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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement at the Palmachim Air Force Base near the city of Rishon Lezion, Israel on July 5.AMIR COHEN/Reuters

Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister, is vice-president of the Toledo International Center for Peace and the author of Prophets Without Honor: The 2000 Camp David Summit and the End of the Two-State Solution.

Sooner or later, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s destructive political magic, which has kept him in power for 15 years, was bound to usher in a major tragedy. A year ago, he formed the most radical and incompetent government in Israel’s history. Don’t worry, he assured his critics, I have “two hands firmly on the steering wheel.”

But by ruling out any political process for Palestinians and boldly asserting, in his government’s binding guidelines, that “the Jewish people have an exclusive and inalienable right to all parts of the Land of Israel,” Mr. Netanyahu’s government made bloodshed inevitable.

Admittedly, blood flowed even when peace-seekers such as Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak were in office. But Mr. Netanyahu recklessly invited violence by paying his coalition partners any price for their support. He let them grab Palestinian lands, expand illegal settlements, scorn Muslim sensibilities regarding the sacred mosques on the Temple Mount, and promote suicidal delusions about the reconstruction of the biblical Temple in Jerusalem (in itself a recipe for what could be the mother of all Muslim Jihads). Meanwhile, he also sidelined the more moderate Palestinian leadership of Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank, effectively beefing up the radical Hamas in Gaza.

According to Mr. Netanyahu’s twisted logic, strong Islamist rule in Gaza would be the ultimate argument against a political solution. By rewarding the extremists and castigating the moderates, Mr. Netanyahu believed that he, unlike the soft leftists, had finally found the solution to the Palestinian conflict. The Abraham Accords, which normalized Israel’s relations with four Arab states (and will probably soon include Saudi Arabia), blinded him to the Palestinian volcano beneath his feet. But, in the ruthless massacre of Israeli civilians in the villages surrounding Gaza, Mr. Netanyahu’s hubris met its nemesis in the form of Hamas’s brutality.

Israel-Hamas war so far: What to know about the attack, casualties, hostages and the response

Many have expressed surprise that Hamas so easily penetrated Israel’s defences along the border with Gaza. But there were no such defences. When Hamas began slaughtering hundreds of defenceless civilians, Israel’s glorious army was mostly deployed elsewhere. Many were assigned to the West Bank to protect religious settlers in clashes (sometimes initiated by the settlers themselves) with local Palestinians, and in festivals around invented holy shrines. For long hours, desperate men and women cried for help, and the strongest army in the Middle East was nowhere to be seen.

And now what? Restore deterrence? How, exactly? Self-punishment in the form of a renewed occupation of Gaza? A land invasion is difficult to imagine. The atrocious level of destruction and casualties this would entail is one reason, with the many Israeli hostages now in Gaza providing additional insurance. The risk of Hezbollah getting seriously involved from Lebanon in the north is another. Hezbollah’s capabilities dwarf those of Hamas, and a two-front war, with Iran possibly backing Israel’s foes, is an apocalyptic scenario.

This is exactly why U.S. President Joe Biden warned Israel’s enemies “not to exploit the crisis.” To drive home the point, Mr. Biden has ordered the U.S. Navy’s newest and most advanced aircraft carrier to the eastern Mediterranean.

But then when has the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ever responded to Cartesian logic?

We learned from Clausewitz that war is supposed to make sense in the context of a political objective. Hamas’s current war has such objectives: securing its hegemony in the Palestinian national movement, freeing its men from Israeli prisons by trading hostages for them, and preventing the Palestinians from being forsaken by their “Arab brethren” in their rush to normalize relations with the Jewish state. For Mr. Netanyahu’s government, however, this is a purely reactive war with no political objective beyond that of reaching a pause until the next round of hostilities.

A country that did not hold accountable its leaders for an outcome like what has played out in the horrific scenes around Gaza would lose its claim to being a genuine democracy. But Mr. Netanyahu’s machine of poisonous political disinformation is already at work disseminating a conspiracy theory according to which leftist army officers were responsible for the negligence that led to this dirty war.

When the fighting ends, negotiations for an exchange of hostages and prisoners are inevitable. Possibly, the clearly ineffective blockade on Gaza should be lifted. In any case, a different question will remain: whether the cruelty that the Hamas militias displayed in the killing fields around Gaza is the right path to Palestinian redemption. Their moment of supposed glory will live in infamy for many years to come.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2023.

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