Realpolitik: a system of politics or principles based on practical rather than moral or ideological considerations.
Realpolitik. It's a term cosseted Americans seem unable to grasp. If social media is any guide (and who gets out anymore, anyway?) the genuine tragedy unfolding in the Mideast is eclipsed by callow if well-intentioned students playacting the tribal conflict that has become America's daily dose of fentanyl - or is it meth? - an adrenaline rush so imbued with self-destruction it's a wonder the country hasn't become a failed state yet.
Actor Mayim Bialik captured the middle-class moment in a viral video bemoaning a loss of innocence more appropriate to her high school senior son, who's thinking about applying to the University of California-Los Angeles, where she graduated with a PhD. in neuroscience. Complaining that UCLA protestors were calling for genocide of the Jews, she said: "there has not been an experience in my lifetime that has prepared me for this."
Welcome to the world, Mayim. While Americans spent the last decade worrying about Trump, real estate prices, and where to have lunch, 150,000 people have been killed in a civil war in Yemen, including civilians in air strikes with another 250,000 dead from famine. Saudi Arabia has backed the government-in-exile against the insurgent Islamist regime and the Saudis, in turn, have been supported by the U.S., the U.K. and France. In fact, many of Yemen's civilian casualties have been killed by Saudi-led airstrikes using U.S. weapons.
The United Nations considers Yemen the world's worst humanitarian crisis, with 4.5 million people, one-seventh of the population, displaced, and 24.1 million, 80% of the population, in need of aid and protection. That's ten times the number of Palestinians in Gaza. An estimated nine out of 10 children have PTSD. Yet we never talk about Yemen. Or Syria, for that matter.
Maybe we should. By 2003, the leaders of Yemen's Houthi insurgency, which had begun as a relatively liberal protest against inequality, was propagating this slogan: "God is great, death to the US, death to Israel, curse the Jews, and victory for Islam." Now the Houthis, Islamists who seized control of the government in 2015, are launching drone attacks on Israel, using long-range missiles supplied by Iran. Tehran is backing the Houthis so they can pose a threat both to Israel and to Iran's main rival in the region: Saudi Arabia.
Should the U.S. refuse to get involved? Stop supplying the Saudis with weapons that are killing Yemeni civilians?
Would that make things better or worse?
If the media covered foreign policy, and if we weren't still dedicated to George Washington's advice in his farewell speech (avoid those insidious wiles of foreign influence!) we might understand that U.S. power is limited, and sometimes there are no good choices, merely one horrific choice with a predictably bad outcome and one horrific choice that might (or might not) lead to a slightly better one.
That was the refrain this week from experienced hands in the U.S. and on the ground. While compassionate liberals and left-wingers called for a ceasefire, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said a ceasefire would be "a gift to Hamas" whose leaders would merely use any pause in fighting to rebuild the group's military capabilities.
Retired U.S. Army general Barry McCaffrey echoed her words, mentioning the hope of creating "an Arab receivership" for Gaza, a clue to the Washington, D.C. foreign policy establishment's long-term thinking. That long game is the creation of alliances among Arab nations, several of whom have recognized Israel. But tactically, there was no doubt about McCaffrey's stance on the problem at hand.
"A ceasefire or pause would be utter madness for Israel," McCaffrey wrote on X. "Hamas damaged but unbroken. The hostages never returned unless massive extortion payments. The IDF must destroy Hamas. The international community must create an Arab receivership (our italics) for Gaza."
McCaffrey's reference to "massive extortion payments" for the release of hostages is buttressed by recent history. In 2011, Israel agreed to trade 1,000 detained Palestinians for a single soldier: Gilad Shalit. Among the released prisoners was a man who went by the nom de guerre Mohammed Dief, the leader who planned the Oct. 7 attack. His life story is fascinating, as told by Reuters reporters Samia Nakhoul and Laila Bassam and in a longform article invoking his reputation as "the deadly phantom" in The Economist.
According to the Economist, after Hamas was elected to govern Gaza, there was a period in which the group might have embraced non-violent struggle. But the proponents of this approach were assassinated and Dief became the dominant figure in Hamas. He is credited with creating the group's tunnel system, called The City of Tunnels. He tamped down internal opposition to receiving funding from Iran, which now gives about $100 million annually to Hamas. In other words, he built an empire. And yet the poverty among ordinary Gazans only increased.
According to Bloomberg, a United Nations assessment last updated in August said 81% of Gazans were poor and cited an unemployment rate of 47%. Since Israel and Egypt began to blockade Gaza in 2005 to stop the smuggling of weapons, the poverty rate has increased by 26 percent. A report in 2021 from the advocacy group Euro-Med Monitor found that nine out of ten children in Gaza suffered some form of conflict-related trauma.
No one alive is responsible for so many Israeli deaths as Deif. Aside from a stint of recuperation from war wounds he has led Hamas’s military wing since the mid-1990s, a rare constant in a leadership frequently disrupted by assassination. Under his command, Hamas’s tactics have become less amateurish and more devastating: first mass suicide-bombings, then the deployment of long-range missiles.
