The world has been struggling to find a good historical parallel for the vicious and horrific surprise attack Hamas launched against Israel on October 7.
It is often said that 10/7 is the new 9/11. But 10/7 was more like a prison riot.
For nearly two decades, the Gaza Strip has been bottled up and almost completely blocked off. It has been widely compared to an open-air prison. Israel and the United States have tried to seal Gaza, isolating its nearly 2 million residents on a tiny, impoverished strip of land. Washington and Tel Aviv thought that would let them keep Hamas at arm’s length.
Instead, it just turned Gaza into an overcrowded penal colony where the most radicalized and violent gang leaders eventually gained control. Mass murder and hostage taking have been the result.
Sealing off Gaza didn’t solve anything. Instead, its problems festered until they finally exploded last weekend.
In the days since the carnage erupted, the American media has offered precious little context to the violence. But it really isn’t that difficult to look back over U.S., Israeli, and Palestinian policies and politics of the last 20 years and understand how we got here. Like so much else that has gone wrong in the Middle East in the 21st century, the George W. Bush administration deserves plenty of the blame for what’s happening now in Israel and Gaza.
In the years immediately after the disastrous 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Bush doubled down on his enterprise in the Middle East by proclaiming that he wanted to spread democracy throughout the region. So he pushed for elections in Gaza without thinking things through, just as he had in Iraq. Hamas gained power in Gaza after the 2006 elections there, leaving Palestinian territory badly divided between Gaza and the West Bank, where Fatah, a bitter enemy of Hamas, remained in charge.
By then, Israeli politics were increasingly dominated by right-wing leaders. After the second Intifada began in 2000, the Israeli left had largely collapsed, and most Israelis had dropped their support for the “two-state” solution, under which Israel would agree to the creation of an independent Palestinian state.
Instead, Israel bricked itself up. It built walls and expanded Jewish settlements in the West Bank while blockading Gaza.
The Bush administration, eager to please pro-Israel, right-wing Christian evangelicals and simultaneously win American Jewish voters over to the Republican Party, did little to stop Israel from raising its drawbridges. Foreign assistance to Gaza dried up while the U.S. imposed sanctions on the Palestinian Authority because of Hamas’s rise to power. The Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip became an international pariah.
When Barack Obama became president, he initially sought to revive Israeli–Palestinian peace talks, but little came of his efforts before he too abandoned them.
As president, Donald Trump ignored the Palestinians while engineering the so-called Abraham Accords, in which the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco agreed to recognize Israel. President Joe Biden has sought to expand the accords to include Saudi Arabia. But the agreements are hollow; they have won little popular support in the Arab world, largely because they do not address the status of the Palestinians.
In other words: For two decades, a succession of American presidents has largely ignored the Palestinians and, in effect, gone along with Israeli efforts to abandon the idea of a Palestinian state.
One reason the United States has been so unwilling to challenge Israel’s lurch to the right has been the simultaneous rise of right-wing Christian evangelicals in U.S. politics. Evangelicals have become so powerful within the Republican Party that they have changed the domestic American political calculus about Israel.
George W. Bush’s father, President George Herbert Walker Bush, was willing to push Israel and criticize its policies, so much so that when George W. Bush first ran for president, Israeli leaders feared that he would be just as tough on Israel as his father had been.
But that didn’t prove true, and one reason was that Christian evangelicals had become a more important part of the Republican Party by the time he came into office. Evangelicals believe the Bible compels them to support Israel; they believe that the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 was the fulfillment of the biblically foretold “regathering” of the Jews. They also believe that the Bible says that the Jews will continue to rule Israel until the return of Jesus, so Israel must continue to exist until the “Rapture,” which will occur after the second coming of Christ.
Evangelicals vigorously debate the many side-plots of this “end times” theology, which have the potential to lead them down weird geopolitical rabbit holes. And in the long run, their theology isn’t good for the Jews; in the Rapture, Christians will ascend to heaven while everyone else, including the Jews, will be destroyed.
But the Rapture is still a long way off. For now, the upshot is that Christian evangelicals are unquestioning supporters of Israel — and that means the Republican Party is too. Trump’s controversial decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem in 2018 enthralled evangelicals. His administration prominently featured Robert Jeffress, a leading evangelical minister, and John Hagee, a televangelist and founder of Christians United for Israel, at the embassy’s opening.
(Oddly, that support for the state of Israel has coincided with an explosion of antisemitism on the American right.)
Christian evangelicals’ strong pro-Israel stance has led Republicans to make a play for the votes of American Jews — unnerving Democrats, who worry that Jews will leave their longtime political home in the Democratic Party. As a result, Democrats, just like Republicans, have been unwilling to challenge Israel’s right-wing governments or its refusal to revive serious negotiations about a Palestinian state. The few progressive voices in the Democratic Party who criticize Israel are usually shouted down by both Republicans and by the mainstream of their own party. There are no powerful voices in the United States warning of another bloody Middle Eastern quagmire.
Instead, in the coming weeks, Israel will be operating with something close to an American blank check.