The deaths of Palestinian Arabs in Gaza, and of Israelis (Muslim and Christian Arab, and Druse and Bedouin, as well as Jewish, don't forget, in Ashdod and Sderot), are hardly ennobled by the sordid realization that the timing of the carnage has been determined by three sets of electoral calculation.
The first and the most obvious is the interregnum between U.S. presidencies, in which only the faintest of squeaks will be heard from our political class as our weapons are used to establish later bridgeheads and to realign our uneasy simultaneous patronage of the Israeli and the Egyptian and the Palestinian establishments. Benny Morris, one of the most tough-minded Israeli intellectual commentators, used to speculate that Israel would employ the Bush-Obama transition to strike at Iranian nuclear sites. He may have been wrong in the short term, but, in fact, the current attack on Gaza and Hamas is the same war in a micro or proxy form.
Second comes the impending February election in Israel. Until last week, Benjamin Netanyahu was strongly favored to come back as the man whose hard line against territorial concessions had been vindicated by the use of long-evacuated Gaza as a launching pad for random missile attacks. It now seems unlikely that he can easily outbid the current ruling coalition, at least from the hawkish right. (Remember that all the nonsense of the so-called "Al-Aqsa intifada," which wasted so much time and life in the last decades, was first instigated by an electoral rivalry between Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon, in which the latter showed himself more hard-line than the former by waddling militantly across the Temple Mount in the company of an armed band. For such vanities do children end up screaming in the streets over the mangled bodies of their parents—and vice, if I may so phrase it, versa.)
The third consideration, and the least noticed, is the fact that this month is the one where new elections for the Palestinian Authority have to be called by President Mahmoud Abbas, if not actually held. Before the new year, I talked to one or two knowledgeable Palestinians who argued that, under then-present conditions, Hamas had to hope that such elections would not soon take place. Life in Islamic Gaza was not such as to induce ecstatic happiness and prosperity among the populace: In common with many fundamentalist movements, the Muslim Brotherhood in its local Palestinian incarnation had badly overplayed its hand. It seems improbable that we'll ever know what would have happened in a free vote, but I think it's safe to say that recent events have further postponed the emergence of a democratic and secular alternative among the Palestinians. I even think it's possible that some people in Israel and some other people in Gaza do not want to see the emergence of such a force, but let me not be cynical.
So, that is why this nasty confrontation is taking place this time instead of at another time. But each miniature of the picture also implies its own enlargement, which in turn suggests that if the latest Gaza war hadn't come at this time, it would certainly have come at another. Again and as usual, Morris' work is instructive. As one of the most stern of the "revisionist" historians of Israel's founding who went deep into his own country's archives to show that Palestinians had been the victims of a deliberate ethnic cleansing in 1947-48, Morris is accustomed to looking disagreeable facts in the face. I strongly recommend a reading of his Dec. 29 op-ed in the New York Times. In it, he described not so much what he saw when he himself looked facts in the face as what Israelis see when they look outward and inward. To the north, Hezbollah local missiles backed by Syria and Iran, two dictatorships, one of which may soon possess nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. To the south and west, Hamas in Gaza. In the occupied territories of the West Bank, the same old colonial rule over the unwilling and the same mad confrontation with the Messianic Jewish settlers. Within Israel itself, an increasing tendency for Israeli Arabs to identify as Arabs or Palestinians rather than Israelis. Overarching everything, the sheer demographic fact that Israeli law, and Israeli power, governs or dominates more and more non-Jews, fewer and fewer of whom are interested in compromise. (It was this demographic imperative, if you remember, that made even Sharon give up the idea of "greater Israel," a scheme for which many state-subsidized Israeli settlers are still very much willing to die—and to kill.)
Compared with the threat to its very existence that had been posed in 1967, wrote Morris, the only changes that now favored Israel were the arrival of another 2 million or 3 million Israelis and the acquisition of a nuclear arsenal. But how reassuring, really, are those developments? Where are the new immigrants to go, unless onto disputed land? And on whom can the nukes be employed? On Gaza? In Hebron? These places would still be there, right next to the Jewish community, even if Damascus and Tehran were ashes. Only the messianic could even contemplate such an outcome. (What a pity there are so many of them locally.)
Confronted with this amazing concatenation of circumstances, and with some of the frightening blunders—such as the last invasion of Lebanon—that have resulted from it, some Israeli politicians appear to think that taking a tough line in Gaza might at least be good for short-term morale. This was the clear implication of the usually admirable Ethan Bronner's New York Times front-page reports on Dec. 28, 2008, and Jan. 4, 2009. So why not just come right out with it and say that one is bombing for votes?
It is only when one begins to grasp all the foregoing that one understands exactly how disgusting and squalid is the behavior of the Hamas gang. It knows very well that sanctions are injuring every Palestinian citizen, but—just like Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq—it declines to cease the indiscriminate violence and the racist and religious demagogy that led to the sanctions in the first place. Palestine is a common home for several religious and national groups, but Hamas dogmatically insists that the whole territory is instead an exclusively Muslim part of a future Islamic empire. At a time when democratic and reformist trends are observable in the region, from Lebanon to the Gulf, Hamas' leadership is physically and economically a part of the clientele of two of the area's worst dictatorships. (Should you ever be in need of a free laugh, look up those Western "intellectuals" who believe that a vote for an Islamist party and an Islamic state is a way to vote against corruption! They have not lately studied Iran and Saudi Arabia.) Gaza could have been a prefiguration of a future self-determined Palestinian state. Instead, it has been hijacked by the Muslim Brotherhood and made into a place of repression for its inhabitants and aggression for its neighbors. Once again, the Party of God has the whip hand. To read Benny Morris is to be quite able—and quite free—to doubt that there should ever have been an Israeli state to begin with. But to see Hamas at work is to resolve that whatever replaces or follows Zionism, it must not be the wasteland of Islamic theocracy.