1948. 1967. 2000. Each of these years corresponds to an Arab-Israeli war. In each conflict—Israel’s War of Independence, the Six-Day War, and the second intifada—Palestinians and their Arab allies began the wars with ecstatic proclamations of certain victory, and ended them in defeat, shame, and a sense of victimhood. In his feature essay this month, the Israeli analyst Shany Mor asks whether another such war is now occurring, one that will shape the next generation of Palestinian identity.
To further examine Mor’s argument, Mosaic invited him, the Times of Israel analyst Haviv Rettig Gur, and the American Egyptian writer Hussein Aboubakr to join a special conversation with Mosaic editor Jonathan Silver—streamed live exclusively for Mosaic subscribers.
Among other things, they discussed why this cycle of euphoria and denial keeps recurring, what Israelis and Palestinians simply don’t understand about each other, and what the conduct and result of the current war could mean for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict going forward.
Welcome to this conversation about our blockbuster November essay “Ecstasy and Amnesia in the Gaza Strip,” by Shany Mor, a writer and an instructor at Reichman University in Tel Aviv. It’s a pleasure to welcome Shany along with two other very distinguished guests, Haviv Rettig Gur of the Times of Israel and Hussein Aboubakr from the Endowment for Middle East Truth. We’re honored that both Hussein and Haviv have, at various times, also written indispensable contributions to Mosaic, but this week our goal is to probe Shany’s essay about the Palestinian predicament, about not only the historic roots and political exigencies, but also factors relating to national psychology that, together, contribute to the unique configuration of Israel and the Palestinians, of course, who are now engaged in terrible war in the Gaza Strip.
I’d like to begin with a note about the kind of political analysis that Shany offers here and the kind of political analysis that we’re really proud to publish at Mosaic.
Political scientists like to push themselves to be as scientific as they can. That means that they tend to want to be as precise as possible, and that means, in turn, that the kind of political analysis that they produce is modeled on the kind of precision that the natural sciences aspire to. Often a political scientist isolates a particular variable, say the balance of trade or the amount of spending on schools, and attempts to observe how that variable changes in light of different stimuli, like a new election or a spike in interest rates, to draw some general conclusion.
That kind of analysis has a role, to be sure, and it can illuminate some very deep things. But I think that you’ll notice that Shany’s essay is rooted, first of all, in history. His approach does not abstract from the historical self-understanding of the Palestinians, nor does it abstract from the role of war and peace in the analysis of human affairs. Shany’s sort of analysis is, I would say, more capacious and human, less dispassionate and theoretical.
Second, Shany’s aim is to examine the Palestinians’ psychology and their view of the Israelis and of themselves, thus he is asking his readers to reckon with the spirit of the nation in ways that strictly empirical approaches cannot. In my view, that’s something those approaches miss out on; correspondingly, that’s one of this essay’s chief accomplishments.
Finally, let me cite one of Shany’s many arresting formulations from early on in the essay. “The principle grievances of the Palestinian cause,” he writes, “one revealed in rejections of sovereignty and in rhetoric spanning generations, is not the absence of a desired nation-state, but the existence of another one. The hierarchy of goals that follows from this grievance, no state for us without the disappearance of the state for them, has contributed greatly to the Palestinian predicament.”
By encouraging us to assess Palestinian politics in light of Palestinian political aspirations and goals, Shany has made an additional methodological choice. Our point of departure in this essay is not the material or economic conditions of the Palestinians. It’s the dream and the vision that they set out for themselves.
And I think we understand something very deep about the nation—as we can understand something very deep about all national aspirations, including America’s and Israel’s—by looking at it in terms of purpose. This is the way that the ancient philosophers looked at regimes. It’s how Aristotle might have encouraged us to look at things, and I think it’s one of the reasons that Shany’s essay has touched such a nerve.
In what follows, I will first have a brief conversation with Shany about the essay, and then I’ll invite Haviv and Hussein to ask their questions. And then, at the end of our time together, I’ll invite questions from the audience.
My last word of introduction before I turn to Shany is a word of gratitude. I want to thank Mosaic subscribers and members of the Mosaic Circle who make Shany’s work, and discussions like this one, possible. We rely on your investment in our work. I’m very proud of the contribution that this essay makes, and we simply could not have published it without you.
Shany, what’s the main argument here?
The main argument is that the entirety of the Palestinian predicament can almost be adequately explained as the outcome of three wars. And before I get to what those three wars were and what I’ve left out, let me spell out what I mean by the Palestinian predicament.
We normally think of the Palestinian predicament as having two characteristics, nationhood and statelessness. By itself, that combination is dire, but not exceptional. There are other examples in contemporary politics and in history of peoples who conceive of themselves as a nation and don’t have a state. The Kurds would be a wonderful example, among others. What makes the Palestinian predicament so dire is that it’s not just those two factors, but it’s three more factors that make it much worse: displacement, occupation, and fragmentation.
The argument of my essay is that this five-aspect condition is actually quite unique and quite awful, and that you can explain nearly all of it by focusing on the outcomes of three Arab-Israeli wars. In terms of casualties, these aren’t the biggest Arab-Israeli wars. And I spend a little bit of time in the essay probing the weaknesses of my decision to focus on these three, and asking myself what I’ve left out. But in the end, I think skipping over other wars, and other important factors, doesn’t detract from the comprehensive picture I’ve tried to paint here.
These three wars are radically different from one another. They have very little in common. The first, the one that begins in 1947, is for its first half something of a civil war, a total civil war between Arabs and Jews in Palestine. By total war, I mean that it’s fought village by village, town by town, hilltop by hilltop. There’s no home front. Everything is part of the war. And then it becomes a multistate war involving at least five belligerents, possibly eight depending on how you count it, on three very active fronts. There’s also a fourth front, but it’s not very important either militarily or historically.
The second war, the one that begins and ends in 1967, was fought by four sovereign states with four modern armies on three fronts, and lasted only a week. It didn’t really involve civilians. It didn’t involve any big population transfers unless you count the Golan, and even what happened there was on a much smaller scale than anything that happened in 1948. And it was over very quickly.
It’s worth mentioning that this second war didn’t involve any organized militia or military force that considers itself Palestinian. The one in 1947 involved two different armed forces that considered themselves Palestinian, neither of which used the word Palestinian.
And the third one, the one that begins in 2000, is usually not even referred to as a war, but it was an armed conflict that lasted for about four years and that didn’t resemble the other two at all. It had aspects of a terrorist campaign, aspects of an armed uprising, and aspects of a counterinsurgency by an occupying army. It was nothing at all like the other three.
The outcome of each of these three wars is a catastrophe; each of these three catastrophes contributed to one the three hallmarks of the Palestinian predicament today: the first one being displacement, the second one being occupation, and the third one being fragmentation.
