Armed Conflict

Lawfare Daily: Benjamin Wittes on Israel, Gaza, and Implications for U.S. Foreign and Domestic Policy

Benjamin Wittes, Jen Patja
Monday, May 6, 2024, 8:00 AM
A lecture on the Israel-Gaza War

Published by The Lawfare Institute
in Cooperation With

On April 24, Lawfare Editor-in-Chief Benjamin Wittes delivered a Watson Distinguished Lecture at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University to discuss the Israel-Gaza war and the implications for U.S. foreign and domestic policy. He talked about Israel’s incompatible objectives of freeing hostages and eradicating Hamas, the moral context of the war, U.S.-Israeli relations in this context, what the U.S. and Israel still have in common—and what they no longer have in common—in this environment, and how the war could affect U.S. presidential elections.

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Click the button below to view a transcript of this podcast. Please note that the transcript was auto-generated and may contain errors.


[Audio Excerpt]

Benjamin Wittes

How do you alleviate a moral disaster in a fashion that is consistent with the fact that a state will, and in my judgment, should defend itself? And that we don't really like the idea of tens of thousands of civilians paying the price for that?

Natalie Orpett

It's the Lawfare Podcast. I'm Natalie Orpett, Executive Editor of Lawfare, introducing my colleague, Lawfare Editor in Chief Benjamin Wittes.

Benjamin Wittes

Whether this issue alone has the capacity to destroy the Biden administration, and elect Donald Trump, I am skeptical. Whether this issue in combination with other things erodes the president's electoral coalition, I have no doubt that is true.

Natalie Orpett

Today, we're bringing you audio from a recent event at Brown University, where Ben delivered the Watson Distinguished Lecture to discuss Israel, Gaza, and implications for foreign and domestic policy in the United States.

[Main Podcast]

Benjamin Wittes

I want to start with a memory that has been very much on my mind of late. This took place in the summer of 1991. Shortly after I had graduated from college, I traveled for a while, and in the summer of ‘91, ended up in Jerusalem, where I spent a month lying around, and found myself one day at a conference listening to one of the most extraordinary people I have ever laid eyes on. And his name was Yeshayahu Leibowitz. He was within three years of his death at the time. He was in his nineties and he spoke at this conference.

So Shaya Leibowitz is one of the very few people that if you look at his Wikipedia entry, he is actually described as his title as a polymath. He was a remarkable, he was a scientist. He was a professor at the Hebrew University for many decades, six decades or something. He taught in a variety of scientific fields. He was also an ultra-Orthodox Jew, who was, notwithstanding, being a member of the Haredi community, which is generally, has a suspicious relationship with the Israeli State in different ways. He was a proud Zionist. He was also, I believe, the first Israeli intellectual to declare in 1967 that the territories under no circumstances could be retained and they must be returned unconditionally for reasons that he laid out in an essay that unfortunately has aged extremely well. He was an enormously controversial figure in Israeli life across a number of different subjects, including a lot of his writing, which were on religious issues. And he was a passionate dissenter from what became a kind of small orthodoxy in religious Zionist circles, which was that there was something holy about the land of Israel. And Leibowitz was a very fierce critic of this idea.

So he's an enormously complicated figure. And I honestly don't remember if I knew anything about this when I wandered into this conference and saw him at age 91, or whatever he was, speaking in English, which was probably his eighth or tenth language, without notes. And his speech opened with a line that I, these 30-plus years later, am quoting from memory, I'm not vouching for my exactness as to it, but I am conveying what he said. It moved me so much that a few years ago I wrote to the organizers of the conference to see if I could acquire a copy of, did they have a transcript, did they have a tape. And they didn't. But the person who organized the conference wrote me back and said, I remember that day too. I was not the only person he made an impression on. And he opened his speech, which I think was improvised. I'm not sure.

He said—and you have to, I'm not going to try to imitate his accent. You have to imagine an old man with a kind of Latvian-Israeli accent speaking in English. And you could hear a lot in the voice. And he said, “I became a Zionist because I wanted the Jews to have our own state so that we could commit our own follies, commit our own atrocities, engage in our own corruption.” He went through a long list of horrible things that he wanted Jews to have their own state so they could do, and he ended it by saying, “and be responsible for it.” And then he had a twinkle in his eye and a little bit of a smile. And he said, “And now, I am happy to say, it is all accomplished.” I thought this was an arresting introduction to a speech in the year of our Lord, 1991. I think it's more arresting today, and I want focus particularly on two things he wanted the state of Israel to exist for in the name of responsibility, so that Jews could be responsible or accountable. I honestly don't remember which word he used.

The first is the word follies, and the second is the word atrocities. It's a very odd thing to say that you want your people to be able to commit their own atrocities and be responsible. This was not an ill-considered statement that he made. It was something that he had thought about and was trying to be provocative with. But I think he also really believed. So we come to a time where we do have to ask the question, which are follies? Which are atrocities? And what does accountability look like? What does it mean for a state to do things and be responsible?

And I want to submit that one of the answers to that question, uniquely in the case of the state of Israel, has to do with the relationship with the United States. That Israel has many mechanisms of responsibility. It has a rule of law that is meaningful. It is not a lawless place. It has a genuinely independent judiciary. It has a military, a set of military rule of law institutions that are super, super elaborate and complicated and interesting. A few years ago, I was in Israel and wrote a piece about Israeli targeting procedures and I posted it on Lawfare and that night, I got a call from the Israeli military, asking me if I would be willing to come in and lecture on the piece the next morning. And they sent a car to Jerusalem and drove me to the Kirya, which is the Pentagon, which is actually in Tel Aviv. And the international law staff of the IDF, which is small, but it's a very prestigious group, gathered around a table. And this is a remarkably developed military legal culture that has only really one rival in that sense, which is the United States.

