Biden’s Middle East Burden

Earlier today, I left a funeral for a family of five: Livnat and Aviv Kutz and their teen-age children, Rotem, Yonatan, and Yiftach. They are five among the fourteen hundred Israelis slaughtered on October 7th when Hamas fighters swept through the towns and kibbutzim near the Gaza Strip. When rescue teams finally came upon their

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Earlier today, I left a funeral for a family of five: Livnat and Aviv Kutz and their teen-age children, Rotem, Yonatan, and Yiftach. They are five among the fourteen hundred Israelis slaughtered on October 7th when Hamas fighters swept through the towns and kibbutzim near the Gaza Strip. When rescue teams finally came upon their bodies, clustered on a bed, they saw that Aviv Kutz had draped his arms around his wife and kids, a final embrace.

The Kutz family was buried together in a tight row of graves. Their names were read out one after another, the coffins lowered slowly by thick rope into the ground. It took a very long time for five graves to be filled with earth. One of the children’s grandfathers chanted the mourner’s Kaddish as hundreds of people shook with grief. All over the country, in recent days, it has been like this, funeral after funeral, with more to come.

Before the service began, I spoke to friends of the family. They said the only things that people in the depths of grief can manage. They were heartsick. They were numb. They were sleepwalking through their days, up all night. “It is inconceivable,” one of them told me as we made our way toward the white tent that hovered over the graves. “If this is possible, how do you live?” The mourners spoke of the Kutz family’s kindness, their generosity, the schools they shared, the basketball they played together.

The site of the funeral, the New Cemetery, in the town of Gan Yavne, is no more than a half hour’s drive from the Gaza Strip. In the hours preceding the service, the radio had broadcast alerts about rockets from Gaza. Israeli air strikes on Gaza have been going on for days. Estimates of the number of Palestinians killed since the massacre have climbed above three thousand. It is hardly an exercise in rhetorical “equivalence” to observe that in Gaza, too, there are constant funerals, shattered families, civilians living in dread.

Amid such suffering, it seems almost obscene to turn to politics, especially in an era when politics are so often an arena of debasement. But politics, or, better, statecraft is precisely what is needed now to avoid even greater catastrophe—and even greater catastrophe is sure to follow heedless decisions born of rage.

President Biden arrives in the Middle East on Wednesday. In addition to speaking to the Israelis, he will also, according to the White House, confer in Amman with leaders of Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority. For twenty months, the Biden Administration has managed to consolidate NATO support for Ukraine, an enormously complex feat of high-stakes diplomacy and political skill. Yet, in a world of widespread disorder, there is no possibility of taking matters one thing at a time.

After many conversations in recent days with Israelis and Palestinians, after visiting the sites of the October 7th massacre, I find it difficult to convey the over-all sense of dread and rage, the intensity of the demands for vengeance. The atmosphere here is, in certain ways, reminiscent of the atmosphere in the United States in the days after 9/11. The urge not just to mourn, to protect, to defend, and to strike back but to “eradicate,” to “flatten,” to “end them” is, on the most primal level, almost inevitable. But it must be resisted.

President Biden needs to dampen that clamoring for more blood. His expressions of kinship with Israel have moved many Israelis. They have noted not only the positioning of American military vessels in the eastern Mediterranean as a warning to Hezbollah and Iran but also the signals of caution to the Israeli leadership not to “reoccupy” Gaza. Biden will have to push hard to get Prime Minister Netanyahu, who is now increasingly unpopular and widely faulted for the shocking military and intelligence lapses that enabled the massacre in southern Israel, to act with strategic foresight and restraint.

Biden is walking into an emotional maelstrom. Turn on the radio here, or doomscroll through your social media of choice, stare at your WhatsApp—every moment brings more stories of cruelty. Turn on the TV news and there’s yet another missile warning, another air strike. The sense of alarm is unrelenting. They broke through the fence at Gaza with bulldozers and roared into Israel on motorcycles and pickup trucks with AK-47s and R.P.G.s—what’s next? Some speak of a multi-front conflict taking in Israel, the Palestinians, and Iran and its proxies, foremost among them Hezbollah, in Lebanon.

No one seems prepared to count on Netanyahu. His support is plummeting, and he may eventually face the prospect of resignation. He has consistently put his own political interests before the country’s. When the leaders of Hamas decided to carry out their horrific plot last week, timing was essential to its success. They recognized the weaknesses in Israel’s defenses and its vaunted Start-Up Nation technologies; they also saw a divided nation and a profoundly reactionary and incompetent leadership.

The ramifications of a large-scale ground invasion of Gaza are unknowable, though it could easily lead to the loss of many thousands more lives. The body count is already rising quickly. On Tuesday evening, there were reports of an air strike on a hospital in Gaza City killing hundreds of people, according to the local health ministry. According to the A.P., if those reports are confirmed, this would be the deadliest Israeli air strike in Gaza since 2srcsrc8. Israeli security officials denied responsibility for the bombing, blaming instead a misfired rocket by Islamic Jihad.

Israel, like any other country, has a right to safeguard its existence and its citizens, and it would be folly to say that there is some easy way to combat Hamas without cost. But what will come from answering cruelty with accelerating cruelty, from an endless bombing campaign, from reoccupying part or all of Gaza? One thing is certain: it will intensify the suffering and resentments of ordinary Palestinians. Will it make Israel more secure? And what will a large-scale ground war do for Israel’s relations with Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and other relatively moderate Arab states, much less for a potential normalization with Saudi Arabia? The Palestinian Authority’s leadership—aging, corrupt, and, thanks to the Israeli government’s perverse undermining, weak—will only lose more standing in the West Bank and Gaza.

Biden will doubtlessly show support to Israeli leaders to the Israeli hostages taken by Hamas, and to the survivors of the massacre. But to confer license upon an agenda of vengeance will not end well. On a tiny landscape—one tortured by history and animosity and catastrophic error—countless lives on both sides of the fence are at stake. The Israeli notion of “shrinking” the conflict, of ignoring it, was always an illusion; without some resolution, anything resembling a normal existence for Israelis and Palestinians will ultimately be impossible.

On my way back to Tel Aviv from the funerals in Gan Yavne, I spoke to Mosab Abu Toha, a young Palestinian poet who lives in northern Gaza with his family. He was less focussed on the largest geopolitical and military questions than on the danger all around him. We have been talking for several days, and yesterday he said, “I hope I will be alive when you next call.” Today, after learning of the reported hospital bombing in Gaza City, Mosab sent me this message: “Help, help, help.” ♦

This article has been updated to include news developments.

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