Israel cannot afford to shoot the Palestinian elephant in the room

The short autobiographical story by George Orwell, “Shooting an Elephant,” recounts an incident that occurred to him in Burma while serving there as a British officer in the imperial service. The story tells of an elephant on a rampage, causing extensive damage to property and lives. Orwell, a police officer, was called upon by the locals to kill the elephant. Armed with a rifle, Orwell approached the elephant, but upon reaching it, he discovered that it was calm and peacefully eating grass. He planned to walk away and continue with his day, but upon turning around, he realized a crowd of locals behind him expecting him to shoot the elephant. In order not to appear foolish in front of them, he shot and killed it.

Orwell’s story highlights the tendency of those in power to act out of a sense of pride in front of those they dominate, often in an irrational manner, just to make an impression on the dominated. A direct line can be drawn between Orwell’s Burmese elephant and the popular local narrative, where the establishment of a Palestinian state after the October 7 massacre is seen as a “prize to terror.” In my opinion, like Orwell’s rifle shot, this argument also stems from the dominant’s desperate need to maintain his dignity in the eyes of the dominated. Although it’s a profoundly human tendency, it creates an argument that is deeply flawed and has many shortcomings.

Firstly, this argument is based on an erroneous assumption regarding the very nature of reality. The assumption that the establishment of a Palestinian state is equivalent to rewarding terror embodies within it a metaphysical perception, whereby events in the world are subject to a sort of ethical code that dictates the unfolding of events according to criteria of “deserved” and “undeserved.” In objective reality, the constituent elements that occur concretely do not adhere to concepts of “deserved” and “undeserved”; rather, there are causes and effects. The notion of reward and punishment are narrative mechanisms used by individuals to wrap their minds around complex and endless occurrences. This mechanism forms the basis for the religious perspective, the major rival of rationality, and a rising local trend.

For example – A farmer might be good to his neighbors, and his fields may receive abundant rainfall. People tend to perceive a connection between these occurrences, but rationally, they are entirely separate. The farmer could be a great villain, yet his crops might still receive rain, or vice versa. Additionally, the rain didn’t happen to him – it simply occurred, and his pleasantness or unpleasantness are not things that occurred in the objective space.

In the Palestinian context, it’s not the Hamas massacre that grants Palestinians a state, but rather the international legitimacy to recognize them as deserving of a sovereign political entity. This international legitimacy forms the basis of any state, whether its capital is Ramallah or Paris. The existence of a state is essentially the broad consensus of relevant parties to allow and preserve its existence. It cannot be denied that the Palestinian issue returned to the forefront on October 7th, but it’s not from there that they derive their legitimacy. Not even once, even in the most extreme manifestations of progressive lunacy, have I come across documentation of anyone claiming that Palestinian legitimacy for a state is the terror itself. On the contrary, Palestinian terrorism is what many pro-Palestinian Westerners try to hide, while the extremists among them resort to distortions to justify it despicably.

Furthermore, this argument demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of the role of diplomacy. From its early days—following the fragmentation of the Catholic Church and its dispersal into nation-states—diplomacy was a game of interest. The role of the diplomat, and diplomacy itself, was to identify the interests of their state, to recognize the moves that would benefit those interests, and to act to promote them. In other words, diplomacy is inherently disconnected from attempts to impose any universal ethical code, although many diplomats make use of it.

Cardinal Richelieu, a 17th-century French statesman and the father of diplomacy as we know it, used the Catholic moral code to justify great sins. According to him, since France was the standard-bearer of Catholicism, any move favoring France was a move with a religious blessing. Franklin Roosevelt used ideals like American exceptionalism and the war against evil to persuade a reluctant nation to enter a World War, from which it would emerge as the economic empire of the world. Both operated from an understanding that they were pushing for moves that would benefit their nation’s interests and used grandiose moral arguments to garner legitimacy and mobilize the masses.

It’s a highly effective method, but also a problematic one. It creates the mistaken perception that it is the role of states to nurture some kind of moral backbone for the nations of the world. In our case, this perception is embodied in the claim that the world’s nations in general, and Israel in particular, have a sort of role as “educators” towards the Palestinians. It’s as if the UN is a kind of pedagogical committee and not a political body that operates on interests, and as if Israel is a teacher in an elementary school rather than a state that needs to look after its interests.

So, what are Israel’s interests? In my view, there are two main ones – maintaining national security and integration in the Middle East. The two are intertwined and dependent on each other. Israel’s starting point regarding both is challenging – it is a small and narrow Jewish state located in the heart of a hostile Muslim civilization. Therefore, the more it succeeds in integrating into the Middle Eastern space, the more the threat to its existence will diminish.