But, the other side of the coin is that one of the accountability measure mechanisms, the responsibility mechanisms that Israel has that really no other country has, is this very deep relationship with the United States. And so, I think what you have seen over the last six months, and it's almost exactly six months, is that mechanism has been the principal means, and I don't think Leibowitz would have liked that. I don't think he would have thought that was attractive from his position as a very religious, entirely secular Zionist. I think that the principal mechanism by which Israel has been responsible, has been accountable, is in the person of Joe Biden, who ironically has received an enormous amount of criticism for things that the Israeli government has done.

So I want to break down a few elements of this. And I should have mentioned, there is another really important and perhaps dominant element of ultimate Israeli responsibility, accountability. And that is the fact that governments of Israel are very fragile things and they fall quickly, they fall suddenly, and the people actually are extremely divided, and everything that you hear in the United States in reference to debates about Israeli policy and action does not begin to approach the internal discussions that happen within Israel. And so, that is another mechanism of accountability, but I'm going to ignore it for now. And the reason is that it's stunted by the fact that the government has 64 votes and they are stable for now. They will collapse at some point. And then that mechanism of accountability, which is the very fractious Israeli electoral democracy will kick in and that will become the principal one. But it isn't yet. The principal one is the relationship with the United States.

I want us to keep multiple ideas in our head at the same time. And I don't think this is too much to ask, but a lot of people seem to have trouble with it. So I'm going to lay this out, you can call them my priors or my biases, if you will. I think they are the baseline ideas that one cannot reasonably approach this conversation without having. The first is that states have a right of self-defense. And that right, by the way, is not dependent on whether we like the state or not. There are very few states I have ever hated the way I hated the Soviet Union, to the point that I rejoiced at its dissolution, literally. And yet when attacked, the Soviet Union had a right of self-defense, and nobody questions that. And just to be clear, this is not because we like certain states, we don't like certain states, and the word “right” confuses the matter a little bit. The more relevant point is that states will defend themselves. And by the way, under international law, the right of self-defense is an actual right under the UN Charter. It preexists the UN Charter. But I'm not, I don't mean right in that sense. I mean that it is a simple fact of being a state that when attacked, you will defend yourself. If you do not, you will cease to be a state very quickly. And so, when people talk about the Israeli right of self-defense, we sometimes think of it as though that's contingent on whether we admire the state or not. The right of self-defense is not a right that is contingent on good behavior. It just is. Another way to think about it is it's not even a right. It's just a prediction that is correct 100% of the time about how a state will behave.

The second thing to say is that the Israeli right of self-defense in response to what happened on October 7th is impossible, or almost impossible, to exercise without catastrophic consequences. And I know this because it was obvious before the Israeli military operation started, and it's obvious to anyone who's spent any time looking at the Gaza Strip, even from a distance. This is a very small territory. It is an incredibly densely populated territory, and it's a territory in which a particularly malevolent and law non-abiding force is dug in. And it's dug in a fashion, by the way, that warrants some respect. And I don't mean moral respect. But I mean what they did, and they did it many years ago, was that they made a decision that they were going to make this territory impossible to take without killing an enormous number of civilians in a fashion that would bring down the wrath of the world on Israel.

Now, think about that from the point of view of, say, a war crimes analysis. You're not allowed to dig in among civilians for purposes of endangering civilians, or even in a fashion that endangers civilians. And you're not allowed to do that in order to launch attacks that are themselves attacks on civilians.

So in the world of really malevolent abuses of the laws of war, Hamas actually deserves a certain amount of respect for having imagined what I call a kind of compound war crime, right? You commit one war crime by committing another war crime, right? You attack civilians by way of drawing the enemy to your civilians, among whom you have hidden. And the assumption is you get two things out of this. It's a really evil, but clever, strategic logic, right? It is, one, you terrorize the other side. And two, by encouraging or requiring the other side to kill large numbers of your people, you deal a political blow in world opinion to that side. And if you listen to the interviews with Hamas leadership, they're quite candid that that's what they're doing. They're not hiding the ball about this.

I want to be blunt about this. It's almost impossible to do, and Israel hasn't tried hard enough to do it. To actually engage this enemy under these circumstances was going to produce a horrible catastrophe, and they probably had no choice but to do that. And yet, we have these repeated instances where the weapons are just too big for the civilian density of the population, of the areas that have been hit. We have access to humanitarian aid that has been impeded in fashions that elements of the government, at least, are clear, are intentional. The government itself is a little bit more muddy about that. But boy, when the United States really brought down the hammer and said you need to let more trucks in, they let more trucks in. There are a number, I'm going to come back to that in a moment, about the things that one really should blame Israel for. That's pretty high on the list.

Should we think of these in the language of atrocity or in the language of folly, to go back to Shaya Leibowitz's question? The answer is, I am inclined to think of it more in the language of folly for reasons I'll explain. But these are really ugly follies, and the human consequences associated with them have been vast. And I don't think it is quite an answer to the problem to say we're talking about mere folly. We're talking about foolishness. We're talking about corruption. We're not talking about intentional atrocities. People, in my opinion, order the questions in the wrong order. So we start with the question as the ICJ has been forced to confront, is this genocide?

