Politics of Absolutism from Gaza and Jerusalem to Harvard and Tik Tok10-22-2023
Of all the essays that try to make some sense of the unfolding horror in the Middle East, the best is Yuval Harari’s. He writes:
War is the continuation of politics by other means. Many people recite this mantra, but too few pay it enough attention — especially in the midst of war. With the massacre Hamas perpetrated in Israel and the mounting civilian casualties in Gaza, the deep logic of war is hidden by the immense human misery it produces. As the bodies keep piling up, who will win this war? Not the side that kills more people, not the side that destroys more houses and not even the side that gains more international support — but the side that achieves its political aims.
Hamas launched this war with a specific political aim: to prevent peace. After signing peace treaties with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, Israel was on the verge of signing a historic peace treaty with Saudi Arabia. That agreement would have been Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s biggest achievement in his entire career. It would have normalized relations between Israel and much of the Arab world. At the insistence of the Saudis and Americans, the treaty’s conditions were expected to include significant concessions to the Palestinians, aimed to immediately alleviate the suffering of millions of them in the occupied territories, and restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Hamas knew its attack would make Israelis livid, distraught with pain and anger, and the terrorists counted on Israel to retaliate with massive force, inflicting enormous pain on Palestinians. The codename Hamas gave its operation is telling: al-Aqsa Tufan. The word “tufan” means flood. Like the biblical flood intended to cleanse the world of sin even at the cost of nearly wiping out humanity, Hamas’s attack aimed to create devastation on a biblical scale.
Doesn’t Hamas care about the suffering this war inflicts on Palestinian civilians? While individual Hamas activists surely have different feelings and attitudes, the organization’s worldview discounts the misery of individuals. Hamas’s political aims are dictated by religious fantasies.
Unlike those of secular movements such as the Palestine Liberation Organization, Hamas’s ultimate goals are not of this world. For Hamas, Palestinians killed by Israel are martyrs who enjoy everlasting bliss in heaven. The more killed, the more martyrs.
As for this world, according to the views of Hamas and other fundamentalist Muslim groups, the only viable aim for a human society on Earth is unconditional adherence to heavenly standards of purity and justice. Because peace always involves compromises on what people consider justice, peace must be rejected, and absolute justice must be pursued at any cost.
This, by the way, explains a curious recent phenomenon among the radical left in many Western democracies, including some student organizations at Harvard University. They absolve Hamas of any responsibility for the atrocities committed in Be’eri, Kfar Azza and other Israeli villages, or for the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Instead, these organizations place 100 percent of the blame on Israel.
The link between the radical left and fundamentalist organizations such as Hamas is the belief in absolute justice, which leads to a refusal to acknowledge the complexity of realities in this world. Justice is a noble cause, but the demand for absolute justice leads inevitably to endless war. In the history of the world, no peace treaty has ever been reached that didn’t require compromise or that provided absolute justice.
If Hamas’s war aims are indeed to derail the Israeli-Saudi peace treaty and to destroy all chance for normalization and peace, it is winning this war by a knockout. And Israel is helping Hamas, largely because Netanyahu’s government seems to be conducting this war without clear political goals of its own.
Israel says it wants to disarm Hamas, and it has every right to do so in protecting its citizens. Disarming Hamas is vital also for any chance of future peace, because as long as Hamas remains armed, it will continue to derail any such efforts. But even if Israel succeeds in disarming Hamas, that’s just a military achievement, not a political plan. In the short term, does Israel have any plan to rescue the Israeli-Saudi peace deal? In the long term, does Israel have any plan to reach a comprehensive peace with the Palestinians and normalize its relations with the Arab world?
Having been deeply involved in Israeli politics for the past year, I fear that at least some members of the current Netanyahu government are themselves fixated on biblical visions and absolute justice, and have little interest in peaceful compromise.