By Paul Scham


After the beginning of the current war, I wrote several times that this crisis was not “existential” for Israel. I didn’t expect that to be a controversial statement; it seemed obvious to me that October 7 happened because of major and unforgivable misjudgments by both the IDF and Israel‘s current political echelon, which could and would be fixed. This seems to happen on a national level once a generation or so (think the outbreak of the Yom Kippur war in 1973 and that of the first Intifada in 1987); and those mistakes were dealt with. As terrible as the events of October 7 were, Israel’s serious misjudgments of Hamas’s capabilities would be swiftly rectified.

I was completely wrong about that. I have watched with growing horror the Israeli government’s reiteration – both verbal and kinetic – of the necessity to “destroy” Hamas, an impossible task, even if one is willing to kill (to date) perhaps 27,000 Palestinian non-combatants and injure close to 60,000 and then dismiss them as collateral damage. While “progress” is being made, Minister of Defense Gallant estimates the war will go on till the end of the year. And, I would add, it has now become existential for Israel, primarily because Israel has made it so.

By existential, I do not mean in a military sense. Neither Hamas nor any other hostile militia or country (including Iran) can possibly overrun Israel. Iran has neither the will for self-destruction it would entail nor the nuclear or delivery capability to seriously damage Israel. Nor does Hezbollah, though a war with it would likely entail serious destruction and perhaps thousands of casualties, and Israel should not seem so cavalier about it.

By existential I mean that Israel jumped willingly and enthusiastically into the trap Hamas set for it and is digging itself deeper every day. Instead of using the attack to rally the support it received in the days after October 7 (remember Britain and France lighting national monuments in blue and white?), it announced and proceeded on a course that was guaranteed to alienate virtually every friend in the world – and succeed in doing what the Palestinians have failed at since 2000; raising the problem of Palestine to a must-solve international issue.

That latter consequence need not – but almost certainly will – be existential. Half of Israeli seem to believe that any form of genuinely autonomous Palestinian state is an unacceptable (i.e. existential) threat to Israel’s survival. Instead of realizing that such a state is the only means of channeling Palestinian energies away from attacking Israel and towards their own national project, they believe, contrary to all historical experience,2  that an independent Palestine would use its limited resources to attack an Israel that would be infinitely stronger. That internal conflict is part of the existential crisis I am referring to.

The other part that this war has called into question is Israel’s membership in the loosely defined group I call the “Global Democratic Club.” This is not an official grouping and its workings are largely informal. But it is important because it treats its members well in economic, political, and public opinion terms, and punishes those who stray too far from its norms. Israel has indeed strayed and will have to find its way back in the coming years. The proposed International Court of Justice warrants for Netanyahu and Gallant are simply the first salvo. Another – likely to be far more consequential in the long run – is the worldwide campus protest demanding everything from a ceasefire to the death of “Zionists.” Israel has heedlessly squandered decades of good will – or even just acceptance – and alienated most of the coming generation. Its counter-measures boil down mostly to repeated accusations of “antisemitism.” The fact that antisemitism is indeed on the rise will not, however, give Israel a pass when its own actions are so clearly disproportionate and injudicious.

Thus, Israel has succeeded in transforming an undoubtedly serious and genuinely traumatic crisis into both an internal and external existential threat. I emphasize that the threat is not kinetic, i.e., military. Spain, Ireland, and Norway, which recently recognized Palestine as a state, are not about to attack Israel or even break diplomatic relations. Boycotts of Israel, though, are skyrocketing. Businesses will prefer not to deal with Israeli businesses or products. The scientific cooperation and largesse from the EU that Israel has for decades enjoyed is likely to diminish, and probably much more. In addition, of course, the world will now have to somehow solve the “Palestine issue,” with Israel’s cooperation or perhaps without it, or in the face of its active opposition, which will not be pretty.

Meanwhile, when the war ends, the real fight for Israel’s soul will begin. Most Israelis now realize that Bibi is keeping the war going principally to stay in power. Gantz and Eisenkot have left the War Cabinet, which is now no more. Differences between the IDF and Bibi are now surfacing and inescapable. Though most Israelis seem to want the war to continue (to me inexplicably), they are now forcefully demanding new elections, preferably by October 7, 2024.

Bibi‘s Knesset majority of 64 seems secure, but it is being attacked on so many fronts that defections may well appear and, as the previous government showed, once they start, they tend to cascade. Eleven military funerals in one day is not something Israelis will be willing to stand for long, since no one can articulate what they died for. Biden cleverly put Israel’s name on a ceasefire proposal and Ben-Gvir keeps erupting, issuing ever more frequent (and credible!) threats to bring down the government. Something has to give.

No one knows what the next elections will be like. However, that will perhaps begin the existential crisis in earnest, trying to decide what is the Israel project about, and where should it go, given that neither the Palestinians nor the Jews are moving.






Paul Scham is President of Partners for Progressive Israel and Director of the Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies at the University of Maryland, where he is a Professor of Israel Studies. The views expressed here are his own.


1These figures are inherently rough and unverifiable. I subtracted the latest IDF estimate of the number of Hamas fighters it claims to have killed (10,000) from the total number of those killed provided by the (Hamas-run) Gaza Ministry of Health (over 37,0000 as of June 16) and used a similar proportion for those reported injured. No one knows how accurate these figures may be; however, my argument would stand if the figures were halved.

2 I can think of no example in history where a powerful country, forced to divest itself of part of its claimed territory (homeland or colony), had to defend itself from an attack by the new state. Can you?


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