Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures as he shows a slideshow during a briefing to ambassadors to Israel at the Hakirya military base in Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday, May 19, 2021. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner, Pool)

For many decades, Israel has calculated that neighboring Arab counties would think twice before attacking, knowing that a punishing Israeli military reaction would follow. The practice has sometimes worked against nation states. But it has rarely been effective against the non-state actors arising as significant players in the Middle East—among them, as is now obvious, Hamas in Gaza.

Israel persists nonetheless. “You can either conquer them,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told foreign ambassadors Wednesday, “and that’s always an open possibility, or you can deter them. We are engaged right now in forceful deterrence.”

An early demonstration of the strategy came in 1953 after a band of Arab terrorists stole into Israel from Jordan to attack Israelis. The retribution was conducted by a young Israeli colonel, Ariel Sharon, whose Unit 101, known for ruthlessness, crossed into Jordan and ravaged the border town of Qibya, blowing up 45 houses and killing 69 Arab villagers.

Later, during the War of Attrition in 1969, Israel responded massively to repeated Egyptian attacks on Israeli positions in Sinai by bombarding Egyptian villages along the Suez Canal. Some 55,000 homes were destroyed, 750,000 civilians were forced to flee, and numerous Egyptians were killed and wounded.

Along certain frontiers, Israel’s strategy of defense by retaliation—even against civilians—brought peace without peace treaties. Decades before its 1994 treaty with Israel, Jordan worked hard to deny Palestinian terrorists the use of its territory. Jordanian troops patrolled their side of the border as assiduously as Israeli monitored its own.

Syria, despite its refusal to make a formal peace, has kept its border with Israel on the Golan Heights mostly quiet and has been slapped hard for infractions. Egypt’s frontier with the occupying Israeli military in Sinai calmed down in the years between the Yom Kippur War of 1973 and the two countries’ historic peace treaty in 1979.

But failed states can’t be leveraged into compliance. Lebanon’s long civil war weakened the reach of the central government, opening a vacuum in its southern territory that was later filled by the Palestine Liberation Organization. The PLO, within artillery range of Israel, had no stake in Lebanon’s stability or security, so no threat of retaliation deterred occasional shelling and terrorist attacks on Israel’s north. The solution—the temporary solution—was an Israeli invasion in 1982, which expelled the PLO, only to see an equally hostile replacement eventually take its place: Iranian-backed Hezbollah, which recently fired several rockets into northern Israel. Israel responded with shelling.

If it seems that the kaleidoscope is just being given another shake, and then another, that’s a fair analysis. Take Gaza, that strip of arid land teeming with impoverished Palestinians. In 2005, after thirty-eight years of military occupation that began with Israel’s victory in the 1967 war, it was Sharon, ironically, who as prime minister decided to withdraw unilaterally with no formal agreement or international guarantees. Because Sharon thought like a soldier, not an ideologue, he assessed the Gaza occupation, in conventional military terms, as more of a burden than an asset. Furthermore, an associate of his once told me that Sharon had begun considering that his historic legacy should include some gesture of peace. History has not been kind to him, however, as it rarely is to anyone in that part of the world.

Under Sharon as Defense Minister, Israel itself contributed to the rise of Hamas. As I recalled in a recent letter to the editor of The New York Times, Israel’s military governor of Gaza, Brig. Gen. Yitzhak Segev, told me in 1981 that he had been given a budget to help fund the Muslim Brotherhood, a precursor of Hamas, as a counterweight to Communist and Palestinian nationalist movements. Odds are that Hamas would have evolved without Israel’s financial contributions. But the funding was consistent with Israel’s strategic blunders in trying to manipulate internal Arab politics in Gaza, Lebanon, and the West Bank.

The list of self-inflicted wounds by both Israeli and Palestinian leaders runs too long for less than a book-length piece of writing. To summarize: Each side has radicalized the other. Each side has a marksman’s eye for striking the other’s nerves of fear and indignation. Each side has eroded its own middle ground of reasoned compromise. Each side has empowered the most extreme, violent elements of the other.

Palestinians, deprived of ethical, visionary leadership, have missed opportunities for peacemaking with Israel. They have protested with uprisings and terrorism rather than non-violent passive resistance, by which they probably could have impeded Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank in the 1970s and 80s, when Israel still nurtured moral objections to the occupation. They launch rockets from Gaza indiscriminately to feed the political fortunes of Hamas rulers. And Netanyahu replies with an onslaught to cling to his prime ministerial sanctuary as he is put on trial for corruption. A word more deadly than “cynical” is needed.

Aside from “forceful deterrence,” Israel’s other strategy has focused on converting areas from Arab to Jewish by settling Jews in place of Palestinians. It is happening in East Jerusalem, whose Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood was the point of friction that lit the latest conflagration. There, near the supposed tomb of Simon the Just, a Jewish priest in the Second Temple, right-wing Jews have for years been hectoring Palestinians to move out, sometimes combining intimidation with lucrative offers to buy their property. Israel’s Supreme Court is due to rule on a set of evictions based on a claim that Jews actually purchased the land in the nineteenth century.

But the symbolism is as potent as the law, and for Palestinians, the evictions resonate with the longstanding injuries of displacement—during Israel’s 1948 war of independence, during the 1967 war when Israel captured the West Bank and East Jerusalem from the attacking Jordanian army, and since then as Jewish communities have mushroomed among the Arab villages of the West Bank.

Sharon used to call those settlements “facts on the ground.” Much of that ground was seized without due process as Israel exploited the absence or vagueness of land titles from Ottoman times. Still, the modern use by Palestinians was clear enough: vineyards, olive groves, and villages’ common pastureland.

What Israel chooses not to notice is this: Every bulldozed grape vine and olive tree is added to the arsenal of memory. Every vigilante act by Jewish settlers against Palestinians is written on a kind of cultural balance sheet for the sake of future retribution. That is Israel’s second strategic failure.

The third is based on the assumption over decades that Israel proper can be walled off from the surrounding indignities experienced by Arabs in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza. Yet while many Arab citizens of Israel—now 20 percent of the total population—yearn for belonging and participation in Israeli society, they are not fully embraced and are not insulated from grievance.

Israeli governments—especially Netanyahu’s—have increased aid to Arab villages. Economic conditions have improved, along with more access to higher education. Before the recent outbreak of warfare, an Arab party was poised to enter a coalition government for the first time. Yet also for the first time since the 1948 war, the country has been rocked by communal violence between Arabs and Jews, often thugs who project their violence onto a big screen of religious and historic righteousness.

The intoxication with righteousness drives the strategies, which continue to fail, again and again and again.

David K. Shipler

David K. Shipler is a Washington Monthly contributing writer; Pulitzer Prize–winning author of seven books, including Russia: Broken Idols, Solemn Dreams; and former Moscow bureau chief for The New York Times. He blogs at The Shipler Report and cohosts the podcast Two Reporters. Follow David on Twitter @DavidShipler.