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West must grapple with conflict of extinction

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6 December 2023, The Australian, by Paul Kelly

How long can the Albanese government, like other Western governments, maintain the strategic contradiction at the heart of its stance on the Israel-Hamas war? Australia says it wants civilian deaths limited as much as possible yet it supports the dismantling of Hamas.

You might have missed the latter. As Labor’s strategic position, it is rarely put up in lights, despite being the central issue.

But Foreign Minister Penny Wong said in The Guardian on November 4 that a “durable peace” meant both sides respecting “the right of others to exist”.

She said: “It will require the dismantling of Hamas – which doesn’t represent the Palestinian people.”

That means Australia’s support for Israel’s central war objective – dismantling Hamas.

Most people aren’t aware of this because it is rarely enunciated.

Unsurprisingly, it has been Wong’s alternative message that has grabbed the attention. It is her call for restraint, for steps towards a ceasefire, for Israel to abide by international law and to protect civilian lives that has got the attention and headlines.

Labor is sensitive to mounting civilian deaths and the pro- Palestinian views of much of its constituency. It supports the dismantling of Hamas but does not present this as a core objective, though Assistant Foreign Minister Tim Watts told the ABC’s Q+A on November 13 that Hamas did need to be dismantled.

The world struggles with this contradiction – if you want Hamas dismantled then Israel’s campaign must continue, but if you want a ceasefire that means Hamas will survive.

This is the conflict between an existential struggle and a war that meets the tolerable norms of Western opinion. It is whether you see the barbarism of Hamas in its true darkness or whether you function in the West’s humanitarian logic of public limits on violence.

US military strategist Eliot Cohen, based in the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, now visiting Australia at the Lowy Institute, tells this column: “Everybody understands that Israel took a tremendous hit. But I think what is not appreciated is that this raises the existential issue for Israel in a way we haven’t seen for over 50 years.

Everything changes when Israel’s strategy is transformed. And Israel’s frame of mind now is different to anything I’ve ever seen.

“Because of the scale of the massacre and the barbarity of the torture, killings and rape it’s not just a rage in Israel but an implacable determination to eliminate the source of the problem.

“Hamas is a religious movement, an outgrowth of the Muslim Brotherhood, and its objective is to destroy the Israeli state and to kill Jews. Frankly, I think people struggle with this.

“In some of the discussions I’ve had in Australia people say the object of the Hamas attack was to disrupt the Israeli-Saudi negotiations. But I don’t think that’s the situation at all.

“The intention of Hamas was to weaken the Israeli state where, with more attacks, it gets to a point with the involvement of Hezbollah and other actors you can destroy Israel. That is the real objective. But I think we have trouble wrapping our minds around the religious element and the idea of elimination.

Even after 9/11 we have trouble taking the jihadist motivation seriously.”

On the pivotal question – can Israel eliminate Hamas in military terms within the acceptable boundaries of civilian casualties – Cohen is non-committal. “I don’t think we know,” he says.

“But I think the Gaza war is not just about the elimination of Hamas, it’s about restoring Israel’s strategic deterrent and that is aimed at Hezbollah and Iran. As they go after Hamas, part of the external audience is in Beirut and Tehran.”

On the political future of Gaza, there is no apparent solution.

Cohen says: “Nobody wants Gaza, the Egyptians don’t want Gaza, the Saudis don’t want Gaza, the UAE doesn’t want Gaza, the EU doesn’t, the US doesn’t, the Palestinian Authority is incompetent to run Gaza but I bet they don’t want it either.”

He says the best transitional result would involve Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE but they might not be interested. The truth, as Cohen says, is this is a “big war and it’s not over”. It is defined by extreme objectives.

Before October 7, Israel operated on the assumption the Gaza issue was contained. That delusion is shattered. Hamas has achieved its aim of resurrecting the Palestinian question – but the consequence, as Wong says, is that the two-state solution is only pushed “further out of reach”. There is no effective leadership on either side to break the cycle and enter negotiations.

Ghazi Hamad, a senior Hamas official, said the October 7 attack would be repeated “a second, a third, a fourth” time until Israel was extinguished.

“Israel is a country that has no place on our land,” he said. Existential wars are different depending on your location. Cohen has pointed out that World War II was an existential conflict where Allied leaders, notably Winston Churchill, targeted civilian infrastructure and population centres with massive civilian casualties. The end was seen to justify the means. While Israel sees Gaza as an existential conflict, that sentiment is not widely shared in Western democracies.

US President Joe Biden has given Israel firm support but the longer the war, the stronger is the US demand for restraint. US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin now warns that Israel’s military assaults risk replacing “a tactical victory with a strategic defeat”.

This is what happens when you declare an existential war but don’t know how to finish the job.

Everything now depends on how much Israel can modify its tactics and keep the US on side.

The consequence of October 7 is there will be no Middle East peace while Hamas remains in control of Gaza. This is a strategic reality and a moral truth.

The Albanese government knows this – but it can scarcely bring itself to enunciate the truth. It treats the reality as a footnote. It is too unpalatable, too dangerous for a divided Labor Party, too inflammatory for a Muslim community on whose votes Labor depends.

Labor’s rhetoric about the war is increasingly not about the war but about domestic political management. Cohen says: “Our mistake is to apply our conceptions of war to some of the adversaries we deal with. But we’re much likelier to get the truth if you actually believe the things being said by our adversaries.”

We live in a time when the intentions of adversaries are unconcealed – from Hamas, to Vladimir Putin to Xi Jinping. Yet there seems to be a compulsion to obfuscate or excuse their behaviour.

The first step in assessing Israel’s actions is the recognition it is fighting an existential battle. What would Australia do in the equivalent situation?

Article link: https://todayspaper.theaustralian.com.au/infinity/article_popover_share.aspx?guid=8b8044d6-d025-421a-b12d-d81a982801c7
Article source: The Australian | Paul Kelly | 6.12.23

2024-05-08 07:04:10.000000

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