Why Israel acts the way it does

NETANYA, ISRAEL – JUNE 21: Family members walk behind a coffin of Israeli Sgt-Maj Omer Smadga during his funeral on June 21, 2024 in Netanya, Israel. The Israeli army announced today that Smadga was killed along with another Israeli soldier by mortar fire in Gaza Strip. He was the son of Israel judo athlete and Olympic medalist, Oren Smadga. (Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images)

From the outside, the policies of Israel’s government seem both brutal and inexplicably self-destructive.

Its war in Gaza has claimed tens of thousands of Palestinian lives and demolished much of the physical infrastructure, like schools and hospitals, required for a society to function. Despite the massive casualties, Israeli forces have yet to bring Hamas close to “total defeat.” And there is still no credible plan for preventing Hamas from simply returning to power after the war, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly ruled out handing control over Gaza to the moderate Palestinian Authority (PA). 

These policies have some real public support. Recent polls of Israeli Jews have found that majorities of Israeli Jews endorse the Israeli military’s conduct in Gaza, believe Israel should maintain control over Gaza after the war, and express deep skepticism about a negotiated two-state solution with the Palestinians (at least for now).

To understand how Israel got here, you need to understand how most Israelis think about security.

Israel’s ruling security ideology centers on the country’s collective “trauma,” an omnipresent word when you speak to Israelis about the conflict. Its core premise is the idea that the country has gone above and beyond to try and make peace with its neighbors and has been met with violence at every turn. Peace in the near term is seen as a pipedream; the need to stop terrorism and defang enemies is paramount. On this view, securing Israel requires unilateral military action — as aggressively as necessary.

This isn’t the only worldview held by large numbers of Israeli Jews; there are glimmers of an alternative on the horizon. But if you want to understand why Israel is acting the way it is, you need to start by grappling with the ideology of trauma at the center of its politics.

A voice from the inside

One of the best windows into this worldview I’ve encountered recently is a podcast conversation between Ezra Klein and Israeli journalist Amit Segal

To call Segal prominent is an understatement: One ranking placed him as Israel’s single most influential journalist. He is also an unabashed right-winger; when I attended CPAC Israel in 2022, Segal’s interview with American conservative pundit Ben Shapiro was the headlining event.

That discussion was on Segal’s home turf, both literally and figuratively. The interview with Klein, by contrast, put Segal in a position to try and explain his country’s politics to the New York Times audience. The result was an unusually clear window into an Israeli mindset that outsiders often have a hard time grasping.

In broad terms, Segal tells the story of Israeli politics as one of the left’s decline — a collapse fueled in large part by the failure of its security agenda. “Israelis ceased to believe in the two-state solution, which would be achieved through a bilateral negotiation, because they saw what happened last time,” Segal says. 

In this story, Israel made a generous peace offer to the Palestinians during the 2000 summit at Camp David — only to be immediately rebuffed and met with four-and-a-half years of the Second Intifada, the most violent period of Israeli-Palestinian conflict until the current Gaza war. Shortly after the intifada ended in 2005, Israel attempted a different route to peace: unilaterally withdrawing troops and settlements from the Gaza Strip. The end result of that decision was Hamas taking over the Gaza Strip, using it as a launching pad for rocket fire and (ultimately) the October 7 attack.

This recounting is at best selective, telling only the facts flattering to Israel and leaving out its own mistakes. Jeremy Pressman, a political scientist who studies the Camp David negotiations, accused Segal of “peddling a completely discredited version” of events — one that makes Israel’s offer out to be more generous than his research suggests it actually was.

But setting aside truth for a moment, there is no doubt that Segal’s story is the dominant one among Israeli Jews. They don’t just believe it intellectually, but feel it in a visceral way. The past 25 years of suicide bombings and rocket fire left an open psychological wound, pushing politics to the right even in the relatively low-casualty decade before October 7.

Now, Segal argues, Israelis believe they have no choice but to protect themselves through force — and a lot of it.

“We will probably have to see more soldiers fighting in the north [in Lebanon] and in the south [in Gaza] for the coming years, maybe decades. And there will be a death toll. It’s not going to be a permanent war but maybe a permanent state of ongoing operations,” he says.

In response, Klein suggests that this is “a theory of occupation”: that Israel can only be safe if its military is physically present and in control of Palestine and even parts of Lebanon. And indeed, Segal all but openly admits as much.

“Gaza, the West Bank, and Lebanon are three very different situations. But there is one principle that most Israelis accept, in my opinion, which is that the only guarantee for the lives of Israelis is the fact that there would be an Israeli soldier in each and every place,” he says.

