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The Ugly Lessons of October 7

The bloodier the terror attacks, the more stark the eliminationist rhetoric, the more support for a Palestinian state

Eugene Kontorovich
May 22, 2024
A Pro-Palestinian supporter stands next to a placard during a demonstration at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg on Feb. 25, 2024

Davide Longari/AFP via Getty Images

Hamas’ grisly terror raid on Oct. 7 has proved to be the single most stunningly successful act in gaining support for the Palestinian cause—not among Israeli or American voters, of course, but among top Democratic policymakers, and their counterparts across the Western world. One might think that a campaign of unrepentant killing, torture, rape, and hostage-taking would be disqualifying for a national independence movement. But in Washington, Hamas’ ongoing crimes have resulted in much of the weight of the U.S. government being brought to bear on advancing the cause of Palestinian statehood, and its correlate, the punishment and demonization of the Jewish state.

Months of U.S. backing for the Palestinian national cause have produced glorious results for Palestinian diplomacy. Whereas less than two years ago, at a meeting with President Mahmoud Abbas, President Biden had declared that “the ground is not ripe” for renewing negotiations between Ramallah and Jerusalem, the Oct. 7 massacres made Biden change his mind—and make the establishment of a Palestinian state with all deliberate speed a central priority of U.S. Middle East policy. Since Oct. 7, four countries have recognized the “State of Palestine,” with three European states indicating their intent to do so in May. That is more recognition than the PA has won in the entire past decade (notably, only one country moved to recognize Palestinian statehood during the Trump administration).

International institutions, seeing that Israel’s protection by the U.S. has been lifted, have also showered gifts on the perpetrators of Oct. 7. In recent weeks, the U.N. General Assembly voted to upgrade the Palestinians’ status, giving them privileges reserved for member states. On Monday, the International Criminal Court charged Israel’s prime minister and defense minister with committing war crimes, placing them on a par with the terrorist leader of Hamas, Yahya Sinwar—a huge diplomatic coup for the terrorist group that creates a moral equivalence between it and Israel. Had Oct. 7 only managed to revive the trial of Jews for killing babies, it would have still been a triumph.

Indeed, in his first three years in office Biden was careful to avoid overtly repealing any of President Trump’s historic pro-Israel initiatives, preferring a more indirect approach that nevertheless signaled the administration’s preferences and end goals. In recent months, the administration has dropped all pretenses—making it clear that Iran, not Israel, is its favored regional client. Israel is forbidden from restoring peace to the country’s north by attacking Hezbollah in Lebanon, or from offering anything more than a token response to a massive direct attack by Iran.

By itself, the specific identity of the perpetrators of gruesome violence does not account for Western advocacy on their behalf. That is explained only by the specific identity of the victims: Jews.

A similar about-face applied to the question of Israel’s borders. In November 2019, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo clarified that the United States did not view Jews residing in Judea and Samaria (“West Bank settlers,” as they are called) as a violation of international law; two months later he “disavowed” the so-called Hansell Memorandum of 1978, which used shaky legal reasoning to declare Jewish communities in the historic Jewish heartland to be illegitimate. In June 2023, the State Department circulated foreign policy guidance to relevant agencies ending bilateral scientific and technological cooperation with Israeli institutions in Judea and Samaria, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights, even as it maintained that it had not reinstated the Hansell memo.

This past February, however, the administration let it all hang out. Without bothering to present any legal analysis, Secretary of State Blinken declared that Jewish communities in those areas that had been ethnically cleansed by Jordan after 1948 were illegal (“inconsistent with international law”), going further than even the Obama administration, which had used the lesser epithet “illegitimate.”

Last month, the administration indicated it might require that Israeli-made products from Judea and Samaria no longer be labeled as “Made in Israel.”

The green light from the White House has in turn given new life to efforts by the country’s thriving networks of billionaire-backed progressive NGOs to isolate and stigmatize the Jewish state. Two years ago, the so-called Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement—a campaign by activists from a network of state-sponsored anti-Israel NGOs—was pronounced dead. In the 20 years since it was invented at a U.N. confab in Durban, South Africa, BDS had made a lot of noise but scored few wins outside of minor academic associations. Indeed, 36 states passed laws that treat boycotts of Israel as a form of discrimination. Even Ben & Jerry’s ice cream had to walk back their boycott of Israel a couple of years ago.

Things look quite different now as the Biden administration has injected BDS with new life and made it unofficial U.S. policy. On college campuses, Democratic Party strongholds, Israeli professors and artists describe a widespread and growing de facto academic boycott. Boycotts of and divestment from Israel are core demands of the activists that have taken over college campuses this spring.

Fearing donor backlash and legal exposure, no university has yet taken the step of divesting from Israel, though some have made performative statements in this direction. However, they’ve generally allowed the pro-Palestinian mob to harass Jews on campus without fear of serious consequences, with the stated goal of driving Zionist faculty and students off campus. The recent wave of campus protests are the domestic mirror image of the administration’s foreign policy, which elevates and rewards Palestinian terror: The more grotesque, openly antisemitic and eliminationist the violence, the higher the reward.

Universities may have balked at divesting from Israel, at least not right off the bat, but that’s small potatoes when you consider that sanctions against Israel have become official U.S. government policy. In February, the White House began implementing a new sanctions regime against Israel, which, like those imposed on terrorists and leaders of rogue states, freezes the bank accounts of designated Israelis and denies them visas to the U.S. However, unlike U.S. sanctions on terrorists and their state sponsors, the sanctions imposed on Israel are not necessarily predicated on any violent or illegal conduct. Rather, they’re based on a vague and elastic category of “actions that threaten the peace” in the West Bank. This could mean whatever the Biden administration wants it to mean, including undermining the two-state solution. Moreover, the Biden executive order makes anyone in the U.S. who donates to groups that support Judea and Samaria communities, which the Biden administration sees as undermining the two-state solution, possible targets for sanctions—without any prior notice.

