Samuel Heilman
Distinguished Professor of Sociology Emeritus CUNY

Forget a Ceasefire: New Elections Now

In his recent column bemoaning the extremism and debacle that the Netanyahu government represents and promotes, pundit Tom Friedman has repeated what many of us in Israel already know about its dysfunction and the mortal danger it presents to the future of the State of Israel.  In desperation over the current situation, like so many who yearn for peace, Friedman calls for a ceasefire deal at all costs.  Using his bully pulpit at the New York Times, he reaches out to President Biden, perhaps the best friend in the White House Israel has ever had, and urges him to tell the Netanyahu government “that it should accept Hamas’s key demand: Totally end the war now and withdraw from Gaza in exchange for the return of all Israeli hostages.” He lists all the real advantages that would follow for Israel from such a step, and if indeed Hamas took the deal on the table, I believe his predictions of the good that would follow might actually happen – at least that is what people like me wish.

Anticipating the objections from Israeli war hawks, he articulates their predictable response: “Friedman, you would let Hamas’s leader, Yahya Sinwar, come out of his tunnel and declare victory?” Yes, he would, because it would give the Gazans and Hamas, “a total Israeli withdrawal and a stable cease-fire.” But then Friedman reminds us how hollow that victory would be because that would result in exactly what the Gazans had on October 6, 2023, before Hamas’s brutal attack on Israel and before the thousands of dead and wounded and the destruction of Gaza that it brought with it. He then predicts that the morning after a ‘victorious’ Sinwar “emerges from his tunnel, many Gazans will want to pummel him for the disaster he has visited on them.” And if they cannot, then “Sinwar and Sinwar alone will be responsible when the water doesn’t flow, when the building materials don’t arrive, when the sun doesn’t shine — not Israel.”  Great scenario, and to my mind quite likely. And that’s just the problem.

Alas, what Friedman and those who would like to follow his advice don’t seem to understand is that Sinwar and the remaining leaders of Hamas are not dumb. They know this prediction is exactly right.  That is why they have been doing exactly what Netanyahu and his allies have done:  they have kept the war going and have raised the ante for any deal whenever it seems on the verge of possible so that it becomes impossible.  Like this Israeli government, Sinwar and his thugs don’t care about the people they lead; they just want to be in charge.  And that is only possible during the continuing conflict.  That is why, sadly, there will be no deal between these two as long as they are in the driver’s seat.

The current Israeli government and Hamas have always been interested in the same thing: continuing the war until their adversary is crushed and no longer a threat, a goal that for so many reasons is as elusive as it is unrealistic, a goal based on magical or extremist religious prophecies. They live for a forever war, even though the Palestinian and Israeli people deserve a peace forever.

The endless calls for a ceasefire, especially in the so-called pro-Palestinian protests, however is based upon a lack of understanding of how this is the underlying dynamic of this conflict.  The only way this war can end – as it must – is for each side to be replaced by a leadership that actually cares about the people it leads more than remaining in power or defeating the other. It must be a leadership that understands that each side must learn how to compromise with the other and have a vision of what that would like. The leaders on both sides do not have that.

That is why in Israel the demonstrations have evolved into more than a call for a ceasefire and hostage deal and prisoner exchange.  They are being replaced by a call for new elections now so that in Israel the people who brought us this war and this mess can be swiftly sent to the dustbin of history, replaced by those who have a plan for what has come to be called “the day after.”

In Gaza, where democracy has no quarter, any criticism of Hamas is dangerous.  But even there, voices can increasingly be heard that demand an end to Hamas’ rule.  The Gazans yearn for a new leadership. Ironically, had the current Netanyahu government really wanted peace it would have, as I long ago suggested, have helped nurture and set up an alternative Palestinian leadership, preferably a secular one that is not wedded to an extremist religious ideology that demands complete sovereignty from the “river to the sea,” and rule by theological extremist laws that they believe are God-given.  For all its corruption and failures, the Palestinian Authority has accepted Israel as belonging in the region and with new leadership would and could replace Hamas, especially if Israel would free the man most Palestinians believe would offer better leadership, Marwan Barghouti who currently sits in an Israeli prison.  But this government refuses and imagines that it can fool Palestinians into accepting Israeli settlers as the governing authority.  Give the Palestinians someone they respect and who is one of them to turn to for leadership other than Hamas and they will turn away from Hamas virtually overnight.

Hamas understands this too and that is why some of its leaders, as Ehud Yaari reports, have told Arab state leaders that they are willing to support the formation of either a “technocratic government” or one composed of factions that agree to Palestinian “reconciliation.” But they have also insisted that security issues not be part of this new government’s authority. “In other words, Hamas is happy to let others shoulder civil responsibilities while it focuses on rebuilding its armed networks behind the scenes.”  That of course will not bring peace but only a pause before the next war.

Only when both Hamas and the Netanyahu government are no longer in power is a peace, however fragile, possible. Yair Golan, the new head of the Labor Party has called for this.  He is not alone.  It is the only way this can end well.

About the Author
Until his retirement in August 2020, Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College CUNY, Samuel Heilman held the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center. He is author of 15 books some of which have been translated into Spanish and Hebrew, and is the winner of three National Jewish Book Awards, as well as a number of other prestigious book prizes, and was awarded the Marshall Sklare Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association for the Social Scientific Study of Jewry, as well as four Distinguished Faculty Awards at the City University of New York.He has been a Fulbright Fellow and Senior Specialist in Australia, China, and Poland, and lectured in many universities throughout the United States and the world. He was for many years Editor of Contemporary Jewry and is a frequent columnist at Ha'Aretz and was one at the New York Jewish Week. Since his retirement, he and his family have resided in Jerusalem.
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