What do I mean by those terms? Displacement is self-explanatory. Occupation means the transformation of a feeling of victimhood and hatred towards some distant unknowable enemy on the other side of a border into actually living under that hated enemy’s military rule. And the fragmentation that happens after 2000 is really the end of the Palestinian state-in-the-making of the 1990s, and ultimately, after 2007, results in two separate Palestinian regimes that don’t work with each other and in fact oppose one another: one in Gaza under Hamas and the other in the West Bank—sometimes working with and sometimes against the IDF—under the Palestinian Authority based in Ramallah.
What then do these three wars have in common? First, so far as the Palestinian cause is concerned, the outcomes matter tremendously in a way that those of other Arab-Israeli wars don’t. But there are a few other important commonalities, some minor, some quite significant. One smaller commonality is that these three wars all focus on Jerusalem to some extent, both in political leaders’ rhetoric and also as a locus of combat, something that’s not true of other Arab Israeli wars, which are about the Suez Canal, or the Sinai Peninsula, or the Golan, or Lebanon, or whatever. I think the Jerusalem factor ties into something that was true for both the Arab side and the Israeli side of these three wars: that there was something existential about it.
All three of these wars were preceded by much eliminationist rhetoric from the Arab side, which, again, differentiates them from the other wars. For the Israelis, the memory of the 1973 war is one of being in a real existential danger, but first of all, that threat has been somewhat exaggerated in people’s imaginations, and, secondly, extermination wasn’t part of the rhetoric of the two Arab states that attacked Israel in 1973. But in 1947, 1967, and 2000, the weeks leading up to the outbreak of violence—as well as the initials stages of fighting—were full of rhetoric that was openly eliminationist, absolutely focused on wiping out the stain of a Jewish presence in the Middle East, and in particular, in the Levant.
More broadly, I was struck by two other things. One is that in all three of these wars, the Arab-Palestinian cause was wrapped up in a larger global conflict—in a way that the Palestinians themselves didn’t embrace. In each case, that reality brought with it certain costs, and certain awkwardness, for the Palestinians, but respective the global movements that had adopted the Palestinian cause were absolutely unreserved in their enthusiasm. And the big thing that struck me was that from the Arab side, the lead-up to all three of these wars was full of violent righteousness and a palpable ecstasy about the upcoming war and what it was supposed to bring, followed not by any real recognition or moral reckoning with the defeat, but rather a very rapid replacement of the defeat with a moral victory found in the celebration of pure victimhood.
We can talk most easily about the Nakba, because I think that’s the example that’s in people’s minds, but I would prefer to take a different example. I would take 1967 because everything there happened so fast. I think it’s really illustrative, and we can see the results even now. After 1967, the moment the war ends, it’s reconceptualized as just a pure story of victimhood and Israeli aggression.
People who observe and write about this sudden rhetorical transformation sometimes mock it, or describe it as a case where a non-democratic government ruling a quasi-Soviet society uses state-controlled media to lie to its people, and people go along with it because they know what’s better for them. Now, it’s true that Egypt of the 1960s, and Syria, and Jordan, and all the rest of the Middle East were then and are now non-democratic societies. That’s absolutely true. But these are not Soviet-style totalitarian states, and these are not pious lies that exist in a situation of pluralistic ignorance of people trying to get by. The feeling of victimhood, right then in June of 1967, is completely genuine among the same millions of people who crowded the streets of Cairo weeks before, absolutely jubilant about the revenge they were about to take on these Jews in Israel.
You see this then as a change in self-conception, from active force in history to victimized recipient of Israeli Zionist aggression?
Exactly, and it’s not just occurring in non-democratic societies. Even in the West, to reject this narrative shift is to leave the community of pro-Palestinian intellectuals and activists. I wasn’t alive in 1947 or 1967, but I remember the Oslo process and the second intifada very, very well. It wasn’t astonishing to me at the time that the decision to reject Camp David and embark on a violent campaign against Israel in 2000 was popular. What was astonishing to me is that there wasn’t even a tiny vocal minority opposed to it. There wasn’t a dissident. There weren’t a bunch of angry letters signed by people in the back of the New York Review of Books saying that this was bad for the Palestinian cause. And that wasn’t only true at the time, in 2000, when you might have been lulled into thinking that this was a good gamble to make, but also afterwards.
In fact, if you had observed the events of September 1996, the so-called tunnel riots, you may very well have concluded, reasonably, that this was a good gamble to make. But by 2002, certainly by 2004, and then obviously by our own time, two decades hence, the fact remains that there is still no such minority voice, not even an embattled supposed left or dissidents—not in non-democratic societies in the Middle East, nor at Columbia University or at any of the other hotbeds of pro-Palestinian intellectual output or at any of the various fancy think tanks with “crisis” and “endowment” and “group” and whatever in their names. Again, it’s not that dissent is a minority view. It’s not a view at all. It’s not that people are answering the question in a way that I find unsatisfying. It’s that the question itself is forbidden.
I started reflecting on these things a lot in the last three years, and particularly in 2020 and 2021, because I started to become convinced that we were essentially headed to a fourth round of something like this. People kept asking me, “Do you think another intifada is coming?” I was even commissioned to write an essay on this for a different publication, and you can all check out what I wrote there, I guess, if you want. And what I said was that the fourth big Israeli-Palestinian catastrophe won’t look like the first three.
In that essay I also gave a lot of space to what I thought was the Israeli contribution to the deterioration in the situation between the two nations. But what started getting me extremely pessimistic in that period was reading a lot of pieces written from 2020 onwards by extremely smart Palestinian or pro-Palestinian intellectuals in the West that were completely revisionist about what happened in 2000 and, seemingly, very enthusiastic about the possibility of really getting rid of Israel somehow, whether it was by some one-state phoniness or by putting faith in projections of the Israeli state’s, or Israeli society’s, long-term nonviability—which boiled down to a hugely overstated sense that the world had discovered the essential Israeli evil.
It really started heating up in 2021, when there were two big developments that made me even more pessimistic. One was all of these glossy reports accusing Israel of apartheid from various human-rights organizations. I’ll leave it for somebody else to debunk the reports. That’s been done by people who are much better at this kind of thing than I am. What was interesting was that there suddenly emerged the intellectual framework that the Palestinian cause has always wanted, one that accepted as an ontological principle that Israel is fundamentally evil, that Israel’s birth in 1948 was a cosmic crime, and that the only right path and the only historically inevitable path was for that crime somehow to be reversed. Only then could the situation be rectified.
I think it was interesting that all those reports came out at the same time. One of the things I say in my article is that you can look at the juridical status of Israel and the territories over the course of a century and see lots of discreet points where it changes—not just when the state is born, not just when the occupation begins, but even since. For example, when the civil administration for the West Bank and Gaza is created in the early 1980s, or when it basically falls apart in the late 1980s, or when the Oslo process comes in and the Palestinian Authority is created.
