Can Two Bad Ideas in Israel and Hamas Be Killed?
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Israel’s attempt to “destroy” Hamas is often derided that you can kill its leaders and fighters and blow up its tunnel network, but that “you can’t kill an idea”.

This seems an obvious proposition, but it is false. Or rather, in the abstract no idea ever dies but can as a practical matter fall into the dustbin of history.   

Hamas’s particular idea is “the Palestinian cause”. Rescuing the Palestinian cause was the justification for attacking Israel on October 7. It was the justification for taking hostages, which is against the international law of war, as well as justification for accepting the total devastation of Gaza as a place to live, with 30,000 civilians dead and the remaining population (its own people) now on the point of famine.

The Hamas strategy was to “overthrow” the geopolitical tendency of Arab governments’ growing acceptance of Israel. Most Arab governments—Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Morocco, and soon the biggest one, Saudi Arabia—were abandoning the Palestinian cause. They no longer rejected Israel’s existence as a state. In fact, they want Israel as an economic partner and as a geopolitical ally against Iran.

Hamas’s leadership said it knew full well that Israel’s response to the October 7 attack would be brutal. And it has been, without doubt, more so than they could ever have imagined.

But the goal, the idea, remains. Hamas wanted to re-elevate the Palestinian cause as a dominant element in Middle East politics. They’ve done this, and therefore they persist, hidden in their tunnels with their remaining hostages.

What is this cause, the goal of the Palestinian “resistance”? The cause is to destroy the State of Israel and empty Israel of its Jews. To retake what is considered stolen Palestinian land and to establish a new Palestinian state on territory “from the river to the sea”. It’s a conception of a Greater Palestine, comparable to the ultra-Orthodox and ultra-Zionist concept of Greater Israel. It’s very simple and very clear.

The question here is whether this idea can ever be killed, because even if Hamas is destroyed, the Palestinian cause, the idea, will continue, and new groups will arise to fight against accepting Israel.

Fair enough, in the abstract. The reality is, on the other hand, that an idea can be killed as a practical matter if it is rendered irrelevant. And how is it rendered irrelevant? By reducing the number of people—leaders, fighters, militants—who believe in it and act on it into a scattering of disconnected people. To use brutal language: by killing some, changing the minds of others, and by destroying the organizational framework that holds the believers together.

A recent, obvious comparison is the rise and fall of the Islamic State and its idea of recreating a universal Muslim caliphate with a grand caliph located in a specific place. The idea of re-establishing the honored place of Islam in world civilization. The idea of recreating an Islam of universal dignity and community of Muslims everywhere in the world (the ummah).

This idea still exists in the abstract but no longer has political relevance in the real world, at least for a long time. Islamic State was destroyed as a revolutionary religious gang and an institution. Tiny militant groups exist calling themselves Islamic State, but the great Islamic State of the last decade is gone.

Who today remembers Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi? How many Muslim militants and simple believers around the world still espouse the caliphate?   

As for Israel: on Israel’s side is another bad idea, rather two versions of the same idea, Israel’s alleged right to expand. God’s alleged promise to the Jews of their eternal right to the Holy Land is a literal, sectarian reading of a wonderful story in an old book that few Jews in Israel, or worldwide for that matter, take as truth. The ultra-nationalist view that for geopolitical reasons Israel should annex the West Bank is sheer imperialism.  

Israel’s supposed right to expand is a bad idea that must die in the sense of rendering it irrelevant. Like the idea of Palestine from the river to the sea, “Greater Israel” is a recipe for perpetual tumult and unending mutual rejection.  It is a historical dead end.

Unlike reducing Hamas through death and destruction, however, the defeat of Greater Israel as a powerful idea in Israel’s political culture should come through democracy. A matter of defeating ultra-Orthodox and ultra-Zionist politics peacefully, through democratic political struggle and elections, not civil war.  

The two bad ideas in question—"Palestine from the river to the sea” and “Greater Israel”—can be replaced with a better idea. That idea is two states for two Peoples, a permanent division of a territory based on mutual recognition of just claims.

Ronald Tiersky is the Joseph B. Eastman '04 Professor of Political Science emeritus at Amherst College. The views expressed are the author's own.