suppose you interviewed the leaders themselves sixty years ago. Would they be likely to say: “So that's where are policies and tactics are taking us? Great! That proves we must be on the right track.”

It's hard to imagine this would be the response. Some perhaps would just bite the bullet and fall back on mantras about how they know the struggle will be long but justice will prevail in the end. But I prefer to think that many would be in despair, because that would show that they were reasonable people.

Now in making this argument I am not for a moment suggesting that the current plight of the Palestinian people is simply their own fault or simply the fault of their leaders. Obviously, Israeli policies have been a major determinant in bringing about the present situation. But clever leaders, like good chess players, are supposed to be good at taking into account what the opposition will do. So either the Palestinian leadership over many years has done poorly on this front, or they have pursued policies that they recognized would likely lead to the current miserable impasse.

Of course, someone might object that the Palestinian leaders have done the best they could in an impossible situation. But I don't think that's true. The plain fact is that organizations like Hamas want to eliminate the state of Israel and replace it with the state of Palestine with Jerusalem as its capital. And that isn't going to happen. If they think it is, they're deluded. And the tactics they employ aren't actually advancing either that cause or any more limited, worthwhile, achievable cause.

Now suppose you could go back in time to interview Israelis of sixty years ago and show them the current state of affairs. Would they be cheered or appalled? Perhaps they'd be pleasantly surprised at Israel's military might and relative economic prosperity. But many of them would surely be horrified at the inhumane policies pursued over many years by their government toward the Palestinians; shocked at the sight of their army using its vast technological superiority to bomb schools, hospitals, and residential districts with apparent indifference to civilian casualties; sickened by the fact that Israel is still not at peace; and deeply disturbed by the fact that its actions are condemned by liberal-minded people around the world. In its early years Israel was a place where moral idealism flourished. Today, that idealism seems to have withered on the vine.

The shift in world public opinion of Israel over the past half century is significant. Where Israel was once viewed positively both for its idealism and for its steadfastness in fending of attacks from its more powerful neighbours, it is now one of the least admired countries in the world according to a 2013 poll conducted by the BBC.[1] Defenders of Israel can argue that this is mainly or entirely due to old-fashioned anti-Semitism along with a tendency to hold Israel to a higher standard than other nations; but this is self-deceiving. To be sure, anti-Semitism may be a tributary factor. But the primary reason for Israel's current unpopularity is that year after year people witness it pursuing policies that thwart the hopes, degrade the living conditions, and systematically humiliate the Palestinians, using one of the most powerful and sophisticated military forces on the planet against pathetically inferior forces and civilians.

Defenders of the Israeli government typically respond to this by claiming (a) that the world media systematically treats Israel unfairly, being quick to focus attention on its controversial policies while ignoring the many unpleasant things that go on other countries, particularly in the Middle East, that are on many counts less liberal and less enlightened; and (b) that Hamas launches rockets from sites close to schools and hospitals in order to provoke Israeli responses which they hope will yield heartrending photos and footage of civilian casualties to further tarnish Israel's image. Regarding (a), they have a point. Certainly, when it comes to such things as democratic government, enlightened laws, the rights of women, gay rights, freedom of speech, and so on, Israel compares favourably with most of its neighbours. (According to Human Rights Watch, Saudi Arabia beheaded nineteen people in August, including one for sorcery.) But regarding (b), we come back to the problem of stupidity.

Defenders of Israel typically claim that in the recent conflict Hamas cleverly provoked Israeli shelling of civilian areas so that they could use images of the resulting carnage to gain sympathy for their cause and damage Israel's reputation. This was very cunning, they say. And Hamas was also brilliant at making sure those images reached the widest possible audience. OK, let us grant that this is correct. Notice the paradox that follows. Hamas was clever enough to completely outwit Israel in the PR department; yet the most intelligent course of action for Israel to follow was…….to do exactly what Hamas wanted them to do.

Given that Israel and Hamas have totally different goals, it isn't possible for them both to be acting intelligently. At least one of them has to be hopelessly misguided. It is possible, though, that both sides are horribly misguided–which is my view. When I say the leaders are stupid, what I mean is that they are not wise. What is wisdom? Fundamentally, it is a matter of understanding the relative value of things and acting accordingly. Plato argues that tyrants aren't wise because they mistakenly think that enjoying absolute power will enable them to gratify every desire, and that this will make them happy and admired. But they are sadly mistaken. Tyrants typically end up lonely, fearful, and despised.

What should be the primary long-term national goals of wise political leaders? There are many: for instance, peace, security, justice, material well-being, environmental protection, a vibrant culture. Sometimes these can conflict, which is when the rare combination of wisdom and shrewdness exemplified by leaders like Lincoln or Mandela is especially needed. In the Israel-Gaza conflict there was, and no doubt will continue to be, a deficit of wisdom on the part of those responsible. The leaders of Hamas, if they were wise, would place a much higher value on the goal of improving the material circumstances of the Palestinian people. The Israeli government, if they were wise, would recognize that their oppressive policies towards the Palestinians is taking them away from, not toward, the sort of circumstances they want to live in and the kind of society they should aspire to be.

Both sides respond to criticism of their actions with the same question: what choice do we have? Defenders of Israel argue that no country would allow themselves to be attacked and not respond militarily. Defenders of Hamas argue that kidnappings, suicide bombings, and rocket attacks are what you can expect when an oppressed people has other means of resistance closed off to them. In both cases these arguments, while apparently reasonable, turn attention away from the underlying reasons for the ongoing impasse. It is in Israel's power (and long-term interest) to adopt entirely different policies towards the Palestinians. Hamas could ditch their anti-Semitic rhetoric, unrealistic objectives, and ineffective tactics for more sensible ends and means. One significant obstacle in both cases, however, is the attitude not just of the leaders but of those they lead. Surveys show that during the recent conflict, a large majority in Israel approved of the military campaign in Gaza, while in Gaza itself approval of Hamas surged. Sadly, it is not only leaders who lack wisdom.