Whether it’s obscuring attacks by Palestinians against Jews in Judea and Samaria in order to gin up the numbers of so-called “settler violence,” or the pouring of hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to Hamas-controlled Gaza or the terror-subsidizing PA, the underlying theme of U.S. policy is constant: Palestinian violence and terrorism is rewarded.

Taking this perversion to its logical conclusion, the administration has also moved to punish the IDF and curtail its ability to combat terrorism. In April, the administration was set to sanction the Netzach Yehuda battalion of the IDF—backing off only after a strong backlash both at home and from its allies in Israel. Undeterred, the administration capped off the month by pausing munitions shipments to Israel.

This remarkable string of successes for the Palestinian cause demands explanation. Certainly the Palestinians have not come closer to what is required for statehood. The springtime of Palestinian political success did not come from any of the things prior diplomatic initiatives such as the Oslo Accords encouraged: renouncing terror, fully and internally acknowledging Israel’s legitimacy, democratic reforms, or rescinding anti-Jewish policies.

What the pattern of the past eight months has conveyed to the Palestinians and their Iranian patrons is that more slaughter of Jews is the surest way to obtain more of what they want.

Instead, it came from murder on a scale never previously accomplished. Murder of the most wanton and barbaric kind, rape and torture, mass kidnapping of civilians from babies to Holocaust survivors, and the ongoing mistreatment, exploitation, and execution of hostages. This, combined with a cynical exploitation of their own population, turns out to be the recipe for advancing Palestinian political demands. The process was deliberate: Hamas leaders have declared that their goal was precisely to grab global attention. This shows they have an instinctive understanding of the Western psyche, and of Washington’s political posture, to intuit that the attention they would get would, for all practical purposes, be positive.

To be sure, the phenomenon is not new. The Palestinian national movement’s bid for global attention in the 1970s was predicated entirely on terror, including, most famously, a series of civilian airliner hijackings. But at least in the 1970s, there was the illusion that terror was simply a way to get attention for political demands that would surely moderate over time, when brought into sustained contact with reality. Yet the opposite turns out to be the case. It is when their violence became exceptionally barbaric and sadistic, and was linked to an openly eliminationist political program, that the Palestinians galvanized the broadest elite support.

It bears noting here that the attraction of Western progressives to medieval violence is quite specific. The ISIS or al-Qaida variety, for instance, did not lead to calls among progressive elites to champion their political agendas or recognize their pseudo-states. Rather, this enthusiasm is reserved for specific perpetrators: Iran and the Palestinians.

The lesson for aspiring ethno-religious terrorist groups, then, is not that they would be assured recognition if they can only match the gruesomeness of Oct. 7. Uighurs and Kurds: Don’t try this at home. If you’re not the IRGC, an Iranian proxy, or a Palestinian group, don’t bother applying.

The flip side of this equation is even more obscene. Washington rewards Iranian and Palestinian terrorism under the moniker of “de-escalation.” That is to say, Iran and the Palestinians get to have their cake and eat it too: Their barbarism advances their agenda, and any attempted retaliation against them is condemned and constrained.

Which leads us to the heart of the matter, namely what Iran, Hezbollah, and Palestinian terror groups all have in common with each other and not with ISIS. By itself, the specific identity of the perpetrators of gruesome violence does not account for Western advocacy on their behalf. That is explained only by the specific identity of the victims: Jews. This is the common thread that ties together support for Palestinian barbarism abroad and for antisemitic mobs at home.

This brings us to the Biden administration’s diplomatic program, which aims to start the countdown for a Palestinian state in time to take credit for it in November. Much of the professional diplomatic and political class that has pushed for this outcome for three decades remains fully committed to it. As with the term “de-escalation,” the Biden administration uses Orwellian doublespeak to justify its push to establish a Palestinian terror state, like, “peace,” “security,” and “stability.” But what the pattern of the past eight months has doubtless conveyed to the Palestinians and their Iranian patrons is that more slaughter of Jews, especially those that will provoke a strong Israeli response, is the surest way to obtain more of what they want.

Supporters of Palestinian statehood have long maintained that if such a state were to attack Israel, the international community would support decisive Israeli actions to neutralize the threat. But the U.S. response to the Oct. 7 attack from Gaza, as well as to the subsequent attacks from Lebanon and Iran, which are states, shows the opposite. The atrocities a Palestinian state could inflict on an Israel reduced to the 1949 boundaries would make Oct. 7 look like a bar fight. The current U.S.-led international posture shows quite definitively that Israel will face pressure to make even more territorial and security concessions, until the Jewish state is no more. That has been the explicit goal of the Palestinian national movement since its inception, and it remains so today.

A reasonable observer can only conclude that the goal of “a Palestinian state” for both the Palestinians and their Western partisans has never been about achieving peaceful coexistence with Israel, which has been eminently achievable at every point in time beginning with the U.N. partition plan, which Israel accepted and the Palestinians and their Arab state backers rejected. The only “Palestinian state” that is acceptable to its partisans is one that replaces Israel on the map. When the White House, European governments, progressive NGOs, academic boycotters, the U.N., and other august bodies announce their support for Palestinian statehood, that is precisely what they are supporting.

Eugene Kontorovich is a professor at the George Mason University Scalia Law School and the director of its Center on the Middle East and International Law. He is also the head of the international law department at the Kohelet Policy Forum, a think tank in Jerusalem.

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