Let me lay my cards on the table. This is not genocide. Full stop, end of story. There is simply no evidence that the Israeli government is trying to kill the Palestinian people as a people. It's not a close question. So then genocide's too heavy a lift. By the way, and the ICJ will agree with me about that. It'll take them a few years, but that's going to happen. So then you go to the next question, which is, are there war crimes? That's actually a little bit of a harder question, not because there are obviously war crimes. But because the nature of a war crimes analysis is a highly detailed analysis that we actually can't do at this point. Without going into details about the laws of war, which I'm happy to chat with you about in the Q& A if you want, when you look at the question of a war crime, you have to look at it from the point of view of the commander who authorized the very specific attack. So you don't get to say, wow, a whole lot of civilians are killed, this must be a war crime. You have to say, a given soldier in a given military under a given set of circumstances authorized a particular action. And you have to look at that decision from the point of view and with the knowledge had by that officer at that time, not what later turns out to be the case, right? So he thinks that a group of people are firing on his troops. He authorizes firing on that group of people. It turns out they're a wedding party with some firecrackers, right? That is not a war crime. It's a horrible thing. But if he honestly believed that and he had reason to believe that, the fact that the outcome is horrible does not make it a war crime. And in fact, not only is it not a war crime, he can't be prosecuted for it. He has what's called combat immunity.

So, in order to establish, to answer the question, are there war crimes, you will have to do hundreds of investigations of individual actions. I have no doubt that some of them will be found to exceed the laws of war. In every combat situation that happens. I don't even doubt that more than usual for the IDF or for U.S. forces or for Western forces in general there may be more such actions in this case than in others for reasons related to the difficulty of the operating environment. Frankly, anger at what happened on October 7th. There will not be pervasive war crimes prosecutions here. That's the wrong question too. It's not a wrong question, but it's not the right question.

The right question to start with is, is this a moral disaster? And that's a question that in our legalistic way we don't like to ask. Because we like to say, hey, there are these rules and if you follow the rules, you're okay. And this is a situation where you can follow all the rules and it's not okay. And the reason for that is partly the strategic dilemma that Hamas has created. And it is partly a creature of the fact that the Israelis’ own military goals are hopelessly in conflict with one another. Let me spell that out.

The Israelis have articulated two overriding military objectives. One is to free the hostages, and the other is the eradication of Hamas, at least as a governing force. Hamas holds those hostages. Most people don't give up the last thing that is keeping them from being eradicated as a governing force easily. And you're seeing that Hamas was willing to do a certain amount of bargaining early in the conflict, but is really not eager to free the remaining hostages, even in exchange for some period of peace. And the reason is that they know, correctly, that once the Israelis have achieved the first objective, they will be serious about the second objective, and the hostages are actually the thing that are preventing that second objective from materializing. The result is that the Israelis are in a position that is partly of their own making. I don't mean to blame them for the underlying situation, but the failure to articulate clear objectives that are not hopelessly in conflict with one another is something I'm confident Yeshayahu Leibowitz would have called follies. And it's a folly for which they should be, that they are responsible. And some of what the current U. S. Israeli tensions are about, is whether they are accountable for them.

So there's a second bed that the Israelis made for themselves. And this one I'm much more sympathetic to them about because I don't actually know what the alternative to it was. So you start attacking Hamas in Gaza City. And the world, including the United States, rightly calls out and says, hey, we need humanitarian safe corridors for civilians. For those of you who've never spent time around Gaza, it's really small. It's called a strip for a reason, right? It's got a north-south road and it's a lot of people living on the edge of very desperate circumstances all the time. And it's wildly overpopulated. And it is extremely hard to operate in it as a military force that's trying to eradicate Hamas. It is also really hard to be a civilian in it when that conflict is going on. And the IDF has a lot more choices in how it manages its difficult situation than Palestinian civilians have in how to manage theirs.

So the world says we need safe passage corridors to a location where the IDF is not going to be operating. And so the basic pressure over time is go as far south as you can, and that means you have a very large number of people, first packed into Khan Yunis and then packed into Rafah, where they are now. And of course, one group of people that immediately does that as well is the remaining Hamas battalions, who are not, understandably, not that eager to be in Gaza or in Khan Yunis when the civilians are not there and the Israelis are free to occupy and attack those areas. And so, they migrate south too. And the result is that you have—and by the way, some of those remaining Hamas battalions were always there. This was the southern branch of what was effectively the governing militia of the entire strip. And so you've got a group of battalions that are there. And in order to protect them, crowded in a very large number of civilians—and by the way, if you were engaged in genocide, you wouldn't have allowed that to happen in the first place, right? That was itself an expression of a rule of law military trying to observe, under rather difficult circumstances, the requirements of civilian protection.

But now you have a problem, which is that the civilians are there. The civilians are the only thing keeping the Hamas people alive. And you want to finish objective number two, and you can't do it anymore without a very dramatic set of consequences for civilians that you've in fact packed in there. And so, you have, as a result, a very significant problem that does not have an obvious resolution. And I actually think the Israeli deserve a certain sympathy on this point. But it does not relieve them of the obligation of coming up with a solution to it that doesn't involve the destruction of very large numbers of civilian lives.