Now, wheelchair-bound and mutilated from assassination attempts, he has initiated an escalation that takes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into uncharted waters. His opponents within Hamas, who used to advocate engagement with Israel, have been emphatically sidelined. What happens next – the fate of more than 200 hostages in Gaza, how Hamas responds to Israel’s bloody aerial bombardment and anticipated ground invasion – depends to a large extent on the planning and calculations of one man. The stakes for Israel, the Palestinians and the wider region could scarcely be higher.
Photo of Mohammed Deif. Top photo is also Deif. Both are from his days in an Israeli prison.
It's easy to dismiss Clinton and McCaffrey as hawks, but their assessment is buttressed by Hamas leaders. Social media, for all of its downsides, is an excellent way to access primary sources. Contradicting Hamas calls for a ceasefire, Hamas spokesman Ghazi Hamad made a public statement indicating that nothing less than the destruction of Israel would end the fighting.
As the Wall Street Journal wrote recently: "Hamas has two messages for two different audiences. To the international community, it pleads for a cease-fire on humanitarian grounds. To the Arab world, it pledges to repeat its Oct. 7 attacks and sacrifice as many Palestinians as it takes to destroy Israel."
The most interesting person to listen to is Mosab Hassan Yousef. His story alone is worth listening to: the son of a Hamas leader, he was a Hamas fighter who later became a spy for the Mossad. In several videos, he stressed the religious extremism of Hamas. The willingness to sacrifice civilians is rooted in the idea of martyrdom. Interviewed by Chris Cuomo, he said that Hamas will never give up; Israel pulled back three times but this time, Yousef said, Israel must eradicate Hamas, no matter the cost. "All the people who are afraid to see bloodshed, I say 'this is war.'"
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is charged with achieving what is nearly impossible: finding a sane middle road in a conflict marked by extremism on both sides. The administration is supporting Israel while insisting that Israel follow the rules of war.
While shocking videos surfaced of Hamas fighters demeaning female hostages,Jewish settlers in the West Bank have killed 120 Palestinians and injured 2000, writes Fred Kaplan in Slate. "U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Israeli leaders assured him they would condemn the wave of violence against Palestinians by Jewish settlers in the West Bank," wrote Kaplan "Good. But that is not nearly enough." Kaplan warned that Israel would lose any claim to moral authority if it doesn't punish these crimes.
But U.S. power may be limited, as Netanyahu's refusal to pause the fighting for humanitarian relief to enter Gaza indicates. (For the record, Egypt refused to open a border crossing to allow Gaza refugees to flee until recently.) Increasingly, Israelis are blaming Netanyahu for engineering the political situation leading to the attack. As demonstrators gather outside Netanyahu's home to call for his ouster, the hope grows that Israel may be able to solve its own problems, and if the fighting ends, pursue a path to peace in concert with the Arab world.
In the meantime, the conflict is having reverberations throughout the world, giving license to anti-Semitism, as well as attacks on Muslims. Decades ago, the journalist Robert D. Kaplan predicted an age of globalization and tribalism in a series of Atlantic magazine articles titled "The Coming Anarchy." The current conflict in the Mideast is only the latest proof of his thesis.
The overarching conflict is between old-fashioned liberal democracy founded on Enlightenment principles and a terrifying repression cloaked in fundamentalist religion, whether it's Israeli settlers and Hamas "martyrs" or the disarmingly ordinary House speaker Mike Johnson, who said, not long ago, that: “The founders wanted to protect the church from an encroaching state, not the other way around.”
Madness is circling the globe, not unlike the pandemic and perhaps not unrelated to it. Fear and anger are closer to the surface than they have been in most of our lifetimes. Going back to the viral video by Bialik, while one is sympathetic to her fears, her performance is part of the problem. In fact, her account that student protesters were calling for the genocide of Jews is wrong. The Associated Press reported: "The protestors are actually chanting, 'Israel, Israel, you can’t hide: We charge you with genocide.'" According to the AP, the Anti-Defamation League, which frequently speaks out against anti-Semitism and extremism, confirmed this.
Bialik herself, who grew up going to a reform synagogue, now attends an Orthodox one. These days, fanatical religion feels endemic and as much as one wishes to avoid the whole subject, there it is. Laurie Garrett, author of all-too-prescient 2006 book The Coming Plague, is an excellent source on Twitter/X, and posted this clear and cogent statement of those principles by German Vice-Chancellor Robert Habeck in a speech announcing his support for Israel:
The upshot? There is a much-quoted line allegedly written by the mysterious B. Traven, author of The Treasure of Sierra Madre: "This is the real world, muchachos, and we are all in it."
When I was 6, the sirens rang across Jerusalem and my aunt ran to pick me up from school to take me home and down to the shelter. That was the beginning of the Six Day War in 1967. That was 56 years ago, and all I feel tonight is fury at all the “adults” who never fixed this.
- Ami Dar, Israeli founder of Idealist.org
"We will come to the water’s edge and lie on the grass and there will be a small, unobtrusive sign that says, THIS IS THE REAL WORLD, MUCHACHOS, AND WE ARE ALL IN IT.—B. TRAVEN. . . ""
- Charles Bowden, Blood Orchid
Susan Zakin is the editor of Journal of the Plague Years.