Friedman: U.S. should stop aiding Israel’s failures in Gaza

If the current Israeli government remains in power it will find itself in a regional and more devastating war.

By Thomas L. Friedman / The New York Times

On Nov. 4, 2022, just after the current far-right Israeli government coalition won election, I wrote a column with this headline: “The Israel We Knew Is Gone.” It was meant to be a warning flare about just how radical this coalition is. Many people disagreed. I believe events have proved them wrong; and the situation is now even worse: The Israel we knew is gone, and today’s Israel is in existential danger.

Israel is up against a regional superpower, Iran, that has managed to put Israel into a vise grip, using its allies and proxies: Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis and Shiite militias in Iraq. Right now, Israel has no military or diplomatic answer. Worse, it faces the prospect of a war on three fronts — the Gaza Strip, Lebanon and the West Bank — but with a dangerous new twist: Hezbollah in Lebanon, unlike Hamas, is armed with precision missiles that could destroy vast swaths of Israel’s infrastructure, from its airports to its seaports to its university campuses to its military bases to its power plants.

But Israel is led by a prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who has to stay in power to avoid potentially being sent to prison on corruption charges. To do so, he sold his soul to form a government with far-right Jewish extremists who insist that Israel must fight in Gaza until it has killed every last Hamasnik — “total victory” — and who reject any partnership with the Palestinian Authority (which has accepted the Oslo peace accords) in governing a post-Hamas Gaza, because they want Israeli control over all the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, including Gaza.

And now, Netanyahu’s emergency war Cabinet has fallen apart over his lack of a plan for ending the war and safely withdrawing from Gaza, and the extremists in his government coalition are eyeing their next moves for power.

They have done so much damage already, and yet not President Joe Biden, the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, nor many in Congress have come to terms with just how radical this government is.

Indeed, House Speaker Mike Johnson and his fellow GOP mischief makers decided to reward Netanyahu with the high honor of speaking to a joint meeting of Congress on July 24. Pushed into a corner, the top Democrats in the Senate and the House signed on to the invitation, but the unstated goal of this Republican exercise is to divide Democrats and provoke shouted insults from their most progressive representatives that would alienate American Jewish voters and donors and turn them toward Donald Trump.

Netanyahu knows that this is all about domestic U.S. politics, which is why his acceptance of the speaking invitation is such an act of disloyalty to Biden — who flew all the way to Israel to hug him in the days after Oct. 7 — that it simply takes your breath away.

No friend of Israel should participate in this circus. Israel needs a pragmatic centrist government that can lead it out of this multifaceted crisis; and seize the offer of normalization with Saudi Arabia that Biden has been able to engineer. This can come about only by removing Netanyahu through a new election; as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer bravely called for in March. Israel does not need a U.S.-sponsored booze party for its drunken driver.

You wonder if the “friends” of Israel have any clue about the nature of its government. This government is not your grandfather’s Israel and this Bibi is not even the old Bibi.

Unlike any previous Israeli Cabinet, this government wrote the goal of annexing the West Bank into the coalition agreement, so it is no surprise that it spent its first year trying to crush the ability of the Israeli Supreme Court to put any check on its powers. Bibi also ceded control over the police and key authorities in the Defense Ministry to Jewish supremacists in his coalition to enable them to deepen settlers’ control over the West Bank. They immediately proceeded to add settlement housing units in the heart of that occupied territory by record numbers to try to block any Palestinian state there.

This nightmare coalition is now in the process of ensuring that ultra-Orthodox young men will not have to serve in this war in equal weight with secular young men and women, who are exhausted by eight months of fighting. The army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, told soldiers in Gaza over the weekend that there “is now a clear need” to draft the ultra-Orthodox to be soldiers to spare another deployment for “many thousands” of less religious reservists.

Israel’s relatively small combat officer corps has been so ground down, I cannot imagine how it could sustain a war in Lebanon.

Add it all up and you see a reckless act of economic, military and moral overstretch; committing 7 million Jews to control more than 7 million Palestinians (including 2 million Israeli Arabs) between the river and the sea in perpetuity.

That would be madness in a time of peace. In a time of war — a low-grade three-front war that could become a high-grade three-front war any day — it is insane. Israel is increasingly alone, because what ally would want to partner with that agenda?

