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This War Will Not End Well for Anybody

Joe Biden will likely be damaged, Israel will pay a huge price—and, as usual, the Palestinian people will suffer the most.

Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting in Tel Aviv
Photo by GPO/Handout/Anadolu/Getty Images
Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting in Tel Aviv on October 18

The October 7 Hamas attack on Israel was unquestionably nihilistic and morally bankrupt. As Kenneth Roth—former executive director of Human Rights Watch, whose organization was among the first prominent groups to label Israel’s treatment of Palestinians “apartheid”—explains, “Hamas committed a horrendous war crime. They blatantly violated everything that the Geneva Conventions and Protocol stand for: deliberately killing civilians, taking civilians hostage, and firing rockets indiscriminately into civilian-populated areas.” He adds, moreover, that “Israel has every right to respond militarily and target Hamas combatants.” 

But it must be said that the Hamas attack was also strategically shrewd. Israel appears ready to give Hamas’s planners just what they were hoping for. Many thousands of innocent people will likely be killed and displaced, and much of the already paltry infrastructure of everyday life in Gaza will be decimated. Israel’s reputation in the world will suffer tremendous damage, and the problem of the Palestinians will once again demand global attention.

No doubt all the talk of integrating Israel into the Arab world via the “Abraham Accords” and the dreams of a deal with Saudi Arabia that ignores the plight of the Palestinians will end. The attack recalls the similarly nihilist terrorist phase of the Palestine Liberation Organization in the 1970s, which also succeeded—not in gaining a state, but in raising the profile of both the problem of the statelessness of the Palestinians and the world’s lack of concern for them—at the price of the perpetrators’ human decency. 

Recall the U.S. response to 9/11. A fatal combination of anger, fear, hysteria, ignorance, and hubris led to the Bush administration’s overreaction, which ended up doing far more damage to the United States than Osama bin Laden dared dream of. Like the Bush administration in Iraq, the Israelis appear to have little idea of what kind of a solution follows their undoubted military “victory” or what that word would even mean in this context.

The Israelis are actually in a far more perilous position today than the United States was after 9/11. October 7 was a far greater shock in every imaginable sense. The murders and kidnappings were more brutal; the numbers, relative to its population, orders of magnitude higher; and its government far more divisive and distrusted than even the very questionably legitimate George W. Bush administration was. Swift vengeance is the order of the day, consequences be damned. As the Israeli human rights lawyer Michael Sfard has noted, in horror, “Lawmakers from the ruling party are openly and unashamedly calling for a second Nakba, where the defense minister orders a denial of water, food, and fuel to millions of civilians; a country whose president, Isaac Herzog, Israel’s moderate face, says that all Gazans are responsible for Hamas’ crimes.”

To be fair to the Israelis, Hamas left them with no good options. The attack could not go unpunished. Even if Israelis were Swedes, they would still be bombing Gaza. But because of both the density of the “open-air prison” that Israel, Hamas, and Egypt have, together, with U.S. assent, created in Gaza along with Hamas’s deliberate “human-shield” tactic, massive “collateral damage” in the form of dead innocents, including children, is likely. And should war break out with Hezbollah in Lebanon, the death and destruction will increase to a level perhaps never seen before in the region.

Either way, Hamas, even if it no longer exists, will have won a massive, if posthumous, propaganda victory in world opinion on behalf of the Palestinian cause. It will also inspire even more dedicated and likely radicalized resistance in the future, not only in Gaza but in the occupied West Bank, inside Israel among the more than 21 percent of Israelis who are also Palestinians, in the Arab world and much of Europe, along with important sections of the American left. If war, as Clausewitz pointed out, is the continuation of politics by other means, than Israel will likely contribute to its own political defeat with every innocent Palestinian it kills.  

The U.S. will also feel its effects. Joe Biden is under attack from both Democratic activists angry with his bear hug of Netanyahu and from conservatives for his attempts to temper Israel’s response. Again, to be fair to Biden, he is no doubt sincere in the horror he has expressed over the Hamas mass slaughter and shares the view that the organization must be destroyed. He had little time for Netanyahu when the latter was in the process of sub-rosa annexation of the West Bank, the purposeful destruction of Israeli democracy, and his consistent cozying up to right-wing (often antisemitic) autocrats, just as he had done with Donald Trump.