There are also three things that change the legal situation in the 2000s. First since 2002, while the IDF still maintains the geography of the Oslo II Accords, that divides the West Bank into Areas A, B, and C, it has granted itself freedom of action in Area A. This is something it hadn’t had from 1996 until 2002. Secondly, that there’s the disengagement from Gaza in 2005, and there’s a slight redrawing of what the borders are there, between what’s under the authority of the IDF and what’s under the authority of the PA, and later of Hamas. And thirdly, the Hamas coup in Gaza in 2007 creates a new juridical reality. There are now three governments in this land. There’s obviously the government of Israel, there’s the Hamas regime in Gaza, and there’s the Palestinian Authority with partial control in the West Bank.
But none of those changes happened in 2021.
None. In fact, from 2007 to 2021 is a fourteen-year period with a juridical status quo. If I’m not mistaken, it may be the longest such period, and perhaps the most stable. By the way, it’s a horrible status quo, but it happens to be the most stable legal status quo that we have had in this land probably in the last century.
Absolutely nothing changed in 2021. There was a bit of nervousness among partisans of the Palestinian cause that Israel was heading towards normalization agreements with the Arab world, but fundamentally what it showed was that anti-Israel activism is a social activity. In my opinion, by the way, it’s a religious and theological activity that requires periodic reaffirmations of faith. For the Palestinian cause, this this has been disastrous in so many ways. This was the fourth global gust of wind behind the Palestinian sails, in a similar way that unrepentant fascism led to the series of horrible decisions that were made in ’47, and Soviet backing in the cold war led to ’67, and the background of jihadist Islam encouraged 2000. The apartheid narrative was the rough equivalent of those previous three. And as in the previous three, the fit is highly imperfect and not even one that the Palestinians themselves are 100-percent on board with or enthusiastic about. That comes with real costs.
But what the charge of apartheid accomplishes is that it aggravates what’s already the fundamental problem of the Palestinian national-liberation movement, which is that there isn’t just an Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is actually pretty easy to solve in global terms, but there is an Arab-Israeli conflict where the existence of Israel is, as we said earlier, a cosmic crime. That makes what should be a pretty conventional national-liberation movement, whose disadvantages and disappointments are actually not unusual, into something very different. Lots of newborn nations are not in control of the land that they claim. Lots of them have lost holy sites and other geographical markers significant to their own national myths. Lots of them have lost wars on the way. Lots of them make poor decisions on the way to liberation and end up in worse circumstances than they could have had. Lots of them, by the way, spend decades under a very limited kind of sovereignty because they were on the wrong side of a global alliance.
The things that we think of as being the real hardships for Palestinian national liberation aren’t that unusual. What’s unusual is the movement’s significance in the Arab-Israeli conflict and then its other significance in these other global causes. The significance there is that it doesn’t conceive of itself as a liberation movement that might choose freedom and independence, even at the price of territorial compromise.
In 1947, the Zionists were willing to accept a state without Jerusalem. Not just without the old city, but without any of Jerusalem. When you’re a movement of liberation, a compromise like that is painful, but almost nobody rejects it outright because not being free is so awful. When your cause is a cause of national elimination, with a goal of eliminating somebody else’s state or self-determination, then any compromise like that is not just painful. It’s not like the Irish agreeing to have only 26 of 32 historic counties, or modern Bulgaria or Greece not able to exercise their claims on Constantinople, a place of deep religious and national significance for both. And the Greeks might have had Constantinople if they hadn’t made some really stupid military mistakes in the early 1920s. But for the Palestinian national movement, giving up territory is not a painful compromise. It’s defeat.
Let me ask you briefly to sketch the terrain that you’ve now mapped for us. To me, the most interesting thing is this transformation from the ecstasy and eliminationist rhetoric directed toward getting rid of the Jews at the beginning of each war to forgetting about all of that almost immediately and adopting the self-understanding of aggrieved victim. That’s the amnesia of the essay, and instead. Could you map that onto what we are seeing that began on October 7th?
Well, one of the really fun things in all of the horror that you can do on Twitter is, every time you see somebody make some absolutely rancid claim about the horrible things that Israel is doing, just look at what they were writing on October 7th. Most of them were absolutely jubilant.
Jubilant. Uncontained. “Gaza was breaking from its prison!” “What did you guys think decolonization was?” All the usual images.
I saw today that the anti-Israel pollster James Zogby posted a picture of Gaza, a place that we were told routinely was an open-air prison, as some kind of lost paradise before Israel’s attack this month.
As if to says, “Look how beautiful this place used to be, that Israel has now turned into rubble!”
One has also seen all this grotesque evidence of the attackers themselves on October 7th making phone calls to their parents and so on.
Let’s set aside October 7, and all that macabre jubilation, for moment. What preceded that? The person who got me thinking about this in 2020 the first time was Tareq Baconi, because he’s a very smart guy who’s clearly read more than one or two history books. And he was absolutely delighted in the last three years that finally things were (in his estimation) turning in the direction he hoped. He didn’t use the Nasserite rhetoric of the 1960s, but it was very clear to him that Israel’s days were numbered, that the Jewish state couldn’t possibly sustain itself, and that the whole world was coming to see that. And he was very excited at the prospect.
He wrote a lot of very learned pieces in some of the best journals in the West and had some very flattering and easy interviews in some of the others, which said a lot about the intellectual framework he was operating in.
Let me go back a moment, because I said there were two things that happened in 2021. One was the reports, but there was another. If you remember in May of that year, there was another round of fighting between Israel and Hamas and Gaza, the last one until this one, and it was accompanied by communal violence in Israeli cities between Jewish and Arab Israelis. And this was a really happy moment for pro-Palestinian activists. It allowed them to reconceive this encounter not as part of a national conflict, and not even as a response to occupation, but as two national communities where one was essentially lording itself over the other one.
Anti-Israel activists’ insistence, by the way, in referring to every single Arab—whether in the Gaza Strip or the West Bank or in Israel; whether Bedouin or Christian—as Palestinian, a term Arab citizens of Israel generally don’t use, was part of it. They saw this communal violence as being the harbinger of what Baconi and others called a “unity intifada,” that there was now a united uprising of Palestinians of all kinds against what was essentially, for them, illegitimate Jewish supremacist rule everywhere, not just in the occupied territories, not just in blockaded Gaza, but in the land as a whole.
This was less than a year before the first independent Arab party joined an Israeli coalition. I mean, the reality of Israel was impossible for them to see. None of them would have expected, by the way, that six weeks into this war we would have had no communal violence so far between Jews and Arabs. The only people interested in that sort of thing are a few Jewish extremists, some of them regrettably in various senior positions in the Israeli government—but that’s a different discussion. But for all their efforts to foment violence between Jews and Arabs, the Jews and Arabs themselves have not turned up to the party. At least not so far.