And that is why I agree with every word that former Prime Minister Ehud Barak wrote in Haaretz on Thursday: Israel faces “the most serious and dangerous crisis in the country’s history. It began on Oct. 7 with the worst failure in Israel’s history. And it continued with a war that, despite the courage and sacrifice of soldiers and officers, appears to be the least successful war in its history, due to the strategic paralysis in the country’s leadership.”

Israel, added Barak, a former army chief of staff, is “risking a multifront war that would include Iran and its proxies. And all this is happening while in the background the judicial coup continues, with its goal of establishing a racist, ultranationalist, messianic and benighted religious dictatorship.”

Barak warned that if the current government is allowed to remain in power, Israel will not only find itself stuck in Gaza — with Hamas still able to fight and no Arab partner to help Israel out of there — it will also most likely find itself “in an all-out war with Hezbollah in the north, a third intifada in the West Bank, conflicts with the Houthis in Yemen and Iraqi militias in the Golan Heights and, of course, conflict with Iran itself.”

Every American should worry about that. It is a prescription for the United States to be dragged into a Middle East war to help Israel; which would be a Russian, Chinese, Iranian dream come true.

Indeed, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who has made eight trips to Israel since Oct. 7, should not make another without Israel and Hamas agreeing to a clear war-ending plan. He is debasing his and U.S. power. This is ultimatum time. Biden should be telling Israel that it should accept Hamas’ key demand: Totally end the war now and withdraw from Gaza in exchange for the return of all Israeli hostages. Israel cannot think straight while Hamas holds its people.

If Israel can end the war in Gaza, it can lead to a U.S.-mediated deal with Hezbollah to quiet the northern border war; which has been terrible for civilians on both sides. It could enable Israelis and Lebanese along their countries’ border to return home while enabling the Israeli army to recover and restock from a draining fight. It could halt the erosion in both Israel’s economy and its global moral standing and let the country do something it should have done on Oct. 8. That is: pause, rethink, strategize and not do exactly what Iran and Hamas wanted it to do — i.e., charge ahead just like America did after Sept. 11, 2001 — and sink into an endless war without any plan or partner for the morning after. And, as Barak argued, Israel must then hold new elections.

Yes, yes, I can hear the criticism from the war hawks right now: “Friedman, you would let Hamas’ leader, Yahya Sinwar, come out of his tunnel and declare victory?”

Yes, I would. In fact, I wish I could be at the news conference in Gaza when he does, so I could ask the first question:

“Mr. Sinwar, you claim this is a great victory for Hamas; a total Israeli withdrawal and a stable cease-fire. I just want to know: What existed on Oct. 6 between you and Israel, before your surprise attack? Oh, let me answer that: a total Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and a stable cease-fire. If you don’t mind, I’d like to stick around for a few days to watch you explain to Gazans how you started an eight-month war — causing the destruction of roughly 70% of Gaza’s housing stock and leaving, by your count, some 37,000 Gazans dead, many of them women and children — so you could get Gaza back to exactly where it was on Oct. 6, in a cease-fire with Israel and no Israeli troops here. Another Hamas victory like this and Gaza will be permanently unlivable.”

And to Israelis who would ask, “Friedman, are you crazy, you would let Sinwar run Gaza again?” my answer would again be: yes, for now. The alternatives — Israel running Gaza or Gaza becoming another Somalia — are far worse. Netanyahu’s idea that some perfect Palestinians — who are neither members of Hamas nor the Palestinian Authority — will run the place for Israel is a fantasy.

The only people who can defeat Hamas are the Palestinians of Gaza. They, too, need better leadership, and if they find it, we should help them rebuild. But until then, Israel would be crazy to want to stay in Gaza and be responsible for its reconstruction. That honor should go to Sinwar.

I believe that the morning after the morning after Sinwar emerges from his tunnel, many Palestinians in Gaza will want to pummel him for the disaster he has visited on them. And if not, Sinwar and Sinwar alone will be responsible when the water doesn’t flow, when the building materials don’t arrive, when the sun doesn’t shine; not Israel. And if he is so foolish as to restart the war with Israel or attempt to smuggle in weapons instead of food and housing for his people, it will all be on him.

Sadly, if all this war does is buy Israel another long timeout with Hamas, well, maybe that’s all that’s possible. After all, up to now, the real history of Jews and Palestinians, going back to the early 20th century, has been: war, timeout, war, timeout, war, timeout, war, timeout, war, timeout. And the real difference is what each side did in the timeouts.

Maybe one day that will change, but for now Israel needs to get the hell out of Gaza and back into a timeout.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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