There has been a lot of liberal rethinking and despair about what’s going on with the Israel-Palestine conflict. Yesterday, Jonathan Chait wrote, Israel Is Making It Hard To Be Pro-Israel. And then this morning, Ezra Klein wrote an article basically commiserating with Chait, Why I Have Become More Pessimistic About Israel. Klein does a better job of getting at the real problem, which is that Israel’s actions are bad for it in the long term.
In bars up and down the west coast in the 1980s and 1990s, and even to this day but to a much smaller extent, I came upon a certain kind of person who had fought in the Vietnam War. And they would lament the fact that we could have won that war but the government just wouldn’t let them. I think these guys felt they had to defend themselves and their generation. This came from the fact that a lot of people thought that the Vietnam War was the first war that the United States lost. Just on a factual basis this is absurd: we lost the War of 1812, and this is why we make such a big deal of the Battle of New Orleans—it was the only thing that went well for us in that war.
But the truth is that the point of war is never to “win.” By this logic, we could have “won” the Vietnam War by simply nuking the country back to the stone age. And that takes us to everyone’s favorite Prussian general, Carl von Clausewitz and his often quoted aphorism, “War is the continuation of politics by other means.” In other words, the war is not the point; the war is just a tool. Now I would argue that ultimately wars serve only themselves, and this is why after just about every war, people wonder why we fought it. But there is no doubt that rulers generally start wars because they want to accomplish something other than killing a lot of people.
In Klein’s article, he quoted a Stratfor Global Intelligence report that looked at Israel’s long term interests. It indicated that Israel is acting as though it will always be the great military power in the region. But given that it is currently completely dominant, the chances are that in fifty years Israel’s situation will be worse than it now is.
What we know is that when these conflicts arise, both sides gain more political power. It’s like after 9/11—it greatly increased support for President Bush. The whole thing makes me even more cynical, because if anyone should be thinking about the long term, it should be Israel. But instead, Benjamin Netanyahu and most of the Israeli government seem to care more about their short term political interests. Clearly, Netanyahu’s power is increased when Hamas starts shelling. So that’s what conservative politicians in Israel get. But Israel, if anything, gets weaker.
It all reminds me of The Battle of Algiers where effectively the French “win” the battle, but lose the war. I don’t think the Israeli government is working in the interest of Israel just as I don’t think Hamas is working in the interest of Palestine. It is almost an unspoken conspiracy for leaders of both sides to increase their internal power, while actual people die and the long term prospects of both sides look dimmer by the day.