Thank you. Now I want to invite Hussein Aboubakr to pursue the lines of inquiry that he noticed as he was reading and studying. You’ll know Hussein from his sterling and fabulous contributions to Mosaic, including our September essay on the use and reinterpretation and psychic significance of the Nakba as an organizing intellectual device in Arab societies. Hussein, what did you make of Shany’s essay?
First of all, thank you for inviting me. It’s a great honor to join Mosaic again. I have always admired Shany’s writing. I think his essay is superb, and I want to explain why. If you go back to my September essay in Mosaic, you’ll find that Shany and I agree on some fundamental presuppositions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that most political scientists reject.
Shany’s article suggests that the way the Palestinians think about the nature of the conflict determines the outcome. That’s, to a large extent, something that I’ve also been trying to argue, and it goes against a lot of the conventional wisdom in academic and foreign-policy circles. The second thing that we fundamentally agree on is historicizing the evolution of this conception of the conflict into waves of what Shany called ecstasy, and what I called revolutionary fervor. Even if we disagree on some details, I think this fundamental idea is right, that Palestine is not eternal. The Nakba is not eternal. These concepts evolved through stages that matter a lot in understanding their content.
My question for Shany comes out of the title of his essay, and its use of the word “ecstasy.” Ecstasy, of course, is a psychological state. You can attain it individually either through certain practices, or it can be induced by narcotics, but it is never self-generated. You cannot sit and spontaneously reach a state of ecstasy. You may go do yoga in the Himalayas for ten years and then reach that level of ecstasy.
What this essay doesn’t really explain is the stimulant that might have produced this ecstasy. I find it very hard to believe that it spontaneously exploded among the Palestinians before the three wars that he outlined. I think that’s very important to the question of Palestinian agency, which this essay is fabulously focused on. Shany touched on a lot of the regional elements and the international intellectual elements, but I think he hasn’t done enough to show what stimulated these different waves of ecstasy.
I think the stimulus of the ecstasy in all three of those cases is the excitement about the upcoming violence. I think that was certainly the case in 1947. In 1967, it wasn’t just the excitement about violence. More than in all of the other cases, it was the excitement about revenge. I think that was again the case in 2000 and in 2023. The ecstasy doesn’t cause the descent into war. It was the political factors and the conscious choices that were made by different actors because, like I said, these are three different wars with different actors.
I don’t know whether to keep saying three or to say four if we’re counting the current one, but the path to war was that. And in all of those cases, the initial violence of that first day, and in the cases of 1967 and 2023—much more than in 1947 and 2000—the initial outbreak of violence and the experience of hearing about it prompted ecstasy. Remember, what actually happened on June 6, 1967 (the first day of the Six-Day War) was quite different from what the Arab public thought was happening. The response was an explosion of ecstasy, of delight.
Let me put a question to both of you. There’s a way of thinking about violence and the sacred that focuses on the spiritual condition of the party that is about to embark on a violent campaign and sees the sacrifices that will be made as having a purging quality that absolves them and wipes away moral stains, in this case, perhaps wiping away the stain of an intruder, the infecting Zionist colony.
That is often a very dangerous inclination, but note that even in very heroic, absolutely morally praiseworthy violent campaigns it arises too. Take, for example, the one that President Lincoln directed in the American Civil War. His second inaugural address is about how the war will wipe away a stain, the great moral stain of slavery in America, and it will therefore have a purifying effect. I wonder if that is a part of the psychology that one can detect in the ecstasy of the Palestinians.
I do believe that connection between the violence and the experience of the sacred is just an anthropological fact. It’s absolutely true. But that doesn’t explain the motivation of Nasser in 1967 or the calculations of Hamas leaders, or Iranian leaders, in this current war. That is that this anthropological dynamic can be activated in conditions.
Maybe that goes back to my question to Shany, that there has to be somebody who activates the violence and the conflict. It’s a decision that is made by calculating political leadership so that the social or the psychological dynamic evolves. And I think that there’s a terrible cycle that’s aggravated by investing Palestine with symbolic meaning that is constantly being inflated by sacrifice, and blood, and victimhood.
But these waves don’t start in a spontaneous or ritualistic manner. There are concrete political factors that in each case lead to a decision to utilize these basic human and anthropological tendencies to achieve political goals. I don’t think you have to be a Soviet-style totalitarian in order to be shrewd enough to try to instrumentalize something like this.
Yes. I think you can also do it wrong, which is, I think, what you’re hinting at with Nasser. I don’t think that the intention was to have this ecstasy overpower the decision-making. There was a point at which he wanted to initiate these feelings to achieve his political goals, but the ecstasy itself wasn’t his goal.
In the case of October 7th, I’m not sure you can entirely separate the means and the ends in this way. And that’s not because of the sacrifice of the fighters who were sent to carry out the operation. That in itself isn’t hugely unusual. The larger purging sacrifice is the knowledge that not only are 1,000 men going to die carrying this operation out, but that many thousands who had nothing to do with it, who were not involved in this operation, who were not breaching the borders on October 7th, are going to die here in Gaza as a result of the war Hamas started. I do think they thought these deaths would have some symbolic purging aspect, or at least reshuffle the deck, not of the Gaza-Israel stalemate, but of the entire Israeli-Palestinian dynamic—or even the entire Israeli-Arab dynamic.
This brings us to something that Haviv has been speaking about in various appearances, and writing about and thinking about. Haviv Rettig Gur is perhaps the preeminent English-language journalist who’s explaining Israel to the English-speaking world. Haviv, what do you make of the essay? And what was on your mind as you read it?
Unlike Hussein, I was disturbed at how much I agreed with the essay. I don’t enjoy reading things I agree with. Please Shany, do better.
I lived through the second intifada—I was an infantry soldier in the West Bank during Operation Defensive Shield, the Israeli operation in the West Bank to suppress the second intifada. I remember sitting on mountainsides in the dark of night in ambushes attempting to catch suicide bombers as they made their way across the green line to blow up in Jerusalem. I remember the horrifying frustration of finding out there was another bombing. There were 140 bombings over three years.
And I remember the exact duality that I read in this essay, the thrill and then the victimhood. And the triumphalist victimhood always struck me. I hadn’t articulated it quite that clearly until reading Shany’s essay, or pushed it back to 1948. I saw it there, but I hadn’t connected those dots. This was extremely helpful for me in that regard.
The essay opened the case, made the case, closed the case. It was extremely helpful to me not just intellectually, but also to put my own experience in a larger context.
But what is missing from our discussion of Palestinians generally—and maybe all I’m going to tell you, Shany, is an admission of my own ignorance—is why it makes sense to the Palestinians. This back and forth, this triumphalism, this assertion about the trajectory of history, then this culture of tragedy about their predicament—what’s the appeal. Without diminishing occupation, without diminishing the massive questions of rights, without diminishing the traumas of war, the Israeli conqueror is not the kind of conqueror that destroys societies.
