Guest columnist Jonathan A. Wright: Lesson of history: Time for a Mandela/de Klerk moment


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Published: 12-06-2023 10:21 PM

When I was 11 years old, I traveled to the Middle East with my family, and one day we took a car from Beirut, then a French-flavored multi-ethnic city, to see the massive Roman temple ruins at Baalbek, evidence of one of many colonial occupations. While the scale of the Roman ruins was awe-inspiring, what I saw along the way left a deeper impression.

All along the south side of the road, I remember piles of rubble with tin roofs held on by rocks. These were Palestinian refugee camps from the time of the formation of Israel 15 years earlier. In various forms and locations, they are still there, and a third generation of refugees are coming of age.

I have no quarrel with the founding and protection of Israel, God knows, yet we also know that the region has been a homeland for many peoples for thousands of years.

Fast-forward to this fall. An outlier militant group attached to the Hamas regime in Gaza, which itself was doing a poor job of governing, had sequestered sufficient arms, funds and knowledge, as well as the cunning, to deceive the vaunted Israeli security enterprise, to wreak unspeakable havoc and horror.

This was a significant failure from the Netanyahu government, itself tugged to its militant right side by its coalition partners within Israel. I did not hear so much on this, but rather a good deal of the snarling of the prime minister that “this is war.”

The militant arm of this Hamas group, led significantly by alumni of years in Israeli jails, back then exchanged for prisoners, remains committed to the destruction of Israel ,at least in words and on paper. This is not the view of the millions of Palestinians, even those who have been cordoned off and have lived without adequate food, shelter and education for generations now.

President Biden did absolutely the right thing — to take a firm stand of allegiance, as anything less would be totally destabilizing, and then to visit Israel, I believe, to temper Netanyahu’s thirst for revenge. It is one thing to re-secure the borders. It is quite another to announce the destruction of an embedded enemy. The core problem is that it never works.

The history of the Russians in Afghanistan and the U.S. in Afghanistan should provide a lesson. Byzantine, Roman, Greek, European, and so many more, deep into history, have made their attempts at dominion in the region, and all have come to sorrow and death. Afghanistan is in ruins and governed by the Taliban.

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The Iraq war, followed by the Syrian tragedy, have not led to a peace or a riddance of extremism. They have led to a destabilization at massive costs in funds and lives, while extremists prosper and pop up on all fronts.

As much as Benjamin Netanyahu would like to cleanse the world of Hamas, he will not succeed. The cost in civilian lives and property will leave him isolated, and Israel isolated and insecure. Hamas’ allies are waiting for the political calculus to allow them to escalate. It comes closer every day.

And when it is over, who will pay the hundreds of billions to rebuild?

Biden and his secretary of state have been urging restraint publicly and privately almost daily. A pause with hostage exchange was a good step, but once passed, the brutality has returned.

I do not believe that Netanyahu has a firm grip on power, while also under indictment and attempting to weaken the judiciary in his own country. He is a blip in history.

It is time for a Mandela/de Klerk moment, to pull back, secure the borders, and devise a life circumstance of dignity and opportunity for Palestinians. Hamas militants do not want this, but legions of Israelis and Palestinians, and people around the world, do. Anything else will continue to bring us decades of war and desperation and has no future. Calamity will unfold.

Providing a guarantee of Israel’s security cannot mean an endorsement of ill-conceived and failure-bound military action. I have no real idea how this gets communicated and executed, but the lessons of history cannot not be ignored in a desire for revenge.

Jonathan A. Wright lives in Northampton.