It's a moral disaster born of another moral disaster. That's where I think the conversation should start with the question of, how do you alleviate a moral disaster in a fashion that is consistent with the fact that a state will, and in my judgment, should—but if we can't agree on should, we can at least agree on the objective will—defend itself? And that we don't really like the idea of tens of thousands of civilians paying the price for that. And actually, it keeps us up at night.

So, U.S.-Israeli relations in this context, and then I'm going to stop and open it up for conversation. One, I made a list of things that are still in common between Israel and the United States in this environment and things that are no longer in common and are sources of these tensions. So here's what's in common. Iran, right? So the other day, Iran launches an incredible missile barrage and drone barrage on Israel. And the United States scrambles a whole lot of air defenses. And along with the Israelis and a number of other regional partners actually prevents almost any of them from landing and almost any civilian consequences in Israel. This happened in the midst of incredibly tight coordination between the United States and Israel on a whole range of non-Gaza, I mean they're Gaza adjacent because they're exacerbated by the Gaza war, but they've existed independently of them for a long time. They continue to.

And by the way, the United States is not the only example of that. All this stuff is going on, and Saudi and Jordanian forces were involved in that operation too. That's a really interesting example of what is not in friction. And so you can say the core of the unofficial Israeli-Sunni alliance, moderate Sunni Arab state alliance, which includes the UAE, Jordan, Saudi Arabia. It's both an alliance and there's no mutual recognition between them. It's kind of an odd situation. That is oddly very much intact. And call that the U.S. state-level security umbrella within the region. It's not unaffected by this, but it's not seriously threatened by it either. And by the way, Congress turned around the other day, and I think President Biden signed it today. Haven't checked that. The money for Israel in the supplemental, which is largely about this kind of air defense stuff, certain other high-tech weapons, passed. And it wasn't the part of the Supplemental that was really controversial, although there was a set of left objections to it. What really held up the Supplemental in a much deeper sense was the MAGA-wing of the Republican Party's hatred of Ukraine. And so this would have happened much earlier had that factor not been a part of the conversation.

Second thing, there is not a whole lot of daylight, even amidst all of this, between the United States and Israel over larger normalization questions between Israel and those countries in the region that it does not currently have relations with, most particularly Saudi Arabia. If you could say to Joe Biden tomorrow, okay, Abraham Accords, part two, Saudi Arabia, you into it? They'd be enthusiastically into it, right? And on regional matters, in general, these tensions are there. But they're not the foundations of the U.S.-Israel relations in a regional sense are very, very strong and remain so, notwithstanding these concerns.

Number three. All kinds of technical and intelligence cooperation. This one does not get a lot of publicity for obvious reasons. Neither country especially wants to advertise their capabilities. Both of them have extreme capabilities and they work very closely together. And that is not easily replaceable, less because Israel has unique capabilities, though it does. But because there are intelligence relationships of a high quality are developed over long periods of time between countries. And the countries that we work with most carefully, those are relationships that are built and once built, they're very valuable.

So what are the areas of actual friction at this point? And I'll just tick them off. One is Rafah. One is the general sense, with some very specific examples behind it, but it's a general sense on the part of the American administration and the American military that the Israelis have been trigger happy, and that they have been very aggressive in a fashion that has caused unnecessary civilian harm and has embarrassed, as a result, the United States in its defense of Israel. And I think there are people who are more upset about it from a moral point of view, and there are people who are more upset about it from a you can't put us in this position point of view, right? It's a how real politic are you versus how much of a bleeding heart are you? I'm both. I don't like it when U.S. allies or partners put us in extremely difficult positions. I also don't like it when civilians are killed unnecessarily. And so I think that's a friction.

Humanitarian access. I think this is actually one that is likely to take care of itself because the last thing the Israelis need is a famine in Gaza, and they actually know that. And if you were going to have to litigate before the ICJ, whether you're committing genocide, it sure does help to be able to say, no, actually we're allowing a thousand trucks in to prevent starvation. And so there's a self-interest there. And I am hopeful, though I would never say confident, that that is an issue that Israeli self-interest is actually aligned functionally with U.S. demands, at least in the long run. I'm fearful of how many people are going to starve to death between now and the long run, but I do think we can get there.

One other area that we're really not aligned and that is—or two other. One is the West Bank. And this is an Israeli government that has very actively sought to—and the finance minister, this is his whole political reason for existence is the continued occupation of the West Bank. There's been a lot of settler violence against Palestinians. And while I don't think that any of that is—I don't think these are high priority items for Bibi Netanyahu, right now. I do think the nature of his government is such that it doesn't matter whether they're personally high priority items for him. They're high priority items for essential members of his coalition, and his government will fall the moment he actually does the things that the U.S. has to insist that he does, which is crack down on settler violence in a serious way. So that is an area of real friction. It has nothing to do with Gaza, but it's an area of real friction. And it's getting worse.

And then the last area, which will return me to the point of moral disaster, is the lack of a strategy. If you haven't noticed, I am defensive of the idea that Israel was going to go into Gaza and that there was no way to do that without a huge number of civilian deaths. I actually don't think it's possible. When you are going to do something that requires that you kill a lot of innocent people, even if justified, there is an exceptional moral requirement that you know what you're doing, and that you do it in a way that is strategically sound, and that is not going to do more damage than you need to do, and that you have a plan for the day after. Those aren't legal requirements, by the way. Again, don't ask the war crimes question first. Don't ask the genocide question first. Ask the moral catastrophe question first. Should we expect that a government that is going to go into a theater of operations under those circumstances have a clear idea, at least articulated to itself, of what it's trying to do? And they didn't. And don't let anyone tell you that they did. And the evidence that they didn't is that they articulated two war objectives that are frankly incompatible with one another. And I do think that is something to which they are responsible and the principal mechanism of their accountability for it is the relationship with the United States. Although on the conflicting war aims, they have a democratic problem too, which is that the families of the hostages aren't that interested in the eradication of Hamas. They're interested in the return of their families. And so that one, there's another element.