It’s not enough to say Palestinians can’t develop a better politics because of the Israeli occupation. If you speak to Palestinians, you discover very quickly that that’s not enough. There are choices being made by this society, choices being made to pursue certain directions, certain strategies. There is a Palestinian elite that makes up some portion of Palestinian society, maybe 10 percent, which is having rich and sophisticated ideological discourses on these questions. Sometimes these conversations are a bit shallow and frustrating, but nevertheless, they’re having these discussions.
Why does this make sense to them? Why does a war now, like this, makes sense to them? Why do they believe exactly as you suggested toward the end of your comments here, that Israel is destined to fall? Some of it, I think, comes from a religious vision, even among secular Palestinians. And you have to realize that secular means something a bit different here than it does in the West. I mean, it works a little differently. There isn’t absolute secularism in the Middle East, generally. Even when you are secular, you use all these religious frames of mind and religious ideas and paradigms.
I often teach college students, sometime on Zoom or sometime when they come as groups to Israel. I tell them, “Look at Algeria. Look at the Palestinian response to Algeria. Look at the founding of the PLO and how much, at the founding of the PLO, they thought they were the FLN that had just kicked the French out of Algeria with the same kind of 20th-century merging of the anticolonial and religious visions, and you’ll understand why the second intifada made sense to a Palestinian elite raised on the Algerian experience.” But that doesn’t explain why that vision persists within the Palestinian elite so many decades later.
I have an old doctoral dissertation from an old Israeli diplomat who did a Ph.D. on the Palestinians at Oxford, where he dug through the archives of Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the famous the mufti of Jerusalem from the 1940s. His father was also the mufti of Jerusalem. I think in 1914 he sat on the Jerusalem City Council. Of course, the head of the council in Jerusalem was the mutasarrif, the Ottoman governor of Jerusalem and the surrounding territory. He suggested that the Jews were all coming to Palestine because the Russians and the Romanians were massacring them. So, he concluded, “What if we massacre them? Then they’ll go somewhere else.”
This is at a time when 95 percent of Jews fleeing Eastern Europe were actually going West. They were not coming to the Land of Israel. They were not Zionists in any meaningful way. So from the formative years of the Palestinian national identity, there’s a discourse about how to get rid of the Jews.
But let me return to the point at hand. The Cairo intellectual Rashid Rida, about 100 years ago, thought deeply about Zionism for some time; he communicated with Zionists. At first he wasn’t anti-Zionist, but he then went on to become virulently anti-Zionist and to think about the war on Zionism as part of the war of Islamic renewal and liberation from Western colonialism and Western modes of thought. Rida was also a teacher of Amin al-Husseini and of Izz ad-Din al-Qassam, the preacher who went on to be a founding figure of the Arab Revolt in the 1930s—after whom Hamas named its military wing.
In Rida’s time, the Palestinians were a rural people, mostly farmers. He warned in one text, after the First Zionist Congress in 1897, “Your great danger is that the least of the nations, the one everyone is stepping on, will displace you. You want to know how weak the Arabs are, how weak Islam is? The Jews, the lowliest and weakest and most fragile and ridiculous and pathetic of all the nations are the ones replacing us and pushing us back.” So, there’s an element here that goes deeper. In other words, why is it more important to them to kill me than to free themselves?
Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib claims that, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” means civic democracy on the American model. That’s what she claims. But Palestinians don’t share that claim on the ground, when you actually ask. The vast majority of them are not liberal-trained intellectuals who have been taught to say that. Why is it so important to them to kill me? I think that it goes deep. The reasons go back to the very formation and origin of the Palestinian vision and story and the culture of resistance to Zionist immigration. I want to know more about that. Until we deeply understand that, my complaint about Palestinian terrorism goes something like this: the French diplomat, Talleyrand, had this complaint after Napoleon executed some member of the French royal family. Talleyrand said, “It was worse than a crime. It was a mistake.”
The problem with Palestinian terrorism isn’t just that it’s brutal and violent and horrific morally. It’s also stupid. It’s terribly bad for the Palestinian cause. Why is it so valuable then to Palestinians? Why is there some place in Palestine named after each and every single suicide bomber from the second intifada? We need a deeper theory of mind to understand them. They don’t understand that this terrorism is stupid because they don’t have a theory of mind of us. To them, we are some colonialists. You get rid of us the way you got rid of the British in Kenya or the French in Algeria. If they knew anything about us, they wouldn’t think that about us. They wouldn’t trust in that strategy.
I want a better theory of mind of them as well, that explains their thinking to me. I say that as someone who constantly interacts with Palestinians, not over the last month, but constantly for years. I wish I understood better what drives this.
Let’s start by looking at the calendar. Today is November 15th. It’s a very important date on the Palestinian national calendar. It’s Palestinian independence day. November 15th, 1988—35 years ago today—was the date of the Palestinian Declaration of Independence. The Israeli Declaration of Independence is a group effort, full of compromises. The Palestinian Declaration of Independence was written by the greatest Palestinian poet, by Darwish.
How many times, by the way, does it mention the Nakba? Anybody want to guess? The same number of times that the Palestinian National Charter does and the Hamas Charter, zero. It’s not mentioned. It wasn’t an important word until 1998, not in the way that we conceive of it now.
November 15th is a date that nobody bothers to mark. The dates that people take seriously in Palestinian political life are May 15 (Israeli independence), November 2 (the Balfour Declaration), and sometimes November 29 (the date the UN passed the partition resolution in 1947). At least the UN marks the last one as a date of solidarity with the Palestinian people. These dates have to do with the horrible things that happened to them that the Jews did, not their actual Declaration of Independence.
Today, on November 15, 35 years since Arafat read out the Declaration of Independence in Algiers, of all places, the parliament building in Gaza was demolished, the same parliament building, if I’m not mistaken, where Bill Clinton came in 1998 to oversee the vote on revoking the Palestinian National Charter, which ended up not happening. The United States president came all the way to Gaza for that, and it didn’t take place.
The first thing is to establish that what Haviv is describing actually is the case, that there is a revealed preference for killing us rather than improving their own lives, materially or otherwise. But this is one of those condescending things that colonialists say all the time, “Oh, weren’t you better off when we were ruling you?” But that’s not the right question. It’s not a question of improving your material life, but of actually achieving the kind of liberation that people think, or want to believe, is at the heart of their cause. So, the repeated revealed preference is for the destruction of Israel. We have to be honest about that. I think that’s what Haviv is asking for.
I think that in this essay, and in my other writings, I have been honest about that. Where I take that, though, is not to argue that there’s something peculiarly defective about the Palestinians, because I’m skeptical that that’s the case. I’m also skeptical about the other extreme—that it’s just a question of a few bad choices. Lots of nations make some bad choices along the way.
