Events this week in both the U.S. and Israel highlighted two of the most intractable problems that have plagued the Israeli-Palestinian and American Jewish scenes over the past decade. Speakers at the AIPAC Policy Conference talked about Jewish unity while Israeli politicians sounded increasingly hawkish as rockets from Gaza targeted Israeli civilians and destroyed a home near Kfar Saba. It was an in-your-face reminder that American Jewish frustrations with Israel and Israeli frustrations with Hamas are ever present. But it should also be a reminder that these problems are stubbornly persistent because there are no easy answers to them, and that the lies we tell ourselves about how they can be resolved are an attempt to make ourselves feel better rather than figure a way out of the morass.
Given the recent angst among American Jewry about its role in Israel and to what extent the Israeli government respects or values American Jewish views and priorities, Benny Gantz’s AIPAC debut was guaranteed to address these anxieties. Gantz did not disappoint, talking about the strength of the Jewish people emanating from Jewish unity, the importance of American Jewish support for Israel, and the respect that Israel has for American Jews. The most memorable line of his speech was when he said that he has been to the Western Wall and that is long enough to accommodate everyone, in a reference to the deal for a mixed gender prayer space to be controlled by the Conservative and Reform movements that was nixed by Prime Minister Netanyahu. The first section of Kachol Lavan’s platform, which deals with security and diplomacy, refers to the relationship with American Jewry as a component of Israel’s security and pledges to heal the rift between Israel and American Jews. I have no doubt that Gantz is sincere in these beliefs, and it is easy to imagine a Gantz premiership being the key to solving this nagging problem of American Jewish distancing from Israel.
But the truth is that while Netanyahu has exacerbated the divide, it is not just about him. It is tempting to place all of the blame at his feet, and liberal American Jews will remain furious at his evident disregard for them and the way in which he made the Iran deal debate even more divisive and uncomfortable for American Jews than it already was. Yet the issues between American Jews and Israel are structural ones that go way beyond one man and his politics. Even if Gantz is able to form the next Israeli government and he does his utmost best to assuage American Jewish concerns, there will still be a disconnect between what Israelis and American Jews feel the proper role is in Israel for non-Israeli citizens. There will still be fundamental misunderstandings in Israel about how American Jews conceive of their Judaism and transform their theology into practice. Most saliently, there will still be enormous discontent among American Jews over Israel’s presence in the West Bank and the conviction that Israel is not serious about a two-state solution, and enormous frustration among Israel Jews that their American counterparts do not appreciate their security dilemmas and are too blithely and naively willing to gamble with their safety. Netanyahu is part of the problem, but he has also been conveniently used as a set of blinders that make the Israel-American Jewish rift appear a lot narrower than it really is.
Hamas’s wanton disregard for life and eagerness to terrorize civilians also lends the appearance of providing an easy answer; namely, that if Hamas continues to shoot rockets at Israeli towns, send incendiary balloons to burn Israeli farms, and organize violent riots with the intention of breaching the border fence, then Hamas should be removed by force. Nearly every Israeli politician running to replace Netanyahu and nearly every potential Netanyahu coalition member competing with Likud for right-wing vote share has criticized Netanyahu’s approach to Gaza from the right, painting him as too cautious and pledging to restore deterrence. For all the tough talk though, you may notice that not one of Netanyahu’s critics – not Gantz, not Avi Gabbay, not Naftali Bennett, and not even Avigdor Liberman – has come out in favor of actually going into Gaza and removing Hamas.
It is true that Netanyahu is famously cautious and risk-averse when it comes to sending Israeli ground troops into battle. It is also true that Israel has fought three conflicts with Hamas in Gaza since 2008, and none of the prime ministers, defense ministers, chiefs of staff, or heads of Southern Command in charge during any of those three conflicts have advocated Israel removing Hamas from Gaza. It is because “destroy Hamas!” is an easy slogan, but not one that can be practically carried out absent enormous costs; not only the costs of actually fighting to remove Hamas, but the costs of then occupying and administering Gaza in the midst of a political and security vacuum and a humanitarian nightmare. The problem of Hamas is immune to easy answers, and yet we like to tell ourselves that the solution is as simple as “overwhelming force” or “restoring deterrence” or “making Hamas pay.”
Netanyahu has spent a decade trying to avoid tough decisions on Gaza, hoping that applying spurts of pressure combined with spurts of limited openings will be enough to keep Gaza quiet. It is the reason that Gaza is his political Achilles’ Heel, since it is always at risk of exploding and everyone knows that Netanyahu has done nothing over a decade in power to fundamentally alter the situation and remove the threat of Hamas. As with the situation between Israel and American Jews, he has his fair share of the blame. But it is critical to recognize that for all of the bluster, there is no plausible Israeli prime minister who would go into Gaza with full force and end Hamas rule once and for all. It is too risky, too prone to disaster, and carries with it the entirely different problem – as the U.S. knows all too well from its experience in Iraq – of what to do on the day after. And unlike the U.S. in Iraq, Israel cannot decide one day to just pick up and go home thousands of miles away. Potential solutions to Gaza do exist, but they aren’t easy and they don’t involve fantasies of wiping Hamas out militarily in one fell stroke and having everything else fall into place.
Amidst the largest annual show of support for the U.S.-Israel relationship and an Israeli election campaign, it is easy to think that we have all of the answers and that solving problems is easy. The reality though is a lot more complex than a pep rally speech or a campaign slogan.