I don't think there is a way to defend Bibi Netanyahu or his people from the charge of having done this without a strategy, or at least without a coherent strategy. They've never been able to articulate it to the United States. They've never been able to articulate it in public. They launched the war before they had actually formulated any of it. And by the way, that's not a war crime, but I think if Shaya Leibowitz were here, he would say it's the kind of folly for which he became a Zionist so that the Jews would have their own state and they would be able to make their own follies and be able responsible for them. And again, I don't remember if he used the word responsible or accountable so I will say both. That's the fundamental folly for which they need to be held accountable. And when I say folly, I don't mean it in the sense of funny. I mean it in the sense of catastrophically stupid. And I do think that's something that they are going to have to answer for. And one of the people they are going to have to answer for it to is the United States of America.

So I will stop there, and you guys should take it in any direction you want.


Thanks so much, Ben. Maybe I'll just start with one question that follows on your last point. So this is a question about the relationship between a set of security issues and politics, American politics. So to what extent do you think the conflict now in Gaza has the capacity basically to get Donald Trump elected? And similarly, to what extent do you think that the Netanyahu government, or Netanyahu himself, sees that and that's a way of dealing with this accountability problem to the United States, to get a different president in office?

Benjamin Wittes

Yeah, so whether this issue alone has the capacity to destroy the Biden administration and elect Donald Trump, I am skeptical. Whether this issue in combination with other things erodes the president's electoral coalition, I have no doubt that that is true. And look, Bibi Netanyahu has no problem engaging in U.S. electoral politics. Remember that in 2016, or 2015, I forget what year it was. He came in the context of a U.S. election and gave what is a pretty partisan speech before a joint session of Congress about Iran, and it was understood to be an attack on the Obama administration. And I'm certain it was intended that way. And so does he have a preference?

Now the flip side of that is that on a bunch of issues, Bibi Netanyahu has a lot of reasons to be grateful to Joe Biden. And one of them is that he really disaggregates questions and doesn't make the fact that they don't like each other and don't get along on these Gaza issues, he doesn't let that affect the Iran issues, right? You gotta be a little worried if you're Bibi that if you have Trump in office, if you don't stay at the Trump Hotel, which doesn't exist anymore, he's gonna hold it against you on everything else. That's the Zelensky effect, right? That gets taken out of your hide in a hundred ways. Biden has been very predictable from an Israeli point of view and mostly very stalwart. And the only thing that impeded the stalwartness was the fact that the Israelis put the Americans in a really difficult situation, including really eroding the president's electoral base, particularly among young people.

And so I'm not sure—I'm certain there are some people in Netanyahu's government who would love to have Donald Trump reelected. Bibi Netanyahu is a very smart man among his many faults. One of them is not a lack of intelligence. And he has to know that in the main, Biden has been very sophisticated and helpful under the circumstances.

Audience Member

I also have a sort of political question about the relationship between Israel and current strategies or policy in Gaza and the American Jewish community. And I guess a couple of questions. To what extent within Israel, and certainly within the Israeli government, is the support of the American Jewish community viewed as important, if not essential, to long-term Israeli security? And relatedly, what do you think the impact is on American Jewish support or Zionist identity or any of these things on Israel?

Benjamin Wittes

So the second question is an easier one because we have polling data and we know what it says, which is that Jews above a certain age—and by the way, the tipping point is right around my age, right around your early fifties. If you're older than that, you have a sentimental and tribal attachment to Israel, and you're willing to overlook a lot, although people have also reached their limits in that regard, right? Below a certain age, American Jews’ attitude toward Israel look a lot like the youth demographic attitudes in general, and a lot less like the aggregate Jewish attitude. So I think the writing on the wall is bad from an Israeli—if you're an Israeli analyst who's saying, hey, we need American Jewish support. They have not done a good job of maintaining that, except in two, narrow spheres. One is the orthodox community and the second is conservative Jews, Republican Jews, that is, politically conservative Jews. Beyond that they have a demographic problem in their American Jewish support.

Now the question of what Israeli's leadership thinks of that really depends on which Israeli leadership you're talking about. Bibi's attitude over time has been that at least, he's never expresses this, but he does seem very comfortable with the idea of letting support for Israel become partisan. That, his natural, the people he likes to hang out with in Washington when he comes here are Republicans. And he's not a non-partisan guy in the American political context. He works with Democrats, he maintains good relations with them. But he's never made a secret of where his political sympathies are in the American political text. And I think that has been destructive of the sense within the Jewish community of Israel as a non-political issue, as just a communal issue, and I think Bibi actually has done a lot of damage to that.

Audience Member

First of all, thank you for your perspectives on some of those points of tension between the U.S. government and the Israeli one. My question is about what are the levers of American power for actually having that accountability happen? Because we've seen the funding pass through Congress, the president signed it, the U.S. uses its veto in the U. N. There's been some public statements about being dissatisfied with the Israeli government. But is it all happening through private diplomatic and political channels or what else can happen here?