I can tell you that, as an Israeli, we’ve made some really poor choices sometimes and rejected openings that were quite good and ended up having to compromise and settle for much less. That’s not unique to the Palestinians or to the Israelis. Through the whole post-imperial space of Central, Eastern, and Southern Europe, and then the Eastern Mediterranean and Northern Africa, you’ll see that repeat itself all the time.
It’s not just bad choices or unfortunate coincidences, but it’s also not something uniquely defective about the Palestinians. I think the most important way of getting to an answer is to understand, as I said before, that this is not just an Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but that for the Palestinians, the whole concept of the Palestinian nation is derivative of the outcomes of the Arab-Israeli conflict. What’s special is not the Palestinians themselves. What’s unique in the annals of international relations is the Arab-Israeli conflict or the Arab-Zionist conflict or the Arab-Jewish conflict. And Palestinians essentially define themselves as the victims of the Jews.
This is why you can take a border that existed for all of two decades, only because the League of Nations designated it as a Jewish national home, and make that the hard line of what’s historical Palestine. So that no matter what your citizenship is or where you live today, if you were, before 1948, south of a line that was drawn between the French mandate in Lebanon and the British mandate in Palestine, a line that does not exist on any Ottoman map or any Arab map, that defines you as a Palestinian. Whether you’re an Israeli citizen who doesn’t want to be called a Palestinian, or the great-grandson of a refugee in Lebanon, or a Bedouin in the Negev, or whatever, to be a Palestinian is to be the Jew’s victim.
When they Israel started making these normalization agreements with the two Gulf monarchies, and people started talking about that spreading—and it probably will spread—you heard these dissident voices, especially in some of the Gulf Arab states, who tended to be pro-American voices and who criticized the Palestinians and the Palestinian cause.
And the essence of their criticism, if I can summarize it very unfairly—I also think it’s wrong, and I’ll tell you why—is, “We Arabs have carried the burden of the Palestinians’ pointless war against Israel for far too long.” A lot of Israelis embraced this, and a lot of Americans embraced it. Well, this is a new voice of moderation. And the people who were saying this took a lot of flack in their societies because they’re still a minority.
I think what they’re saying is backwards, because it’s not that the Arabs who have been paying the price of the pointless Palestinian war against Israel. It’s the Palestinians who have been paying the price of the pointless Arab war against Israel. It’s all very nice for people now in the Gulf to say, “Well, I want to make money and be friends with the Jews, and only the Palestinians are standing in my way.” It’s very unhistorical, and extremely unfair.
As a conflict over territory, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is very easy to solve compared to other territorial struggles. I can show you a demographic map of this country, of the Israeli West Bank and Gaza, with green dots wherever there are Arabs living and blue dots wherever there are Jews living. We can draw a rough line that would work. It would involve some creativity in a few places. It would certainly involve evacuating certain settlements in the West Bank. It would also involve some consideration of things that are not strictly demographic, for example, Arabs who live in certain border areas who want to stay in Israel, for example. Israel needs access to the Red Sea, so demographic considerations of the Negev have a bit less weight, things like that. But this is nothing unusual in how borders are drawn or peace agreements are made between warring nations.
What is unusual or special is that the animating, unifying cause of the Arab world in the last century has been the war against the Jewish presence here. Not just the war against a sovereign Jewish presence in the Levant, but a war against any Jewish presence in the Middle East, which looks a lot like the war against the Jewish presence in the parts of Europe that transitioned from being cosmopolitan hierarchical empires into more egalitarian, supposedly democratic nation-states. But the post-imperial Arab states managed essentially to wipe out a Jewish presence everywhere in the Middle East except in the one part of it where the Jews were able to form a local majority and defend themselves. And where the fate of the Jews from the Middle East was only slightly better than the fate of Jews in Europe because these Jews had what the European Jews did not have when they needed it: a place to go to.
Let me just underscore one of the questions that I derive from Haviv’s observation, which has to do with the fact that it’s not just any nation that established itself here in the heartland of the Arab world. It’s that particular nation, the Jewish nation, the lowest, like the refuse of Europe. Which leads me to ask about the role of shame and honor and dishonor as one of the psychological dimensions of what you’ve been tracing.
This rejection of Israel is behind this monster that we call UNRWA [the UN organization tasked with caring for Palestinian refugees and their descendants], but it’s not just UNRWA. The whole refugee ethos is essentially a rejection of the human physical instantiation of that shame and humiliation of 1948 because the actual material presentation of the shame and humiliation of that defeat is these hundreds of thousands of displaced people who are now in places that are controlled by either the Hashemites, or the newly formed Lebanese state, or the Egyptians, or whatever. Part of why they cannot be rehabilitated is because they are the symbol of a lost honor that must now be redeemed. This is partly how you get a monster called UNRWA.
The other way you get UNRWA and the other way you get the other mechanisms, these diplomatic mechanisms of essentially leaving the defeated side in these Arab Israeli wars in a suspended conservatorship rather than going into actual post-war diplomacy as you would in any other conflict, is because of a global diplomatic effort that also seems to believe that whoever’s defeated by Jews in war has to be protected from that outcome. That’s how you get UNRWA. That’s how you get “Land for Peace.” That’s how you get this fourteen-year or even sixteen-year experiment in diplomatic failure after Camp David, which I wrote about for Mosaic. You do not get anything like this in other wars, including wars with displacement, including wars of national liberation, including wars in post-colonial spaces, wars that look a lot like the Arab-Israeli wars.
Global diplomacy functions very differently when it comes into the war zone and tries to bring about some kind of diplomatic solution, or at least a truce or an armistice. It’s not motivated by this moral impulse to undo one side’s victory because that’s just considered so shameful. It’s usually motivated by the fundamental goal—as is any kind of mediation—which is to bring parties to a better solution nonviolently than either one could hope to achieve violently.
We have dozens of questions, and we’re going a little long in time, but I think the conversation is so fascinating. Hussein, let’s go to you, and then to audience questions.
First, Shany, I agree with you on the Arab Gulf. I cheer what they are doing, but the historical revisionism is definitely something that worries me. But I have a reservation about the term “revealed preferences,” because I think it presumes a hierarchy between separate goals.
I am much more pessimistic than you or Haviv, I think. I think the problem is that the relationship between these goals boils down to a problem of identity. It’s wrong to think that there are two preferences in a hierarchical relationship: one for the disappearance of Israel, and a subordinate one for Palestinian independence. For Palestinians, these are generally not seen as two distinct things. To be a Palestinian is the negation of being an Israeli.
You mentioned Mahmoud Darwish. After him, the second-greatest Palestinian literary figure, and their greatest novelist, is Ghassan Kanafani. His novels convey the idea that the identity of the Palestinian is the not-Israeli, the negation of the Israeli. He made it very clear. And I think this idea ultimately comes from the ideas of [the anticolonial theorist] Frantz Fanon. I mean, Fanon quite literally wrote this in The Wretched of the Earth, and Jean-Paul Sartre wrote it in the introduction: the colonized gets his identity by killing the colonizer, through the act of liberating murder. And you read it, and it has a lot of this terminology of it: the liberating murder, the self-creating arson, and so forth.