Looming over all of this is the threat from Iran, the principal patron of both Hamas and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

For many outside Israel, it’s hard to imagine how a terrorist group like Hamas could feel like an existential threat to a well-armed state like Israel. But from the Israeli point of view, Hamas is but one arrow in Tehran’s quiver, and it aims to eventually fire them all.

“They will spend the time in order to prepare for the last mission of destroying Israel,” Segal says. “There is a square in Tehran in which there is a clock counting down to the year 2040, in which Israel would be eliminated. And the intelligence in Israel says that they no longer see 2040 as the date but way earlier.”

From the outside, Iran’s rhetoric might appear like saber-rattling — threats that are not matched by its capabilities. 

Israel possesses one of the world’s strongest conventional militaries, one equipped with cutting-edge American technology. Iran’s armed forces are far weaker; it projects power primarily through asymmetric terrorist groups that couldn’t hope to defeat the IDF in open combat. Iran’s recent attack on Israel via drone armada proved to be a massive flop. Israel’s nuclear arsenal provides an ultimate deterrent: It ensures that any serious attempt to destroy Israel would be national suicide, securing Israel even in the event that Iran acquires its own nuclear weapon.

Yet none of this is reassuring enough for many Jewish Israelis. Living in a country that rose from the Holocaust’s ashes, and one that fought three wars for its survival in its first three decades, Israelis have long had good reason to worry. The events of the last 25 years demolished much of their remaining sense of security, convincing them that calm can be deceptive, and the risk always remains. They will tell you, over and over again, that you simply can’t understand this reality unless you have lived through the past few decades of disappointment and death.

This, more than a particular strand of Zionist theory, is Israel’s reigning national philosophy: an ideology of trauma and a vow never to let it happen again.

Can Israel change?

When you really try to think about the world through this lens, Israel’s response to October 7 becomes entirely comprehensible. 

If you believe (as I do) that Israel’s long-term security can only be achieved through peaceful negotiations, then there is no way to rationalize the horror in Gaza. But if you believe that peace is a mirage, as many Israelis do, then it starts to look like Israel has no choice but to pulverize Hamas. From their point of view, the thousands of civilian casualties in Gaza are a terrible necessity — as the only alternative is to abandon their own hope to live without fear of another October 7.

But while this outlook has fueled support for the IDF’s operation Gaza, it does not describe the entirety of Israeli Jews’ approach to politics. And this, I think, is where Segal’s narrative starts to break down.

While it’s true that trauma shapes everything the Israeli polity does, it does not unilaterally point toward more and greater aggression. Even a few months into the war, when the horror of October 7 was fresher, there were clear signs that Israel’s national political ideology did not necessitate an ever-rightward shift in its politics. Those signs are still evident today.

Trauma doesn’t just lead to anger: It can also produce solidarity and sympathy. During the war, this has manifested in a kind of peace movement centered around the demand to bring home the hostages in Gaza via a ceasefire deal. A recent poll found that a majority of Jewish Israelis care more about bringing home the hostages in Gaza than continuing the ongoing military operation in Rafah.

Relatedly, there is immense public frustration with the current far-right government — and support for a swing back to the center. 

Why Israel acts the way it does, Huntsville News

Even before the war, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was unpopular. His extreme right-wing government had been pushing a law seizing power over the judiciary — an overreach that galvanized the largest protest movement in Israeli history. The fact that October 7 happened on Netanyahu’s watch, and he still has not taken an iota of responsibility for the massive failure of Israeli defenses, led his popularity to decline even further.   

Today, a majority of Israelis want Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to step down and hold new elections before the end of this year; polls consistently show his coalition partners losing big. The chief beneficiaries are a centrist coalition waiting in the wings to replace him. 

Moreover, the Israeli military has grown openly skeptical of the country’s current direction. In a recent interview, the IDF’s chief spokesperson — Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari — labeled Netanyahu’s promise of “total victory” in Gaza without a political settlement a fantasy.

“The idea that it is possible to destroy Hamas, to make Hamas vanish — that is throwing sand in the eyes of the public,” he said. “If we do not bring something else to Gaza, at the end of the day, we will get Hamas.”

So it’s important to distinguish between Segal’s explanation of consensus Israeli Jewish politics, on the one hand, and a tendency to portray his particular brand of right-wing politics as the true center. When Segal suggests that Israelis “are angry at Netanyahu because he failed to be as hawkish as they wanted,” he is engaging in precisely such projection.

But occasional overstatements aside, Segal mostly does a valuable service by explaining the beliefs that define Israeli politics today. While the future of Israeli politics is in flux, understanding its present requires grappling with the reality he presents.

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