Benjamin Wittes

Yeah, so it's a great question. So let me answer it in, I think, three different ways.

First of all, there is the funding. The fact that you are the funder gives you a voice. And this is what people mean when they say Biden embraced Bibi, and by doing that, he created a seat for himself at the table. It's not just that he embraced him. It's that he embraced him and paid for the wedding, right? And so, then you get to make a speech at the wedding, right? And now it is fair, in my judgment, to criticize Biden, if your instincts run that way, to criticize Biden for not being willing to be more heavy-handed with the with the funding.

The flip side of that coin is that everything that—the modulations of Israeli pop-policy that have taken place, the fact that there has not been a Rafah operations starting, the fact that humanitarian aid is getting in now in much larger numbers. These are entirely a function of U.S. pressure. This is not the EU clucking, this is not the ICJ having a hearing on gen—and it's not street protests or encampments on college campuses. This is 100% a function of the U.S. using the levers that it in fact has. And so there's a lot that goes on behind the scenes. And whether that is worth the moral price of silence, the moral price of vetoes in the Security Council, is a function of one's own sense of how to balance the moral equities, right? I do think the administration has been actually quite effective in a lot of ways, but a lot of it has been very quiet.

What are the other levers? The other levers are that Israelis really pretend that they don't care if they're isolated. They really care if they're isolated. That's a sort of Israeli, we will do it ourselves if we need to, machismo. But a lot of it's bullshit. And they do know that they need a relationship with the rest of the world. They're not a country that can do what Russia has done, and they don't want to be, and we're their gateway to the rest of the world. And so there's a lot of it that is just whispering in their ears, you can't get away with that. And it's very important for the administration to be engaged with Israeli society and governmental apparatus at all different levels because there are things that are consensus in Israel that aren't consensus outside of Israel, and they need to be aware of that.

And a lot of the levers are subtle and I think both sides in the relationship prefer, for both similar and different reasons, they very much prefer that it be entirely subtle, that there's an absolute wall of unity in public and there are a lot of screaming fights in private. And that is something that has not survived the last six months and maybe that's a good thing.

Audience Member

Maybe I'm just ignorant, but I understand the subject of levers. And I know that my colleague, I think Nina, said earlier today to a reporter that she wished that the aid package hadn't passed. But I don't understand how the United States can not support Israel financially given the politics of the entire region. And being punitive with funding seems to me to be not, I don't know how that works politically, whether it can work politically. And at the same time, looking at—

Benjamin Wittes

You've just explained the bipartisan vote with very large numbers and the fact that the president signed it quickly. The question answers itself.

Audience Member

And then how can Bibi feel comfortable dealing with conservatives in the United States if the MAGA wing of the Republican Party is saying maybe they don't care as much about Israel as they care about not giving money to Ukraine? But it seems crazy to be in bed with Republicans who are not being consistent with their support of Israel.

Benjamin Wittes

So you would need a sociologist, of which I am not one, to answer that question in a semi-rigorous fashion. Let me give you some decidedly non-rigorous thoughts on it. So number one, the attraction between populist authoritarian leaderships around the world. You could ask the same question about a lot of them. Why is Bibi attracted to Viktor Orbán? Why does his son hang out in Brazil under Jair Bolsonaro, right? There's some weird attraction—or Bibi's son and Donald Trump Jr. are buds, right? There's some weird attraction that a lot of these movements have with one another. Now Bibi is a weird fit in this constellation because he's smart, he's elite educated, he's actually very sophisticated and he's not an outsider, so he fits in a weird way into this constellation. And yet he fits into this constellation. And so, there's a bit of a game recognizes game thing going on in that world. And they do tend to like each other more, to go back to your question.

Trump was very popular in Israel, and he was popular in Israel for reasons that some of them are very understandable. He moved the embassy to Jerusalem, right? He, whether by savvy or by luck, he presided over the Abraham Accords, which are rightly very popular in Israel, right? That was a breakthrough for them. And so there are things named after Trump in Israel. He's not thought of the way elite opinion thinks of him here.

And then there is a long-running sense that the reality has not entirely caught up with reality. That Republicans are better for Israel than Democrats, which goes back to a kind of Nixon, Reagan era thing that the right is very stalwart on matters Israel and the left is a little bit more fickle. There was some truth to that when you went from the Nixon administration, through which, of course, mobilized nuclear forces during the ‘73 war. Really put its money where its mouth was. Kissinger arranges the disengagement agreements during the Ford administration. And Jimmy Carter is not the most popular man in Israel, right, and has spent a lot of his post-presidency saying things that are very offensive to many Israelis. And then is replaced by Reagan, who was, of course, was thought of as a great friend of Israel. So there's some historical truth to this perception from Israel's point of view, without saying what I think of any of those administration's policies, that's a different matter. Just describing how Israelis respond to them.

And there are some counterexamples. Israelis are not fans of George H.W. Bush. They are fans of Bill Clinton, who was a very warmly regarded figure in Israel. So there are counterexamples too, but the sort of general sense that Republicans are more pro-Israel than Democrats has a kind of historical valence to it. And the fact that there is simply no contemporary support—like it's very hard to look at the current political constellation and say that Israel would be likely to do better under the Republican administration on offer. Who, Trump actually has said publicly, threatened Jews. You have to vote for me. He engages in his usual political extortion. And I do think that the Israeli society hasn't quite caught up to that. But it's a complicated issue.