I wish there were two preferences because then, well, you can negotiate between the two preferences. You can try to convince someone that, “Ok, you can’t get rid of Israel. But you can at least have your own state.” But I’m afraid that since the second wave that you actually mentioned, not the first wave, I this has been impossible. The current conception is specifically a product of the 1960s, of the 1967 war and the rise of the New Left, which creates the Palestinian self-understanding as the negation of the Israeli. The problem is that it’s very hard to separate between these two goals—Palestinian victory and Israeli defeat—because they are conceived as the same thing.
It’s akin to trying to distinguish between the bullet and the act of pulling the trigger. The bullet that kills an Israeli is what gives birth to you as a Palestinian.
In Kanafani’s conception, when you’re holding the rifle, that act of pulling the trigger, the bullet that’s killing the Israeli, is giving birth to you as a Palestinian. I think that’s the problem. I wish it was preferences as a plural.
I’m sitting here in a Zoom with intellectuals, and I am not one. I’m a political journalist, which is maybe more fun sometimes. But I’m trying to imagine the ordinary Palestinian responding to a lot of what Shany said, a lot of what Hussein said. I know people. I talk to people. I come in to sit and go to lunch with people. Do they live in these kinds of conceptual frameworks that drive a lot of these historical processes?
Certainly you see it in Yasir Arafat’s speeches. Certainly you see it in the literature. You see it in the Palestinian ideologized elites in Hamas, in Fatah, in places like that, but when you speak to ordinary Palestinians, I think we have a diagnostic question here that I unfortunately don’t know how to articulate well enough, maybe because I don’t speak Arabic well enough and don’t understand Palestinian society well enough. But if I say to Palestinians flat out, and I have tried this multiple times, if I say to an educated Palestinian in Jerusalem flat out, “Do you actually think we’re leaving?,” the answer is always, “No.” Always.
And then I see a Wall Street Journal interview with Mohammed el-Kurd, the Palestinian activist from Sheikh Jarrah, who’s part of this whole campaign in America now. And they say to him, “You’re talking about decolonization.” This is the Wall Street Journal. “Do you think that Jews are leaving?” And he says, “Of course, the colonialist leaves.” And then they asked him, “Well, where do you think they’re going to go?” And the answer is, “That’s literally everybody’s problem except mine. I don’t have to solve his problem, the colonialist’s problem.”
I don’t speak to ordinary Palestinians. I speak to Palestinians who speak to Israeli journalists. They’re still part of the elite, but nevertheless, they’re not part of ideological campaigns that make their money running around American college campuses with progressive foundations. So, there is a discrepancy within the Palestinian understanding of us. The only ideological story Palestinian nationalism has been able to produce is that I will eventually leave. And no Palestinian I have ever met or spoken to, including people like Hassan Yousef of Hamas, the radical leftwing of Hamas—I don’t know what else to call it—will say to my face, without laughing about it, that I’m actually leaving.
What is that gap? What is that cognitive dissonance? It might have to do with this intellectual identity-building, but there’s something deep here inside the Palestinian soul that I don’t understand. Whatever it is, it keeps driving them into this brick wall. . . . This is, by the way, not at all a criticism of Shany’s essay. I just want to have another essay. Let’s have another deep dive into this gaping hole at the center of the Palestinian story about themselves.
Shany, do you want to offer a first-draft answer of that?
I don’t know if I’m an intellectual or not. I can give you more of a political and diplomatic analysis. But first let me say something about the novelist Ghassan Kanafani, whom Hussein mentioned earlier. One of the interesting things about him is that his novel Return to Haifa has, for its time, an astonishing openness about the Israelis and about who they are and their story, and Kanafani buries in the book a very unsettling critique of the Arab position. And then it’s made into a play, which is the version that most people encounter in English and the one that’s performed on college campuses, where all of that subtlety is gone. I mean, the theater version is 100-percent Nakba agitprop, whereas the novel absolutely isn’t. I think it exists in that pre-1998 space where people who were writing about 1948 had lived it, in all of its subtleties, and weren’t dealing with what I called Holocaust envy.
In terms of the political diagnosis for the problem that Haviv raises, like I said, I think the problem comes from the Arab-Israeli conflict, not from the encounter between Israelis and Palestinians. And if we can remove some of the sting of the Arab-Israeli conflict, which is a very difficult thing to do, but broadening the circle of normalization, turning the Palestinian problem into a national conflict with us, or into a conflict about the occupied territories, or about the occupation plus holy sites, plus whatever—these are things that two parties can negotiate about. And if they can’t negotiate, they can also fight about it. I wouldn’t advise that as the method for anybody who wants to get something out of Israel, but we can turn that into a normal conflict.
The abnormal part is the larger cosmic Arab-Israeli struggle. I think it’s not something we can solve tomorrow, but involves a generational effort, perhaps not to eliminate that struggle, but to shrink it—to reduce its sting and to turn the encounter between Arab and Jew in the Levant into something besides an existential struggle. It could then become a territorial/symbolic/religious conflict that has been fought in the course of a few wars. The wars have clarified, as wars do, the basic lines and capabilities and capacities of the two sides. I don’t think either side needs another war to see where the other one is, but if another war is necessary, I hope it’s just one, not two or three. From there, I think there’s a place where we can get to some kind of normal life.
There are now dozens and dozens of questions from our audience, but one of the themes that emerges as a thread throughout many of these questions has to do with the role of Islam in what Shany has been analyzing. Do you want to say anything about the role of religion?
Well, if we’re looking at these three wars—or four if we’re counting the current one—then the role of religion waxes and wanes. It’s very important in the events that bring us to 1947 in a way that I don’t think historians give enough attention to. It’s much less important in 1967. It kind of comes back in 2000, and I think it fades again in its importance. So, this rise and fall and rise and fall of Islam as a major motivating factor in the conflict is contingent on other regional trends.
For the Palestinians themselves, since the 1920s, there’s this realization that on if they’re on their own the struggle against the Zionists is going to be difficult. And if they can mobilize the power of Islam, and especially the power of al-Aqsa, then that helps to even the score a bit. What’s kind of funny is the attempt, in the last couple of years, to expand what we consider al-Aqsa to be, particularly in the English-speaking world. You will not find references in the New York Times or the Washington Post or the Guardian before 2015 to this thing called al-Aqsa compound. That term does not exist until 2015. It’s always referred to as the Temple Mount or the Haram al-Sharif, the noble sanctuary.