The most prominent example of the integration of these two interests is the peace agreement with Egypt in 1979, then Israel’s greatest enemy. we should also note the peace agreement with Jordan (with which Israel shares its longest border) in 1994 and the 2020 Abraham Accords with North African countries and Gulf states. All of these have improved Israel’s security, economy, and standing in the world. Today, the integration between these two interests is manifested in two channels – the relations with Saudi Arabia, and Gaza’s rehabilitation and the reconstruction of the Palestinian Authority.

For many years, Saudi Arabia has been considered the “jewel in the crown” for Israeli diplomats. Firstly, it is the leading Sunni religious authority in the world, meaning that normalization of relations with it essentially completes the normalization with the entire Sunni world – as Egypt is the cultural leader of the Sunnis. Secondly, it is the world’s largest oil reservoir, operating in partnership with the United States. Thirdly, the Saudi regime has proven stable and resilient after weathering the Arab Spring, unlike other Middle Eastern Arab countries. Fourthly, it is the second-largest arms importer in the world, while the Israeli arms industry is a significant economic engine for Israel. Fifthly, and perhaps most importantly, it is a major opponent of Iran.

Normalization of relations with Saudi Arabia is the most significant step towards creating a regional alliance with the moderate Sunni world under US leadership, aimed at countering Iran’s imperial aspirations in the Middle East, which threaten Israel’s existence. As recalled, in the forgotten world of October 6th, that diplomatic process was already in an advanced stage. However, today, the Saudi leadership, unable to afford to be seen domestically as those who forsake the Palestinians to their fate, conditions the renewal of contacts for normalization on Israel’s expressed willingness to advance a two-state solution.

Israeli willingness to return to the framework of a two-state solution is a condition that has also been presented to it in the context of creating a broad international coalition for the rehabilitation of Gaza and the rebuilding of the Palestinian Authority as a moderate entity. Both of these are crucial moves both for Israel’s security and for its integration in the Middle East. Today, Gaza is a wasteland, and its ruling body, Hamas, has descended into underground activities. Israel’s interest, aligning with that of the moderate Sunni world, is to neutralize Hamas.

For this to happen, an alternative governing body to the terror organization in Gaza must be established. The solution proposed by relevant actors from various countries is the establishment of an international body, sponsored by Saudi Arabia, that will rehabilitate Gaza and work towards the moderation of its population. Additionally, Palestinian willingness for the rebuilding of the Palestinian Authority as a moderate and functioning entity that will eventually take control of Gaza is conditional upon Israel’s willingness to allow for the eventual establishment of a Palestinian state. Israel has an interest in both moves because they represent an opportunity to influence the future orientation of the Palestinian state and to make all necessary adjustments to minimize the threat it poses (for example: setting the requirement that such a state will be demilitarized).

There is no doubt that a Palestinian state poses a potential threat to Israel’s security, but it is an inevitable reality. Currently, around 4.7 million Palestinians who demand independence are residing in the “1967 territories”. Furthermore, support for Palestinian independence worldwide is at an all-time high, with the American population — a crucial ally of Israel — at lead. Israel, a country of 9 million inhabitants, situated amidst a sea of Arabs, cannot withstand this pressure indefinitely. It must act as much as possible to mitigate the situation, maneuver within the process, and perhaps even turn the challenge into an opportunity.

History is the museum of human possibilities and is abundant with cases where bitter and enduring rivalries turned into close alliances out of necessity – as witnessed by Britain and France. Only through cooperation can Israel act to create shared interests with the renewed Palestinian Authority. For those who might argue that this is a naive prophecy, one can point to the Balkans, an area where numerous peoples slaughtered each other for 150 years and today can be crossed by car. The current situation is that the Palestinian issue is on the table, and in every diplomatic move Israel will try to make, it will encounter this obstacle.

Abba Eban, the legendary Israeli Foreign Minister, considered unparalleled in his understanding of Israel’s international interests, once said: “Nations only behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives”. In our case, the cost of those alternatives may be too high. Israel must act to advance its real interests, even at the cost of losing the illusion of being a “patronizing entity” for the Palestinians. The elephant is in the room, and it’s kicking. We cannot afford to shoot it. All we can do is try to tame it.

About the Author
Omer Biran is a 4th year student for LL.B. in law with a direct route to M.A. in government. Former columnist / tech reporter for 'Under the Radar'. Research intern in 'The Institute for Policy' and Strategy at Reichman University. Former creator and presenter of the radio program 'The Megaphone' on the University Radio which dealt with protest music in a historical context.
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