Audience Member

I’ve been called out, so I guess I should ask a question. I'm Nina Tannenwald, and I have been teaching a course this semester on ethics and international affairs, and I assigned your piece from Lawfare from the fall where you make this argument about strategy, and it was it was very useful. I want to come back to the issue of whether the level of destruction in Israel is folly or atrocity. And reasonable people can debate this, and I have no particular stake in whether it's genocide or not, but it does seem like that the level of destruction and the kind of destruction is very gratuitous, right? There's a perception that there's a lot of gratuitous violence—controlled demolitions, targeting Palestinian cultural sites, libraries, all the universities, right, Mosques, etc., etc. And that suggests a level of intent to destroy those things. That it's not just here and there, it's a systematic pattern. And so, this is what the international community is looking at and seeing, right, what looks like a lot of gratuitous and excessive violence and excess in almost every single area, including what seems like a starvation policy.

My question to you though is, this is a more social science question is, following from that, I'm interested in the changing norms of the IDF and whether, when you compare the IDF's behavior in this war—and now I'm getting to the sort of compliance issue—compared with earlier wars, the claim is that they're the most moral army in the world and that was probably never entirely true, but they at least pretend to act as if even they believed that. And now they don't even do that. And I wonder if you have some insights on the changing nature of the demographics within the IDF, the more religious nationalists, and how the IDF is going to behave going forward. Because I've looked at the earlier wars and I think that all the war selfies here with ladies’ underwear and blowing up homes and looting from residences, this is completely inconsistent with an army that thinks about itself as professional. And you have all these rabbis calling the shots. What does that pretend for the future in terms of, the moral catastrophe?

Benjamin Wittes

Okay. So there's a few questions in here and I want to tease them out, disaggregate them a little bit.

So the first is the question of what appears to be systematic targeting of sites that are not legitimate targets. And I want to say that on that question it is important to actually to reserve judgment. And the reason is that in a quite systematic way, Hamas was using those facilities. And so to evaluate whether that in fact reflects what you have described, which is one very plausible hypothesis, you actually have to know, first of all, what the Israelis knew or thought they knew about the way the individual sites were being used. And number two, whether they were right, and if they were wrong, whether they were wrong without doing their due diligence or whether they were wrong in the way that you are often wrong in wars, right? And that distinction is one that I think there's going to be an enormous amount of retrospective analysis of. And I actually want the benefit of that analysis before I try to answer that question. And so I would say, let's have this conversation in five years. And I know that's unsatisfying and I feel unsatisfied by it, but I actually think it's as a disciplinary matter, intellectually important.

Your second question, I do think we have some data on in real time, that is, we can offer some preliminary judgments. So first of all, there is no doubt in my mind that the claim of the most moral army in the world was always a robe that Israel dressed itself in. And the claim has elements of truth. There are things that the Israeli army does that we do not do when we operate in close urban settings. Things like tap on the roof strikes, which are designed to notify people to get out of buildings. There are other things they do that are remarkably forward-leaning and actually our military doesn't like that they do them because they're afraid that they will become incorporated into the customary international law as a result of Israel doing them and then they will kick back and be thought to bind us. There are other things the Israelis do that the U.S. military would never do. And so I think the best way to understand the historical background is we fight in very different situations than they do, and they are very good at certain types of things, and we are very good at other types of things. And there are areas where we disagree, where they're more aggressive than we are, there are areas where we are more aggressive than they are. And that's the general background until October 7th.

Starting on October 7th, they've been aggressive. They've still maintained a bunch of the tap on the roof stuff and the civilian protection stuff. But they've been aggressive in ways that I think surprised a lot of people, including people in the U.S. military. And so I think, there's a real change. And some of that is, as Cofer Black said after 9/11 about the CIA, the gloves came off after 9/11, right? There's a bit of the gloves came off after October 7th, and they started making incremental judgments about prudential and legal propriety of strikes in much less cautious directions than they used to.

But some of it, I think, first of all, some of the individual lawless behavior by soldiers is appalling stuff. And it has an Abu Ghraib-y quality to it. And just as with Abu Ghraib, you have to ask the question, how much of this was authorized? How much of it was not authorized, but not adequately discouraged, right? And how much of it is stuff that is genuinely aberrant, right? And any time behaviors like that in a rule of law military, you don't react to it the way you react to Bucha because we don't expect the Russian military to behave like a rule of law military. We do expect U.S. forces not to do Abu Ghraib, right? And so, when you see behaviors like that—and some of the ones that have been revealed in this conflict are really bad. You do have to ask the question, how's the military responding to that?

And that brings me to your, what I think is your, last question, which is the cultural changes in the IDF over the last 30 years. And they have a lot of causes. One of them is that the Israeli shrank the size of their military considerably. And what had been—many people served much shorter periods of time and people who had incentives to do things like work in high tech in Herzliya tended to be in the military as short as they could because the economic incentives to do other things were very high. People who were most philosophically committed, joining the officer corps, staying in longer, tended to be religious nationalists. And so you have a movement within the IDF toward—even as the Israeli political world was fighting over whether, Ultra-Orthodox people should serve at all, right, the actual composition of the military became more and more religious nationalists, which often, but not always, has a right-wing lilt. And sometimes, in the case of the settler movement, has wings that are quite violent. I don't know the answer to your question. I do think there's a lot of merit to asking the question and to thinking about that question very hard.