What keeps happening is this attempt, usually successful, to foment violence based on an invented assault on al-Aqsa becomes more and more embarrassing when people open a map and see that, for example, the tunnel that Israel opened in ’96—which was used as a pretext for riots and violence—doesn’t run under al-Aqsa. Or when people are supposedly “storming” al-Aqsa when in fact they’re nowhere near al-Aqsa, or when people demonstrate in Indonesia with a picture of the Dome of the Rock, which is not al-Aqsa, and you have suddenly, in 2015, this term which is just adopted like that, “al-Aqsa compound.”
By the way, in Haaretz, in the English edition, they now call it al-Aqsa compound. An Israeli newspaper that’s supposedly translating from Hebrew, now almost never uses the term Temple Mount.
When you increase the zone of offense, you can claim to be offended all the time. That’s been very important in terms of mobilizing public opinion in the Arab and Muslim world. But like I said, if we can somehow reduce the sting of those aspects from the conflict, we can move forward in a process that will take years. That’s the only hope that I can see.
Hussein, Haviv, do you want to say anything about this now?
First let me say about something more general about the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Arab-Israeli conflict, for the most part—and this touches on everything we talked about so far—is an intellectual construct. There is no real conflict, there never was, between Algeria and Israel, Morocco and Israel, the UAE and Israel, Saudi Arabia and Israel. The Arab-Israeli conflict is an intellectual construct.
Arabism or Arab nationalism itself is an intellectual construct that mostly failed, that never fulfilled itself politically. It did succeed intellectually. There is modern standard Arabic today that unites all educated Arabs or Arab intellectuals. The intellectual aspect of this, I think, is absolutely central. This actually helps us understand the role of Islam.
I think I’ve been working on this question for years, and probably volumes could be written about it. You hear lots of arguments: that the whole conflict is because of Islam specifically, or that Islam has nothing to do with any of it, or that Islam is just an ideological superstructure that legitimates the resistance of those poor people.
But let’s focus on something Shany said about the “rise and fall” of Islam, which is also in scholarly circles how we usually talk about the Islamic resurgence, etc. I think that can be a useful perspective, but only if we avoid attributing to Islam some sort of an unchanging essence that’s rising and falling. I think as Islam becomes relevant or irrelevant, it acquires new meanings.
For example, I think in the modern Middle Eastern Islam completely absorbed the revolutionary legacy of Arab nationalism, which has its origins in German thought. We have to look not at Islam in general, but—for instance, what Islam looked like as it was rising to take over the mantle of Palestine in the 1980s, for example.
I think today, Islam, or at least strains of Islam, is absorbing a progressive, anti-colonialist set of ideas. I’m glad that Shany pointed to this new wave at the end of his article, which involves progressive identity and anti-colonialism. I think you will see these ideas also being absorbed in mainstream Islamism. You already see it in the rhetoric of Hamas—which basically compared what’s happening to them to George Floyd—or even in the rhetoric of the Iranian regime. I think a lot of people will mock these things as if they are just some sort of very cynical instrumentalization. But I think that evaluation underestimates the fluidity of the international ideological atmosphere in which progressive ideas can seep into a deeply religious stream of thought.
Let me just pose our final question. The main terms of this discussion have been, as Shany has encouraged us to see them, about the Arab-Israeli conflict. Probably the single most threatening adversary that Israel faces right now, however, is not Arab at all. It’s the Islamic Republic of Iran. How does Iran fit into this discussion?
Let me sharpen the question. Israeli officials, after October 7, have begun to re-understand internally, in internal discussions in the National Security Council and various agencies like that, the nature of the threat. Because October 7 taught them that, in fact, Hamas was not deterred, that, in fact, our own conceptions of the other side’s psychology are no longer things we can rely on as a security doctrine. We no longer trust our ability to understand them, and therefore, whatever they have is something they’re going to use. And therefore, Hizballah suddenly looks very, very different than it did on October 6, and so do the Houthis and the Syrian militias and the Iraqi militias.
There is an Israeli conception of a noose tightening around Israel and of an Arab world that almost hungers for an Israeli long war against Iran that’s very successful, at least the Sunni conservative Arab world. Of course, that’s normalization. Normalization is conceived of by Israelis as essentially an anti-Iranian. Israel is now gearing up to for something very different than what it had expected on October 6. I think most Israelis security officials are thinking of Gaza as the first round of the larger Iran war.
One of the markers of sophistication among people who comment on the Middle East for some reason is never to believe what the Middle Easterners themselves say. Whatever Israelis say, you always have to look for the ulterior motives or analyze them in this extremely critical light.
There was an article that came out just before we started this conversation in the New York Times, following all the silly opinion pieces in more radical papers. Now, the New York Times has a serious article about scholars saying the Israelis are engaging in genocidal talk, and so forth. And the comments they’re citing from Israeli leaders sound like the comments of any nation at war—they sound identical to how Biden and Obama spoke about Islamic State or about how George W. Bush spoke about Saddam Hussein or whatever. Suddenly they’re genocidal. But the same people never take seriously what Israel’s enemies say. “Ah, that’s all for domestic consumption. That’s just bluster. If you actually listen to what people say, you’re somehow unsophisticated.”
I remember thinking after the second intifada broke out in 2000, and even after the upsurge of terrorism in 1996: “Did all of the people who were telling me how much smarter they were than me constantly—in every place that I was, at a university abroad and in Israel—understand Arafat better than the people who were just translating him into English or into Hebrew? Were they better equipped to understand his decision-making at Camp David and at Taba and in launching the second intifada? Or than the people who just gave us his Johannesburg speech or any of his addresses to the Palestinian parliament or any of the things that he was actually saying, particularly in what I still think were the very fateful days around the tunnel riots in 1996? Who understood him better?”
The same thing goes for Iran. The Iranians are paying an enormous price, sacrificing quite a bit to pursue their interests in Syria and Lebanon. If they’re unserious about what they say about Israel, that makes no sense. What they’re willing to put up with, to maintain their land bridge via Iraq and Syria to Beirut, doesn’t make sense in geostrategic terms if all of their talk about Israel is just bluster, is just for public consumption, is just to distract people, is all the things that we like to say. Some people have even tried to argue that translations of Persian- or Arabic-language speeches were just inaccurate. We used to have columns by Gary Sick and others in the New York Review of Books arguing that these were deliberate mistranslations from pro-Israel outfits trying to make the Iranians sound worse than what they were.
It’s one thing not to take rhetoric seriously, but I’m hard-pressed to explain what exactly lies behind Iranian behavior in the region unless what they say is what they mean, unless this deeply held and comprehensive ideological and theological worldview is what actually motivates them. Just like, as Haviv points out, we woke up on October 7th and found out that Hamas was serious about the things it said and about the things that we watched them practice for. That’s something that absolutely has to be taken seriously, not just by Israel and Israelis, but by other important regional and global actors, not least the United States.
That will have to do it for this conversation at Mosaic. “Ecstasy and Amnesia in the Gaza Strip” was published in November 2023. Shany, Haviv, Hussein, thank you.