What can you say in such a moment of extreme grief, outrage and worry?
After October 7, there should be no question that Jewish Americans and our government need to support Israel’s goal of removing from control of Gaza the despicable, inhumane terrorist organization Hamas — which even now is boasting of its aim of a “permanent state of war” against the Jewish state. It is understandably hard today to talk about the kinds of things that must come after the fighting. Nonetheless, we must concern ourselves even now with the important broad choices still ahead.
Admittedly, some of this will be uncomfortable.
Looking for clues to the way forward, I am thinking back to my 10 days touring Israel and the occupied West Bank more than three decades ago. Along with sightseeing, our tour of primarily young people, sponsored by the New Jewish Agenda, was attending meetings at the dizzying rate of three or four a day with all manner of people, seeking answers about what might bring peace to Israelis and Palestinians.
Two of these encounters — one in the West Bank and one in Tel Aviv — stand out as most relevant to me. Please consider them for a few moments even if the connection isn’t immediately apparent to you.
Our tour brought us to hear from Jewish settlers in Kiryat Arba, where several speakers, including one who hailed from Brooklyn, lectured us about their “God-given” right to occupy the “whole land of Israel.” While I might’ve dismissed them as extreme then, little did I know how loudly their statements would reverberate today.
In Tel Aviv we heard from a Col. Raanan Gissin, an information officer for the Israeli Defense Forces. He spoke about the Israeli security concerns that from the IDF’s viewpoint were preventing any peace with Palestinians. I did not anticipate that the well-connected officer would be a meaningful figure in later developments.
So much has changed in the ensuing period for Israelis and Palestinians, but the dreadfully toxic profile of some things we’re seeing now — both in the West Bank and in Gaza — was undoubtedly taking shape even at the time of my visit.
The Israeli settler movement, which could count perhaps 23,000 people in the West Bank in the early 1980s, now numbers over half a million. Evictions of whole Palestinian villages with demolitions of homes and schools are occurring, some even now, as the violence in Gaza continues. With the backing of several Israeli governments, but especially the current far-right administration under Benjamin Netanyahu, which has made annexation of the West Bank a significant goal, settler violence against Palestinians — like the Huwara “settler pogrom” that torched as many 200 homes, businesses, and cars earlier this year — has grown to enormous proportions. The residents of the Kiryat Arba settlement, who now have a public park in honor of the convicted terrorist Meir Kahane, are part of this story.
Left unchecked by Netanyahu, the settler movement has severely undermined the prospect of Palestinian statehood. It has become increasingly clear that only a long-term political solution, with the real, tangible promise of it now, holds the potential to ease tension and violence. As settlements flourish, so too will settler extremists who view their Palestinian neighbors in the West Bank with contempt.
It is also critical to note that due to the increase in tensions with West Bank Palestinians provoked by the current government’s settlement and annexation policies, important IDF units that normally were assigned to the kibbutzim in the Gaza area were busy reinforcing the protection of West Bank settlers on October 7. Looked at in the cold light of day, the West Bank settlement expansion has been and remains a security liability for Israeli citizens.
Col. Raanan Gissin’s name recently jumped out at me in a book about the history of the terrorist Hamas movement. In the 1980s, he told the authors, the Israeli political-military establishment gave support to Hamas and allowed it to build its strength in areas under Israeli control as a counterweight to the secular Fatah, when the latter was regarded as the source of the major terrorist threat. Hamas “could serve a useful purpose in weakening the strength of Fatah on the street,” he explained.
By the time Benjamin Netanyahu began his second and longest term as prime minister in 2009, 15 years after the recognition by the Fatah-led PLO of the state of Israel at Oslo, the problem of terrorism originating from Fatah had receded. On the other hand, the Islamist Hamas’s antisemitic covenant, which spelled out implacable opposition to any peace with the “Zionist enemy,” was matched by its suicide bombings of Israeli civilians and other shocking deeds. Netanyahu’s principal concern, however, was preventing an internationally sponsored peace agreement that could lead to a Palestinian state alongside Israel. In keeping with that, he adopted a policy of broadly tolerating and sometimes enhancing Hamas as a strategic asset in his fight to put a halt to any negotiations.
The Jerusalem Post and other Israeli press have reported on a private meeting between the prime minister and members of his Likud party on March 11, 2019, in which he defended his approvals of the often unmonitored large money transfers from Qatar to Gaza and Hamas over a six-year period. “Netanyahu explained … the money transfer is part of the strategy to divide the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. Anyone who opposes the establishment of a Palestinian state needs to support the transfer of the money from Qatar to Hamas.” The corollary to this strategy has been to handicap the governance of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, despite the PA’s nonviolent stance.
Bibi’s tolerance for the Hamas movement and his excessive efforts to meddle with Palestinian governance have dealt a severe blow to all Palestinians and also to Israelis, who will suffer the repercussions of a destabilized region perpetually on the brink.
For a long time, Netanyahu won over the public by painting himself as the security prime minister. However, his actions to bolster the settlement project in the West Bank and aid Hamas’ growth have revealed that this designation is undeserved. Today, Israelis are suffering the deeply traumatic aftermath of Hamas’s deadly attack and the very real consequences of a leader who put long-term peace on the back burner.
So what now?
To use a metaphor that is certainly inadequate to the situation, Benjamin Netanyahu has spent a very long time driving the state of Israel and its people into a blind alley. President Biden has tried to thread the difficult needle of steadfastly supporting the Israeli people and their security while providing a proper check on a power-addicted prime minister who has neglected his people. This now requires unprecedented amounts of American tax money, intelligence cooperation, committed personal diplomacy, and as of this writing, the deployment of three U.S. naval groups with thousands of our service people — including members of the New Jersey Air National Guard — in the hopes of preventing the post-October 7 moment from becoming a much larger war.
The Israeli people are expressing unprecedented disappointment in their leader. A poll conducted after Hamas’s heinous October 7 terror attack reveals that only 27% of Israelis believe Netanyahu is the right person to run the government. As an American Jew, a strong supporter of Israel, and a passionate believer in Israel-Palestinian peace, I can only hope that, come the next election, the Israeli people will take away the keys to the car from this prime minister and his far-right allies.
Whenever the dust clears, Israelis and Palestinians will need the two separate states promised by Oslo, and the mad path of settlement expansion and annexation must be reversed to make such a negotiated solution possible. I dearly hope our country will carry on in backing the people of Israel, but continuing to provide the intense support to the vehicle that is the Israeli government should mean that we know it’s going to go on a path to peace and not disaster.
Mark Lurinsky of Montclair is recently retired from a career in public accounting. He is an activist in local politics.