Audience Member

I’m wondering whether you have a speculative vision of how this is going to end, and whether Iran and its proxies will be more tempered as a result of the ferocity of Israeli's response to what just happened?

Benjamin Wittes

So, predicting the future, I think Niels Bohr said predictions are hard, particularly about the future. And I would just add to it, they're particularly hard about the future of the Middle East. I do think the structure of Israeli-Iranian deterrence between the two countries, I think is reasonably stable. I don't think you're going to see, and even in the middle of Iranian missile barrages of Israel and Israeli responses to that, I did not think a week ago and do not think today you're going to see a general war between Iran and Israel. And the complication is that Iran has these proxy forces, and some of them are extremely capable, even the ones that are less capable than we—the Houthis are not the, exactly the greatest fighting force in the world. They are, it turns out, capable of stopping an enormous amount of Red Sea shipping, right, and regional economic activity. Hezbollah is an enormously capable fighting force, and it is extremely well armed and, that situation is potentially very volatile.

Speaking of international law, there was a UN resolution in 2006 that required the Lebanese army to deploy and Hezbollah to pull back and for the Lebanese army to take control of the border region. That has never been implemented. And the fact that it has never been implemented after the 2006 conflict is one of the reasons that the situation is as volatile as it is today and as dangerous as it is today.

And, look, I honestly don't know what Israel's intentions, realistic intentions are, given U.S. pressure vis a vis Rafah. I think you could imagine a situation in which the, over the next six months, things cool down a bit. You could also imagine the situation in which they stay very hot and very unpredictably hot. And I think the second is more likely than the first.

Audience Member

I'm wrestling with, I think, two things you either said or implied, so if I'm getting it wrong, just stop me.

Benjamin Wittes

Oh, I may have said them and take them back immediately in response to your question.

Audience Member

That's totally fine. But when you started with the Leibowitz quote, I believe you said he felt that 1967 was a mistake, the occupation was a mistake. So we put that on one side. And then you continue to argue, I think, that there was something particularly diabolical about Hamas's strategy of immersing itself in a population and installing its military facilities in a densely populated area. And that then led to this nested moral problem. There's an immorality there, and then the Israeli response ends up having its own moral catastrophes. But I guess what I'm wrestling with is that kind of moral set of nested problems. That dynamic, to me, that's not the Mideast per se. It's not Gaza per se. It's virtually every either war of occupation or counterinsurgency. That's what happens. That's what happened to the British in Kenya, the British in Malaysia, the Americans in the Philippines. That's the dynamic. And if that's right, either it does all come down to the occupation. One answer is this doesn't stop until Israel ends the occupation. Or I guess the alternative is complete subjugation, because, not to create false dichotomies, but there's some kind of dynamic here, it seems historically in many different kinds of environments that's not sustainable.

Benjamin Wittes

Yeah. So first of all, I think it's important to distinguish between the West Bank and Gaza for this purpose, because in the West Bank, you can say there is an ongoing occupation. By and large the West Bank is an occupied space. Gaza was a surrounded, blockaded space, but it has not been actually physically occupied by the IDF since 2005. And one of the reasons I think that distinction really matters is that it raises the question—Israelis withdrew from Gaza in 2005. They dealt with Hamas's rise to power in 2006, 2007, and the consequences of that were immediately rocketing, right? And then tunnels. And then, ultimately the projection of catastrophic force in the context of October 7th.

And from the Israeli vantage point, this goes beyond a little bit what Leibowitz was saying, which is, he was saying you cannot stay. The costs of staying both morally and practically, he was not even thinking so much in moral terms. This is going to be a disaster if you stay. But now, you have the flip side, which is you also cannot leave, right. And that's different from the British in Malaysia, where failure is always an option. In Vietnam we left eventually. The Israelis can't leave Gaza as it turns out. And I think that's the fundamental problem here is that you cannot leave and you cannot stay. And by the way, the consequences of either are catastrophic. And I think that's the ultimate meaning of—I think Bibi had convinced himself that Hamas was manageable, right? You could deal with it by deterrence. You could deal with it by occasional cooperation, by letting Qatar send money and build things. And that there was a modus vivendi. Occasionally you had to send troops in to kill a particular person. Sometimes they would rocket, but by and large, you could create a more stable environment. And I don't think that's one of the ideas that has died with this set of operations.

And by the way, that realization, I think, really does contribute to the willingness to brutality. That you're in a situation all of a sudden where you don't feel like you have options. And maybe that's because you're deluding yourself, or maybe it's because you actually don't have options. But whenever you're in that situation, that will never bring out the best in people.


Ben Wittes, thank you for this excellent conversation.

Benjamin Wittes

The Lawfare Podcast is produced in cooperation with the Brookings Institution. You can get ad-free versions of this and other Lawfare podcasts by becoming a Lawfare material supporter through our website, You'll also get access to special events and other content available only to our supporters. Please rate and review us wherever you get your podcasts.

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The Lawfare Podcast is edited by Jen Patja. Our theme song is from Alibi Music. As always, thanks for listening.

Benjamin Wittes is editor in chief of Lawfare and a Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of several books.
Jen Patja is the editor and producer of The Lawfare Podcast and Rational Security. She currently serves as the Co-Executive Director of Virginia Civics, a nonprofit organization that empowers the next generation of leaders in Virginia by promoting constitutional literacy, critical thinking, and civic engagement. She is the former Deputy Director of the Robert H. Smith Center for the Constitution at James Madison's Montpelier and has been a freelance editor for over 20 years.

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