But to extend that fairness, it’s a mistake to believe that American presidents can move Israeli leaders to do anything they really don’t want to do. It has almost never happened since the state was founded in 1948. Even the smallest concession by Israel demands a degree of confrontation from the U.S. that is clearly off the table at the moment. The Israelis have understood that American presidents will almost always acquiesce to their demands if they hold out long enough, no matter how much Susan Collins–style “concern” they express along the way. Such statements have constituted virtually the entire State Department response to the consistent stream of IDF-supported settler pogroms against West Bank residents, as Israelis have killed and displaced more of them than at any time in the past 15 years (and Israeli opponents of the occupation have used the word “pogrom” frequently in this context). Benjamin Netanyahu was not wrong when, in a secretly recorded 2001 discussion with West Bank settlers, he promised them: “America is a thing that can be easily moved, moved in the right direction.… They will not bother us.”  

The notion that American Jews can have any significant influence over Israel’s actions is even more far-fetched. Their job, as far as the Israeli government is concerned, is to write the checks, lobby Congress for more aid, and then shut their mouths. (If they want a say in how Israel’s government behaves, they can, Israelis have been reminding them for 75 years, “vote with their feet”—that is, move to Israel.) Before October 7, American Jews and Israeli Jews were slowly but unarguably drifting apart. Politically speaking, Israel has become a red country, while American Jews are deep blue. According to data compiled in 2022 by the Israel Democracy Institute, 62 percent of Israeli Jews now consider themselves to be “right-wing,” with just 24 percent in the center and a mere 11 percent as left-identifying. Meanwhile, according to the Pew Research Center survey, in 2020, American Jews remained “among the most consistently liberal and Democratic groups in the US population.” These trends, moreover, will accelerate in the future as young Israeli Jews skew further rightward than their parents and grandparents, and young American Jews further left. 

Israel’s right-wing leadership has not been bothered by these developments. According to Gary Rosenblatt, former editor of Jewish Week of New York, Netanyahu has said privately that “as long as he has the support in America of evangelical Christians, who vastly outnumber Jews, and the Orthodox Jewish community, he is in good shape.” Israel’s former envoy to the U.S., Ron Dermer—an American-born former Republican political consultant—was willing to say so aloud, noting conservative Christians’ full-throated support for Israel’s government while complaining that American Jews were “disproportionately among our critics.”

Most (but not all) American Jews, seeing and hearing echoes of the Shoah in the images of Hamas’s gleeful brutality, understandably are united in support of Israel in the aftermath of the attack. This too will fade in the future as Hamas’s crimes recede in memory and images of the inevitable results of Israel’s military force come to dominate both social and legacy media. Organizations like IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace, which are now demanding a cease-fire—without, it must be added, any explanation of what is to be done about Hamas—will likely attract more support from young American Jews, especially those on campus. They may feel queasy about allying themselves with the moral idiots who make up Harvard’s Palestine Solidarity Committee and Yalies4Palestine, who held Hamas entirely blameless for the October 7 massacres (each insisted that Israeli policies bore 100 percent of the blame for the mass murder of its citizens). But they will nevertheless further the split within the American Jewish community that had already made Israel an all but impossible topic to discuss not only on most college campuses but even in many American synagogues. 

Finally, these attacks are a disaster for the Democratic Party and even more so for the American left. However cynically, RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel was not wrong when she said while the attacks were taking place that what Hamas was doing presented a “great opportunity” for Republicans. The buffoonish Ben Shapiro referred to members of the Squad who called for a cease-fire as the “Hamas Caucus”; this is a theme we can expect to hear repeated often as the 2024 election approaches. 

It’s true that there’s a faction of the left—sometimes inside the Democratic Party but mostly outside of it—that cannot bring itself to criticize anything anyone does to strike a blow against “American imperialism” and, with it, “Zionist colonialism.” It is well represented on college campuses and left-wing websites. The cause of free speech on the issue of Israel/Palestine was, like the two-state solution, already on life support before October 7. It was a victim of the BDS movement’s attempt to cancel Israel-related speakers on the one hand and, on the other, the efforts by the Anti-Defamation League, together with a number of wealthy pro-Israel donors, to define all criticism of Israel as inherently antisemitic. (I described these efforts in some detail recently here at These efforts will only intensify in the future, and so will the vitriol on both sides they inspire. As McDaniel predicted, these fights will be weaponized by Republicans and exploited by right-wing donors who seek to shut down free expression of support for the Palestinians wherever they appear and in whatever form (see, for instance, 92Y).

As a historian, I am always reluctant to predict the future save for the following: Nothing good can come of the Hamas attacks and the Israeli response. And yet again, it will be the Palestinians who suffer most.