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  • Written by Mark Beeson Professor of International Politics at Murdoch University

EPA/Atel Safadi
EPA/Atel Safadi

While there is violent disagreement about who is to blame for the unfolding catastrophe in Gaza, there is less argument about its consequences. A rapidly rising – primarily civilian – death toll is difficult enough to contemplate, let alone justify. Eventually the fighting will cease and talks will begin. The only question is how many women and children will be slaughtered between now and then.

Things might have been different. When John Kerry was appointed as US Secretary of State, he nominated doing something about the ‘Palestinian question’ as one of his key foreign policy goals.

Given how many of Kerry’s predecessors have tried in vain to address this problem, it always looked likely to prove a triumph of experience over hope. Even a passing familiarity with the historical record of American engagement in this part of the world should have given significant pause for thought.

Ironically, at least part of the problems have been caused by the United States. It is not controversial to suggest that no other state exercises as much influence over American foreign policy as Israel. John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s important book may not have earned them many friends, but it did a valuable service in revealing just how powerful and influential the Jewish lobby is in the US.

The possibility that any American president or Secretary of State will be able to deal even-handedly with the protagonists in this conflict is simply laughable.

There are two crucial points to make about this. First, and most importantly, it is not anti-Semitic to point this out. Israel’s lobbyists have become highly skilled at shaping the dominant discourse in this area, and the stock response is to paint critics as closet anti-Semites.

This is simply unjust and gets in the way of any reasoned debate about the issues. Israel’s policies should be treated and assessed in exactly the same way as any other state’s. Not to do so actually is racist.

Second, the biased nature of American foreign policy is undermining its credibility and influence in the Middle East. While American standing in the world has recovered dramatically since the dark days of the Bush regime, the one exception is the Arab world, where only 30% of respondents have a favourable view of the US according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Centre.

Soft power may be going out of fashion at present, but it still has its merits. It’s hard to persuade people to behave differently if they doubt your motives.

The limits of hard power are even more apparent for those with eyes to see. All states may have the right to defend themselves, but if any population ought to know something about excessive force, brutality and persecution, it ought to be the people of Israel.

Whatever the historical rights and wrongs of this conflict may be, killing innocent women and children is never a good look – even worse when they’re already in intensive care.

It is a measure of how hopelessly destructive this struggle has become that both sides seem willing to wade through the blood of innocents in pursuit of their goals. Perhaps Hamas really is entirely cynical about the carnage being caused among its own people, but it is worth considering how such a cold-blooded calculus can be sustained and why so many young men have become its willing accomplices and victims.

There is no surer recipe for social disruption than lots of angry young men with no jobs, status, future or stake in a functioning society and economy. Mix in ethnic tensions and unresolved historical grudges and the preconditions for conflict are all too evident. But when these are played out with the confines of the Gaza strip it is a recipe for a pocket-sized apocalypse.

Gaza and Perth (where I am fortunate enough to live) have one thing in common: they both have populations of a bit more than 1.5 million. Gaza’s population is packed into 365 sq kms; Perth’s enjoys about 2500 sq kms.

Living in Gaza would be hellish enough at the best of times. Living there under constant bombardment would be enough to induce despair. The idea that people could seek safety in such circumstances is simply risible.

There are plainly no easy or obvious answers to what is one of the most intractable problems on earth. Outside powers can, however, treat both sides equally. This means that the US, and Australia for that matter, cannot give unqualified, uncritical and unending support to one side. Even friends can behave badly at times. Letting other countries know when they have crossed the line of acceptable behaviour might be in everyone’s interest.

When the UN suggests that Israel may have committed war crimes, clearly something has gone badly wrong. The Palestinians may be suffering most directly, but Israel’s bone-headed, intransigent insistence on using its vastly superior military force to try and solve what is ultimately a political problem can do it no good either.


The Conversation

Professor of International Politics at Murdoch University