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Supporting Israel and protecting Palestinians are not contradictory policies

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Whose side are you on — the Israelis or the Palestinians? Do you think that western policy should be to support Israel, in the aftermath of the biggest single slaughter of Israeli civilians since the foundation of the state in 1948? Or do you think that Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is itself committing mass atrocities in Gaza, and that western policy should be to put maximum pressure on Israel to stop?

These are the binary terms in which much of the debate about the Israel-Palestinian conflict is being conducted. But talking to policymakers in Washington, Brussels and other European capitals, I am struck that this is not the approach of most of the western leaders who have engaged with Israel over the past week. They argue that the best chance of preventing a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza is to support Israel.

That sounds paradoxical — even hypocritical. But, thinking about it further, I understand the logic. Many civilians have already died in Gaza and there is much more tragedy to come. The UN is warning of an impending disaster.

But the best chance of mitigating the suffering of Palestinian civilians is to start from an understanding that Israel itself has just suffered an unprecedented tragedy and has the right and obligation to ensure its own security. This is a policy that one senior US official calls: “hug them close”. He describes Israel as “traumatised and frightened”. “We need to present this as a situation that we are facing together and that we can work on together,” says the official.

The White House thinks that only then will Joe Biden get a hearing when he makes public statements about the need for Israel to respect the laws of war and to protect civilian lives. In private, politicians can then press Israel about the most urgent humanitarian priorities, such as the restoration of electricity and water in Gaza.

That approach reflects a realistic understanding of Israeli society. The Jewish state is founded on the premise that antisemitism is global and ineradicable — and that no one will save the Jews except the Jews themselves. If, at this traumatic moment, foreigners arrive in Israel with lectures rather than deep and genuine sympathy they will not be listened to. The Israeli government and wider society will simply be confirmed in their view that they need to shut out the voices from a hostile world — and concentrate on the battle for their own survival.

Many senior European officials are following a similar approach to the US. One says, “I’ve seen Netanyahu many times over the years. But I have never seen him like this. He’s stunned.” European leaders who travelled to Israel last week found that both Netanyahu and President Isaac Herzog had moved their offices to the Israeli defence ministry in Tel Aviv. With the city still under sporadic attack from rockets, some high-level diplomatic meetings have taken place in the ministry’s bomb shelter.

But the decision to show emotional and strategic solidarity with Israel — even as it bombards Gaza — is controversial in Europe. The visit to Israel last week by the EU Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, has drawn criticism.

Mujtaba Rahman of Eurasia group quotes a senior EU official, who accuses von der Leyen of undermining outreach to the global south, endangering European hostages and diplomats and giving Israel “carte blanche” in Gaza. I heard similar complaints in Brussels.

These are all understandable concerns. But they are not a strategy for persuading Israel to show restraint. Von der Leyen, like the Americans, believes the west has to start by listening to the Israelis.

The US believes there are some early signs that its policy can pay dividends. Israel announced over the weekend that the water supply to southern Gaza will be restored — a decision made during a call between Biden and Netanyahu. America also points to the opening of safe routes for civilians in Gaza, which Israel says it will refrain from bombing during certain hours. The Biden administration does not believe — despite chatter on Israeli social media and statements by some politicians — that the Netanyahu government plans to drive all the Gaza Palestinians into Egypt.

For many in the west, all this will sound like an infuriatingly mild response to the death and destruction in Gaza. But while much harsher western denunciations of Israel may provide an opportunity to express outrage, they are unlikely to do much for suffering Palestinians.

In the short-term, Israel is a well-armed country that believes it is fighting for its survival. It is not going to be stopped by a resolution in the European parliament or the UN General Assembly.

In the longer-term, the west is deeply divided over the Israel-Palestine conflict — too divided for the “boycott, divestment and sanctions” movement aimed at Israel to make real headway. BDS will gain new followers because of what is happening in Gaza. But the group who believe passionately in the defence of Israel will also swell in numbers because of what Hamas did. The idea that the EU or the US will ever form a consensus to isolate and boycott Israel is deeply unrealistic.

Compassion for innocent people suffering on all sides of this conflict is not just the moral position. It is also the only practical way forward.

gideon.rachman@ft.com

Israel-Hamas war

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