The announcer at Friday’s opening game of the Coachella Firebirds, a minor league hockey team in the Southern California desert, began by asking the crowd to observe a moment of silence for the state of Israel.
A Jewish friend who happened to be in attendance said it was as incongruous as it was heartwarming. “How long do you think that’s going to last?” he asked.
It’s a good question, and here’s the answer: It’s up to Israel.
American support — the kind that prompts the president of the United States to fly to Tel Aviv and deliver a heartfelt, no-holds-barred endorsement of Israel’s right to self-defense — has a shelf life.
In a SSRS poll published Sunday, 96% of Americans said they sympathize with Israel and 71% said Israel’s response to the Hamas attack is justified. A separate ABC News survey the same day found that 63% of Democrats and 52% of Republicans think the U.S. has a responsibility to protect Israeli citizens.
That was before the explosion at a Gaza City hospital, before Israeli airstrikes hit people as they were following the IDF’s directive to flee south, before the Palestinian death toll, according to the Hamas-run Ministry of Health, topped 3,700. The war will be long, casualties and destruction will continue to mount, the cost will be enormous — and the aftermath will be tortuous. Keeping support up is not just a matter of hasbara, it is essential to Israel’s national security.
We should be mindful that yet another poll, by Reuters/Ipsos and published on Monday, showed 81% of Americans agreeing with the statement, “Israel should avoid killing civilians in its retaliatory strikes against Hamas.”
The message of that poll, not to mention common sense, is clear: Harming innocent Palestinians harms Israel. There is no blank check for retaliation, or even deterrence.
“Israel shot itself in the foot with its initial hawkish position that it would allow no food, water, or medicine into Gaza,” Michael Koplow, a scholar at the Israel Policy Forum blogged Monday.
Koplow pointed out that Israel was bound to reverse the decision anyway, as it did when on Wednesday it announced it would allow humanitarian aid to enter through the Rafah checkpoint.
But by then the damage was done. A sympathetic American media and a full court press by pro-Israel commentators cannot overcome the simple moral calculus that if killing or hurting Israeli children is bad, so is killing or hurting Palestinian children. Israel’s supporters can’t argue, as they rightly do, that Hamas is to blame for the misery in Gaza, and then punish the victims.
“If you say you do not want innocent people on your side to be killed,” Avrum Burg, the former speaker of the Knesset, said during a Zoom talk hosted by Peter Beinart last week, “you’re not allowed to kill innocent people on the other side.”
American sympathy for the Palestinian cause is low, just 2% according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll published Monday. But that doesn’t mean, again, Americans want to see innocent Palestinians suffer. In 2014, the last time Israel launched a ground offensive against Hamas in Gaza — during a 51-day conflict that killed some 2,300 Palestinians — only 22% of Americans supported Israel’s position.
An annual Quinnipiac poll that measures American support for Israel found that support dipped to its lowest level in 20 years in May 2021—the month Israel attacked Hamas positions in Gaza, killing 66 children.
That should be a warning. For years, Israel’s supporters have been saying that the country’s bond to America is founded not just on shared interests, but on shared values. Democracy is one of those values, along with human rights and the rule of law. A terror attack, even the most vile, doesn’t suspend those values; it tests them.
To defeat Hamas and deter further attacks, Israel may choose to follow what the New York Times columnist Tom Friedman calls “Hama rules.” It refers to former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad’s 1982 decision to root out the Muslim Brotherhood by flattening the Syrian town of Hama, killing 20,000 of its residents in the process.
The bloodlust and revenge coursing through the veins of Israel and her supporters make obliteration look enticing. Photoshopped images of northern Gaza as a parking lot have begun to crop up on my social media feed.
But “Hama Rules” come with a codicil: Behave like Assad, get treated like Assad. How much U.S. aid did his regime get? How many pro-Syria votes did Assad have in Congress? The correct answer is zero.
One cautionary note comes when you look a little closer at the Ipsos/Reuters poll showing strong American support for Israel. It turns out that when you break it out by age, double the percentage of adults under 40 say that the U.S. should be a neutral mediator in the conflict compared to adults over 40. The next generation’s support is not a given. How Israel reacts now will matter for its future support.
But that’s not fair, you say. America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and its drone strikes in Pakistan killed hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, close to a Gaza Strip’s worth of dead, wounded and displaced — and Congress and the president didn’t express concern over the “humanitarian crisis” — they voted for it. But that’s the prerogative of a superpower, which funds 16% of Israel’s military budget, and has already said it will give more — provided Israel remains a cause Americans support.
When I did a little digging into why a second-tier hockey game in a small American county would begin its season opener with a prayer for Israel, I found that the Acrisure Arena’s co-owner is Irving Azoff, the Jewish music executive who this week signed an open letter calling for the music industry to stand by Israel.
Representatives from Acrissure did not respond to my repeated inquiries this week, so I’m not sure whether Azoff played any role in the announcement.
So far, Americans are standing by Israel as it defends itself against a group that slaughtered its citizens. But if history is any guide, keeping that support depends on Israel following a very simple — if seemingly hypocritical — rule: Spare the innocent.
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