Many members of the Jewish community have been angered by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ characterization of Israel’s activities in Gaza in 2014 as disproportional. That anger is misplaced. Israel’s actions in Gaza are disproportional, and they are intended to be. Israel’s strategic concept calls for inflicting significant pain on its adversary in order to inspire restraint on the part of the adversary. When successful, the adversary, in this case Hamas, is deterred from either escalating attacks or better yet, from initiating them at all. To say that Israel’s retaliatory strikes against Hamas are disproportional is not to say that they are unjustified or indiscriminate. On both accounts, a good case can be made that Israel deserves far more credit than it receives.
Rather than focusing on Sanders’ comments on disproportionality, it is Sanders’ huge inflation of the numbers of Palestinians killed by Israel in 2014 that should be triggering loud alarms, and not just within the Jewish community. Sanders has claimed that Israel killed 10,000 Palestinians in the 2014 Gaza conflict. According to Hamas sources, 2,310 Palestinians were killed, of which just over 1,600 were civilians. Israeli and UN numbers are generally similar. In grossly inflating the number of fatalities, the problem is not just that Sanders displays a disturbing ignorance about one of the most visible and time-consuming conflicts that would surely occupy his attention were he to win the White House. The greater problem is actually that by inflating the numbers and thereby impugning Israel, Sanders is feeding Israel’s hawks – those who wish Israel to be less discriminating and restrained in the way that it strikes back against Hamas. That is surely not what he wants.
Israel’s manner of responding to attacks from Gaza is notable because for a combination of humanitarian and geopolitical motives, Israel is interested in minimizing Palestinian civilian casualties. Yet, at the same time, it seeks to deliver powerful and decisive blows that will enhance deterrence. Israel has sought to reconcile these seemingly conflicting aims by trying to minimize the impact of attacks upon it such that maintaining a disproportionate response is, nonetheless, smaller in absolute terms than would be required were Israel to suffer significant material and human damage. Investments in defensive systems like the Iron Dome interceptor system serve to reduce the number of Israeli casualties and similarly reduce the amount of retaliatory force that Israel needs to employ while still maintaining the qualitative level of disproportionate force that contributes to the cumulative deterrent effect that Israel wishes to generate.
Humanitarian motivations for sparing Palestinian lives never ranked especially high as a motive for Israel’s hawks and have not been determinative for Israel’s more liberal security thinkers either. The strategic argument for restraint comes from the notion that a reputational benefit will accrue to Israel if it tempers the devastation it wreaks on Palestinian areas. The more measured the Israeli response, so the argument goes, the greater the probability that Israel’s friends in the United States and Europe will provide political and military support for Israel’s right to defend itself. Israeli hawks consistently reject this argument, claiming instead that whether Israel acts with restraint or with abandon, Israel is blamed for employing excessive force. Given that Israel is in for criticism from the U.S. and Europe, the hawks claim, operating with less restraint against the Palestinians may send a clearer message to Israel’s adversaries about the costs of attacking Israel then a temperate response would. And, since Israel is already in the diplomatic doghouse, it will be no worse off.
Which brings us back to Senator Sanders. Israel’s friends in the U.S. are right to criticize Sanders, but they are criticizing the Democratic candidate for the wrong thing. Citing Israel’s disproportionate response is not the problem. The problem is that in continually inflating the number of civilian Palestinians in Gaza killed by Israel from around 1,500 to 10,000, Sanders is affirming that Israel gets no political or reputational benefit from its efforts to be discriminant.
That is precisely the opposite outcome that Sanders – and the rest of the world – wants. What Sanders must do is to recognize that one can vigorously oppose the occupation of portions of Palestinian land and, even more, be appalled by the suffering of the innocents among the Palestinian people whether their pain is caused by Israel or by craven Palestinian leadership, and still to recognize that Israel deserves credit for demonstrating a restraint that cannot be taken for granted.
It is a common meme among Israel’s friends to suggest that American politicians and activists who condemn Israel would be wise to imagine a scenario in which missiles fired from Canada regularly slammed into Maine (or Vermont!) and to honestly ask themselves how long the U.S. would restrain itself from responding. It is, to be sure, an imperfect analogy because it does not acknowledge that the dynamic of occupation plays a key role in the cycles of violence between Israel and the Palestinians that is entirely absent from the U.S.-Canada relationship. That said, the overall point is valid. It is hard to imagine other countries accepting regular rocket fire on their cities with the relative restraint that Israel displays.
To withhold from Israel even the faintest of praise for its restraint will only embolden the hawks who argue that restraint is a waste of time. It is in the interest of any serious contender to the Oval Office to strengthen the hands of those who prefer to tamp down violence rather than inflame it. Bernie Sanders should know as much. Crediting Israel in the manner suggested above would boost Sanders’ claim to have appropriate acumen to conduct the foreign policy of the United States and, perhaps of greater immediate interest to him, strengthen his standing among the liberal Jews who are affronted by his position on Israel and are flocking to his political rival.