To my Israeli friends: I won’t presume to say I understand all you are going through, although I have lived in your country, follow your press and experienced the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001 here in America. What motivates this letter is my commitment to Israel and to the US-Israeli relationship. From this comes my hope that the people and government of Israel will think through how best to respond to the horrific attacks of October 7, choose wisely and act responsibly. A great deal counts on it.
I understand why Israel is determined to hit Hamas hard. It is just and necessary. The foremost obligation of any government is to defend its citizens against those who would do them harm. Israel has to re-establish deterrence by making evident that the costs of such attacks far outweigh any benefits. Finally, it is essential to reinforce the norm that terrorism cannot stand.
Attacking Hamas would meet the criteria set forth by the scholar Maimonides close to a millennium ago for what he termed an obligatory war, one undertaken “to deliver Israel from the enemy attacking”. But national security must be about policy as well as principle. So, yes, attacking Hamas is an obligation, but precisely how it is attacked, how the war is fought, involves choice.
Influencing this choice is the matter of goals. It is frequently argued that Israel should seek to eliminate Hamas. It is easy to see why. But it is likely to prove impossible. Hamas is as much an ideology and a network as an organisation. Attacking it with a large force on the ground would generate significant civilian casualties, ultimately lead to new recruits and allow Hamas to scapegoat Israel for its own shortcomings. Israel would suffer more casualties and more soldiers would be captured. A prolonged ground effort would make it impossible to move ahead with normalisation with Saudi Arabia and the Islamic world. It could lead to a wider, even costlier war, potentially pitting Israel against Hizbollah or even Iran.
Support for such an operation would fade not just around the world but also in Israel, as democracies tend to grow weary of armed interventions that prove expensive and show few signs of succeeding. Even if the operation were to succeed, even if Hamas were to be destroyed, missing is any alternative authority prepared to assume the burdens of government. A policy goal must be achievable as well as desirable. Ridding Gaza of Hamas, however much sought, is unlikely to prove doable.
The good news is that even if destroying Hamas is not possible, it is not essential. To suggest that Hamas poses an existential threat to Israel is overblown. So, too, is the claim that if Hamas survives, Israel will never again be secure.
What led to October 7 had more to do with failures of Israeli intelligence and defences than it did with Hamas. These failures can and should be learned from and rectified. Hamas will not change its ways, but what can and must change is Israel’s ability to curtail the ability of Hamas to inflict meaningful harm.
Israel has always lived alongside external threats. It has found a way to thrive nonetheless. Hamas is not a problem to be solved, but a situation to be managed. Building a much more capable defence, maintaining a higher state of military readiness, making Gaza a higher priority for intelligence, questioning any and all assumptions: there is no reason that what took place on October 7 need ever happen again.
What would be both desirable and achievable is to degrade Hamas, to kill a good many of its leaders and fighters. In so doing, it is essential that at every step Israel should distinguish between Hamas and Gaza, between the terrorist group and the people who live there. Anything else will add to pressures for a ceasefire and forfeit sympathy that will be needed long after this crisis is over.
Such considerations argue for air attacks on Hamas with precision weapons and targeted ground raids. Humanitarian aid should be allowed to flow into Gaza. Far better that Israel be able to declare success and finish what it set out to do than be forced to accept a ceasefire owing to international pressure.
At some point, an additional conversation will be required — about how to resolve the Palestinian issue in a manner that enables Israel to forever be a secure, prosperous, Jewish and democratic state. I can appreciate this is not a conversation for today. The wounds are too fresh. Not to mention that there is no acceptable Palestinian partner with whom to reach an accommodation. Hamas is forever ruled out, given its savagery and its charter rejecting the Jewish state. The Palestinian Authority, for its part, continues to disappoint.
Eventually, though, the crisis will fade. Israel will need to take steps to facilitate the emergence of a Palestinian partner willing to eschew violence and to live side by side with it. Not just Palestinians but Israelis would benefit from a Palestinian state. It is the only way Israel can remain Jewish and democratic, as open-ended occupation is inconsistent with Israeli democracy, while granting full rights to Palestinians would end Israel’s Jewish character.
Again, such a conversation is best saved for another day. What cannot be put off is what to do now. Yes, it is necessary to act against Hamas, but how Israel acts is a matter of choice. May it choose wisely.