Moral vs. Political Reasons to Oppose Hitting Gaza

Over at the Forward, I have a piece suggesting that the Israeli center left ought to oppose Gaza escalations. I argue that these regular “mowing the lawn” operations makes Lapid and Herzog’s hectoring Bibi to negotiate with Abbas during times of peace absurd. The escalations ensure there will be no negotiations, and they cement a policy of armed security—rather than the peace process.
This piece is differs from much—though not all—of the anti-escalation writing I’ve been reading recently. The Jewish left is good at drawing attention to Palestinian suffering, even in the face of an intensive campaign by the right to delegitimize and distract from that suffering. That’s commendable, and I think it effectively helps many people—even those from outside our base—start to question. Certainly, anything that opens our hearts to Gazans, who are in a horrendous situation (for which, obvious, there’s plenty of blame to spread around), probably makes us more empathetic and compassionate observers of the conflict.
But we’re less good at the dispassionate game of political analysis. We tend to take for granted that our case is fundamentally about an immediate moral vision. That’s energizing, but it makes it hard to appeal to people who don’t think in terms of immediate suffering, or for whom Palestinian suffering just isn’t a compelling argument. I try to articulate a case against the airstrikes and ground invasion that holds up even if you think they’re 100% morally okay. I appeal just to Israel’s strategic interests—admittedly, through the prism of a basically liberal belief in a negotiated, two-state deal. I think that’s important for people who (like me) a) tend to be mistrustful of emotional reactions to suffering as direct grounds for political choices b) want not just opposition and critique, but a clearly articulated strategic plan from the left and c) are inherently  suspicious of any analysis that doesn’t place at its center Israeli interests and needs. The left needs those people too, at least as fellow travelers.
I’d be curious what people think about the piece, but also about the distinction I’m drawing between “detached strategizing” and “moral-emotional appeals,” and the broader questions here of what types of arguments the left should be putting forward right now.

5 thoughts on “Moral vs. Political Reasons to Oppose Hitting Gaza

  1. I think folks have been trying the “dispassionate” self-interest arguments for the last 47 years, at least, and they don’t seem to convince us. I think that moral arguments hold far more potential to change hearts and minds, and when we pare it down to self-interest, then the discourse becomes one of seven tunnels versus fifteen tunnels, deterrence versus dialogue, carrot versus stick, and on and on, forgetting that we’ve killed more than 1,000 human beings in a very short period. But I could just be speaking from experience, because it was the moral arguments during Op. Cast Lead that changed me.

  2. Seems like there is more to account for here: “Politically, when a super-majority of Jewish Israelis supports intensive Israeli military commitment, opposing Netanyahu looks like suicide.”
    It’s not clear why this *isn’t* political suicide, strategic consideration of the left’s position on the conflict notwithstanding. I wonder if you could unpack what you think explicit opposition to the operation would actually gain the segment of the left that is currently at work in the Knesset.
    Another way of getting at the same question is to point out that there is a far left in Israel that opposes the operation, and even in its marginal state it has its pragmatic reasons, and leaders to articulate them. Gershon Baskin springs to mind. But the point is, if opposing widely supported military operations is a pathway to marginalization, is the Israeli left really gaining anything from doing so?
    I think the second half of your piece offers a more fruitful path for exploration. Why is it, exactly, that the Jewish and Israeli left were so shambling in their attempts to defend the unity government? Acceptance of that government could have radically altered ensuing events, including this war, and the rationale for rejecting it was far cloudier than many seemed to assume. What work can we do now to bolster and prepare the left for the next such opportunity?

  3. Thanks for this response, which is thoughtful and challenging. I think it’s telling that Meretz also is set to gain seats (were elections held today): Zahava Galon’s strategy of committed opposition may be marginal, but at least it’s respectable. But yes, I am hoping that the political center-left could open the way for a transformation in Israeli civil society; I think a serious left could, for instance, change the way centrist papers like Yedidot and Maariv report on escalations like this one. That may sound like a long shot, but I just think the current path is a sure-first loss.
    I guess one question for you is: can you really split the two halves of my piece? Do you think it’s possible to support the unity government and the recent escalation at the same time?

  4. Yea, Mori, for the record, I am not in this to attack people making the moral arguments. As I said, I think it’s basically good for people to be more empathetic towards and concerned about Palestinian lives, and to grapple with our moral responsibility for Palestinian suffering. That said, I’m not sure I believe the “self interest” arguments are the older ones: Yeshayahu Leibowitz, for instance, one of the early critics of the occupation, care astoundingly little about anyone’s self-interest. There’s a long history to both tactics, and I don’t think we can lay the blame for the left’s failures on choosing one over the other.
    Also, I think the moral arguments run into some obstacles, because, first and foremost, there really are many, many Jews with different background premises re: the relative moral weight of Palestinian and Jewish suffering, and I don’t know that all of them (us? I don’t 100% know where to place myself—I hope that’s not repellant to you) can be convinced. But also because a left that’s centered on the moral questions isn’t a left that’s necessarily proposing a platform for a political party, or a five-year strategy or for Israel, etc.—and that’s a problem.
    And finally, I think a problem with some varieties of the moral arguments is (and this is probably where we’re furthest apart) precisely that they make it impossible to distinguish between, say, “seven tunnels versus fifteen tunnels.” You know, horrible as it is to say, there are circumstances under which I would advocate military operations that would result in the death of 1,000 Palestinians. As you know, this is not one of them. But I, and many others, are scared of an absolutist moral register that leaves no room for policies that do shift with shifting realities. Does the moral argument take us to committed pacifism? If so, count me out. If not, it needs to be supplemented with a whole lot of dispassionate analysis.
    Finally, let me say that I’m analyzing dispassionately because I’m far away, and because that’s what comes to me naturally as a writer. I admire and support those of you whose emotional day-to-day experience is intrinsically linked to the ongoing development of on-the-ground events. So maybe this is really just about me trying to hollow out the place for the humble kind of piece that I, as a far-away amateur, am capable of writing these days.

  5. Possible? Yes, I guess I do. Advisable? I have no idea. I suppose I don’t see any possible position on the left that doesn’t feel like riding the tiger at this point, so I have to withhold judgment.
    I’m not familiar with the Meretz polling, so I can’t comment on that either. But the polling I have read suggests that the far right stands to be the net winner in any upcoming election, and I would be cautious at reading too much into a modest gain for the far left–that may be a sign of further fragmentation, not cohesion. In fact, that seems often to be the case in Israel.

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