The Lessons from the 2008 Mumbai Attacks Show Why Calling for Israeli Restraint is Misguided and Dangerous.
Thomas Friedman in the Jan 19th Ezra Klein podcast again lauds Manmohan Singh, India’s then-Prime Minister, for his military restraint following the deadly terrorist attacks in Mumbai on November 26, 2008, and suggests that Israel should have done the same. (See also Friedman’s New York Times Opinion of October 29, 2023). During the Mumbai attacks, 166 people were killed by 10 Pakistani jihadists of Lashkar-e-Taiba (“LeT”), a group widely believed to have significant backers in the Pakistani military establishment. To support his position, Friedman cites the book Choices: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy by Shivshankar Menon, India’s then foreign secretary.
Menon understood the complexity of the situation for India at that time made it clear that an attack against LeT and its nuclear neighbor, Pakistan, would have significant and potentially dire consequences for India and the world. On analysis, the Singh government concluded that achieving its aims through military means were unlikely to work and the risks economically, diplomatically, and militarily were too high. Accordingly, India decided not to respond in a direct military manner.
The wisdom of the Singh government decision of restraint is still debated in India and the world today among those whose job it is to fight terrorism. Perhaps India’s restraint was the right move for India at that time although that is not entirely clear. Surely, India avoided some of the potential harms that an attack would have brought. At the same time, India failed to achieve some very important goals. For Israel, however, the circumstances are very different and no credible player on the world stage would suggest that Israel should not have responded militarily and with great strength to the Hamas brutality.
Indeed, virtually every civilized nation acknowledges not only Israel’s right to defend itself but rather its responsibility to do so. There is a time for restraint, and this is not one of those times. Indeed, even the poisonous and biased International Court of Justice recognized Israel’s right to continue this war against Hamas.
Despite holding up Singh as a great example of restraint, and bitterly criticizing Israel for not showing restraint, even Friedman acknowledges the differences between India in 2008 and Israel 2023/2024 and concludes that Israel could not avoid a military response. “As I said, Israel is not India, and there is no way that it could be expected to turn the other cheek — not in that neighborhood.” See Friedman’s New York Times Opinion of October 29, 2023.
So why laud India’s example of restraint when you know that the situations are vastly different, and you know and conclude that Israel had to respond in a military manner? Friedman has so vested himself in year after year of Israel bashing under the guise of a caring, knowledgeable, and connected player, that he cannot see the profound inconsistencies, untruths, and biases in his position.
Friedman’s bias is reflected in many places. One such example is his selective quoting of Menom’s book. He misses Menom’s most important key takeout; namely, that the very unique circumstances of India in 2008 (which are not at all similar to Israel in 2023/24) were unlikely to be replicated in the future and that in the event of a future attack from Pakistan it would be virtually impossible for any government of India to make the same choice again.
While Friedman is certainly welcome to urge Israel to act rationally, strategically and avoid unnecessary civilian and economic harm (as though that were not already the reality), his citing of India’s restraint in 2008 as an example Israel should consider and follow, only empowers those who seek to destroy Israel through misplaced, unfair, and dangerous criticism.
The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of AJC.