Friday 26 January 2024

The Realist Case For Palestine

The increasingly great Thomas Fazi writes:

Since October 7, foreign policy realists who were united in opposing escalation in Ukraine have split into two opposing camps. One side has taken a generally forgiving view of Israel’s response to Hamas’s terror assault. The other has been more critical, siding more or less openly with the Palestinian cause. I belong squarely in the latter group.

Several of my fellow realists have reacted to our support for Palestine with dismay, arguing that this represents a betrayal of realism. The international relations scholar Philip Cunliffe, for example, last year took aim against what he described as “a distinctive strain of Leftist foreign-policy realism” — an apt description of my worldview — averring that “commentators, analysts, and streamers who managed to preserve their equanimity in the face of the war in Ukraine and indulge in open dissent are abdicating their intellectual independence along with their critical faculties in the face of the war in Gaza”.

I would like to explain why I disagree, and why I consider support for Palestine to be fully in keeping with a realist understanding of international relations.

Let’s start with the basics. Realism invites us to look for root causes — not for the sake of “truth”, or for picking sides, but because it is a fundamental precondition for resolving existing conflicts and avoiding future ones. It is, at heart, a rational attempt to seek solutions to conflict (even though most realists are pessimists about the possibility of actually achieving that). In this sense, I would argue that realism is a far cry from the cynical theory that it is often purported to be; on the contrary, there is a deeply moral element to realism — one that is ultimately born of a profound awareness of the horror of war.

However, realism is also premised on the idea that no war was ever ended by appealing to the warring factions’ good feelings; they are either ended by the triumph of one of the two sides, or via a political settlement. In order to achieve the latter, addressing the root cause of conflicts is fundamental.

It is no coincidence that realists have a healthy track record in predicting wars. A decade ago, for example, John Mearsheimer, perhaps the world’s most prominent realist scholar, foresaw that if the West insisted on bringing Ukraine into the Western sphere of influence, and especially into Nato, even if just de facto, the final outcome would be war.

From a realist standpoint, it is apparent that Ukraine provoked Russia’s invasion by entangling itself with a military alliance that Moscow views as a threat to its vital security — hence the realist insistence on taking Russia’s security needs into consideration. By the same token, it should be equally apparent that Israel’s occupation regime, not least the 16-year blockade of Gaza, is at the root of the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict — and is ultimately what provoked Hamas’s October 7 attack.

Saying this shouldn’t be controversial. Many prominent Israeli Left-wing voices acknowledge as much. On October 8, Haaretz’s lead editorial laid the blame for the attack squarely on Benjamin Netanyahu for “embracing a foreign policy that openly ignored the existence and rights of Palestinians”. As the Israeli historian Omer Bartov wrote: “The attack by Hamas, horrifying and barbarous as it was, must be seen as a response to Israel’s policies of occupation and siege, and to the utter refusal for the last couple of decades by Netanyahu’s governments to find a political solution to the conflict.” It is no surprise, then, that a realist such as Mearsheimer has been a long-time critic of Israel — and, ever since the October 7 attack, has insisted on the need to place the latter within the wider context of Israel’s actions.

To be clear: this is not a moral argument — that the occupation is wrong and that Palestinians have a right to resist, though one could make that case. It is a political-strategic argument. Simply put, under certain circumstances, states — or quasi-state actors, such as Hamas — will act violently to defend or assert their fundamental interests: survival, security, and sovereignty.

Thus, saying that Palestinians should avoid violently resisting the occupation — which is equivalent to saying they should simply submit to Israeli domination — is as naive, from a political standpoint, as saying that the Russians should have simply acquiesced to Nato’s provocations along its western frontier. So long as the occupation persists, Palestinians will keep resisting; no amount of violence on Israel’s behalf, short of the expulsion or annihilation of the Palestinian population, will change that reality — indeed, it will only exacerbate it.

In this sense, one might argue that Israel’s decades-long occupation of the West Bank and siege of Gaza aren’t just morally questionable — they are also, from a realist perspective, strategically self-defeating. Israel’s policy has definitely succeeded in massively boosting its relative power, but at the expense of its security — as the October 7 attack made clear.

Following the realist school, it would, therefore, be in Israel’s interest to pursue a diplomatic solution. The problem is that there are ideological and religious — and, therefore, somewhat irrational — dimensions to Israel’s policy, which have become increasingly radicalised in recent years, that realist theory cannot fully account for. Nonetheless, the fact remains that the Jewish state’s security would not necessarily be threatened by the creation of a Palestinian state. You could argue that it would actually be improved by it.

In response, one might say that Hamas is an Islamist organisation committed to the destruction of Israel and the struggle against all Jews, as stated in its 1988 founding charter — and that, therefore, it is not an actor that can be negotiated with, and even less one that Israel could ever allow to create a state along its borders. However, this would be to ignore two facts: not only does Hamas not represent an existential threat to Israel from a military standpoint, but more importantly Hamas’s ideological and political stance has evolved significantly since the publication of its original charter. In 2011, it even semi-officially committed to a two-state solution.

Over the years, Hamas has proposed numerous long-term truces or ceasefires to Israel in exchange for the realisation of an independent Palestinian state. These were all rejected by Israel, arguing that Hamas could not be trusted to adhere to any long-term ceasefire, and that these were only ploys to buy time in preparation for future attacks. In this sense, as argued in Foreign Policy by Tareq Baconi, president of the transnational Palestinian think tank, Al-Shabaka, Hamas’s increased use of violence over the years should be understood as a means rather than an end — as a way to force Israel to sit at the negotiating table.

