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The Missing Context
Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona / Unsplash

The Missing Context

In the days to come, discussions of the context surrounding Israel and Hamas will become necessary as a means of sorting out moral rights and wrongs. Francis Fukuyama's latest.

Francis Fukuyama

Following the horrific terrorist attack on Israel on October 7, many left-wing groups immediately came out in support of the action.  It is of course impossible to see how any progressive person could justify an attack involving the killing of 1,400 people, rape, torture, beheadings, and the taking of hundreds of hostages.  This was not a military operation, but pure terrorism.

Short of an outright justification for this bloodshed, however, was a somewhat different line that argued that the initial outpouring of sympathy for Israel was one-sided and devoid of context. By this view, the Israelis were not simply innocent victims attacked out of the blue. Palestinian rage was driven by decades of injustice done to them by Israel, injustices that the world was on the verge of forgetting.

In the early days following the attack, calls for an understanding of “context” and attempts to blame “both sides” seemed singularly inappropriate in light of the grotesque atrocities committed. But the moral narrative has already begun to shift, as Israel expands its military operations to destroy Hamas and rescue those held hostage. In the coming days and weeks, Palestinian casualties will mount (as will Israel’s), and sympathy for them will continue to grow. In this context, discussion of “context” will return, and indeed will become necessary as a means of sorting out moral rights and wrongs.___STEADY_PAYWALL___

However, a morally balanced understanding of context is much more complicated than those who called for it early on may realize. Some of the pro-Palestinian voices pointed directly to the injustice of the original creation of the State of Israel, and stated overtly that this wrong could not be corrected except through the destruction of that country. If this is your moral judgment, then there is very little further to discuss. You are in effect calling for the death and displacement of the ten million inhabitants of Israel, as if this would make right the original wrong.  By this logic, the United States, Canada, New Zealand, and indeed virtually every other country in the world is illegitimate and deserves destruction, since it is hard to find a nation that was not ultimately founded on the forceful dispossession of one people by another.

“Context” becomes a bit more meaningful if we begin with the premise that Israel has a right to exist within secure borders as a homeland for the Jewish people. If one believes that, then one can easily also grant that the Palestinian people also deserve a secure homeland as well. Such a two-state solution to the conflict is morally unsatisfying for many reasons, and would not achieve full justice for the Palestinians in particular. But if one wanted to support their rights, there is general agreement that a two-state solution was the only one realistically achievable. This concept was the basis for the Oslo Accords promoted by the Clinton administration, and has been a stated goal of U.S. foreign policy ever since.

But today, a two-state solution is largely a dead letter. So in assessing context, we must ask who was responsible for this outcome?  The answer here is indeed actually quite complicated.

The failure of the Oslo process was due to actions taken by both the Palestinian and Israeli sides. Yasser Arafat in the end insisted on an unlimited right of Palestinian return. Israel rightly felt that this would tip the demographic balance against them, given higher Arab birth rates and the large number of Palestinians living in exile. But a bigger problem was that Arafat and subsequent leaders of Fatah like Mahmoud Abbas led a corrupt and ineffective Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and in any event did not represent the whole of the Palestinian people. After driving Fatah out of Gaza in 2007, Hamas never accepted the legitimacy of the Oslo process and sought to undermine it at every turn.

The Israelis were also at fault. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was never been a big fan of a two-state solution, and while he paid lip service to the idea at American insistence, he did a lot to undermine its possibility. He had strong allies in the West Bank settler movement who kept creating facts on the ground. By the end of the 1990s the Arab-populated parts of the West Bank constituted a discontinuous patchwork of territories that would be very hard to govern as a coherent state.

This situation only got worse with the rightward drift of Israeli politics. At Israel’s behest, the Trump administration acquiesced to the moving of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, the status of which was a longstanding matter of contention in the Oslo negotiations. After last year’s elections, Netanyahu formed a right-wing government with several extremist parties, members of which came out of the settler movement, and others of which expressed explicitly racist views of the Arabs.  Within these circles, there were some were pushing for outright annexation of the West Bank. 

The Abraham Accords negotiated by Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner were highly positive inasmuch as they normalized Israel’s relations with a number of conservative Arab states. The Biden administration continued this process seeking a similar agreement with Saudi Arabia that would cement Israel’s legitimacy in the eyes of the Arab world. But an underlying theme of this effort was that normalization could take place largely without the Palestinians, either as participants in the process, or objects of the negotiations.

So Netanyahu and his conservative allies inflamed the situation leading up to October 7. One of the reasons that the towns and kibbutzim near Gaza were left unprotected was that the IDF was too busy protecting settlers in the West Bank. It is important to note, however, that the current conservative coalition represents only half of the Israeli public. There has been a virtual civil war between the current government’s supporters, and Israeli liberals who have opposed the rightward drift of the country’s politics. The chief issue has been the Netanyahu government’s push to take away the Israeli Supreme Court’s power to invalidate legislation, a move that drew millions of demonstrators into the streets in recent months. But the liberal coalition is also far more open to a two-state solution than the right, if only there were a viable Palestinian interlocutor to deal with. 

I include myself among those who believe it is important to protect the rights of the Palestinians, including their right to have a state of their own. But anyone taking this view should not kid themselves that Hamas represents anything other than a murderous and destructive player in any future attempted settlement. Hamas was never interested in a two-state solution; its stated aims have always included the destruction of Israel and the establishment of a Palestinian state encompassing its lands.

Israel unilaterally turned Gaza over to Palestinian administration in 1994 as part of the Oslo Accords, and then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon withdrew military forces and settlements from the territory in 2005. His hope was that the responsibilities of self-government outside of Israeli tutelage might produce a more pragmatic leadership. Instead, the opposite happened: Hamas won an election in 2006, violently pushed Fatah out of Gaza, and has been at war with Israel ever since. One of the great political challenges facing a post-October-7 Israel and outside powers like the United States will be finding a Palestinian partner whose rights they can support who is actually willing to co-exist with Israel.

Francis Fukuyama is chairman of the editorial board of American Purpose and Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow and director of the Ford Dorsey Master’s in International Policy program at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

Middle East