Ultimately, despite the October 7 attack, and the aggressive rhetoric employed by some of its representatives since, there are still reasons to believe that Hamas would accept a conclusion to the conflict. Just last week, Hamas made a proposal to end the war and release the remaining hostages held by the group in exchange for the withdrawal of Israeli forces, the release of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails and the recognition of Hamas’s governance over Gaza. Netanyahu, once again, rejected the offer.

The question, thus, is whether Israel would ever agree to a reasonable deal that ends the conflict via the establishment of a Palestinian state. Netanyahu recently boasted at a press conference that he has spent decades thwarting the formation of a Palestinian state, and that he is “proud” of doing so. But even if that were not the case, it shouldn’t be controversial from a realist perspective to say that the lion’s share of the responsibility for the conflict lies with Israel — if only because of the power asymmetry between the two sides. Because it is Israel, as the occupying power, which has the power to end the conflict; the same cannot be expected of the Palestinians — because no one would passively accept to live under permanent siege and military occupation.

This is what makes Israel’s military response to October 7 so frustrating: ethical and moral considerations notwithstanding, it is futile from a military-strategic perspective. According to US intelligence, Israeli forces have killed 20% to 30% of Hamas’s fighters — a number that falls very short of Israel’s stated goal of destroying the group and shows the latter’s resilience after three months of war that have laid waste to large parts of Gaza. Indeed, all previous Israeli attacks on Gaza had the effect of bolstering Hamas, and there is no reason to believe the current assault will be any different. As the political scientist Robert Pape noted in Foreign Affairs: “Even judged purely in strategic terms, Israel’s approach is doomed to failure — and indeed, it is already failing. Mass civilian punishment has not convinced Gaza’s residents to stop supporting Hamas. To the contrary, it has only heightened resentment among Palestinians.”

Proposals by Netanyahu’s two far-Right coalition partners, and even by Netanyahu himself, to expel a significant portion of the Gazan population, moral considerations notwithstanding, appear equally self-defeating from a strategic perspective: not only are they likely bound to fail, because no country is willing to take in hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees, but even if they were to succeed, they would only exacerbate anti-Israeli sentiments in the region, at a high cost for Israel — as testified by the Houthi’s ongoing blockade of Israeli-bound ships in the Red Sea.

Of course, it would be a mistake to consider Israel’s policy in Gaza totally irrational. Most obviously, Netanyahu himself has a lot to benefit from the continuation of the hostilities: prior to October 7, he was facing massive opposition from Israeli civil society; today, he’s presiding over a war that enjoys equally massive support among citizens. So long as it rages, his political survival is likely to continue. But Bibi’s private interests are not the same as Israel’s national interests. Military-strategic considerations aside, Israel’s standing in the world will also suffer incalculable damage from the violence wrought on Gaza. As will that of its allies and enablers — first and foremost, the United States. This brings us to another crucial tenet of the realist doctrine: that other countries should base their response to Israel’s actions on their own national interest, not Israel’s. This a logic that the US regularly, even ruthlessly, employs in the conduct of its foreign policy — except when it comes to Israel.

Almost two decades ago, Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt blamed this anomaly on the power of a pro-Israel lobby, which had “managed to divert US foreign policy as far from what the American national interest would otherwise suggest, while simultaneously convincing Americans that US and Israeli interests are essentially identical”. This had caused lasting damage to the US national interest, they argued, fuelling anti-American terrorism and poisoning relations between the US and the Arab and Islamic worlds. Today, this appears truer than ever.

In November, for instance, The Washington Post reported, based on the statements of Arab leaders and analysts, that US support for Israel’s actions “risks lasting damage to Washington’s standing in the region and beyond”. As one senior G7 diplomat told the Financial Times: “We have definitely lost the battle in the Global South… Forget about rules, forget about world order. They won’t ever listen to us again.” And this isn’t even considering the risk of the United States of being dragged into a wider regional conflict — one that, in light of recent events in the Red Sea and Iraq, might already be said to be unfolding. Overall, from a hard-nosed realist perspective, it’s hard to see a case for US and Western support for Israel.

That said, there’s also a moral and ethical dimension to the conflict that is impossible to ignore, even for a hard-nosed realist. Critics claim that it is hypocritical for realists to play the moral card over Gaza when they refused to do the same for the Russia-Ukraine war. However, the two conflicts are manifestly different. Strategic considerations aside, the latter is essentially an old-fashioned conventional war between two more or less equivalent armies; accordingly, the overwhelming majority of casualties are soldiers, not civilians. In Gaza it’s the opposite.

Over the past three months, Israel has waged one of the heaviest bombing campaigns in history on Gaza, razing to the ground entire neighbourhoods; turning hundreds of thousands of buildings to rubble; killing thousands of women and children; destroying the enclave’s healthcare system; displacing almost 90% of the population; and then herding those displaced civilians into ever-smaller areas.

In the face of all this, I think even the most calculating realist can be forgiven for abandoning their usual poise and equanimity. Some tragedies urge us to put aside all strategic considerations and appeal to basic human morality. The attack on Gaza is one of these.

In this regard, it is telling that the first written intervention that the arch-realist Mearsheimer felt compelled to write on Gaza was not an analysis of the conflict from the political-strategic standpoint, but a simple denunciation of the “moral calamity” unfolding in Gaza. “I do not believe that anything I say about what is happening in Gaza will affect Israeli or American policy in that conflict,” he wrote. “But I want to be on record so that when historians look back on this moral calamity, they will see that some Americans were on the right side of history.” Sometimes, as realists, that’s as much as we can hope for.


  1. Shades of the old American Conservative magazine.