'It's not going to be pretty.' (Amir Levy/Getty Images)

December 16, 2023   12 mins

John Mearsheimer’s views on the Ukraine war, laying the lion’s share of the blame on the West and confidently predicting Russian victory, have cemented his position as one of the most controversial international relations scholars in the world. His “realist” approach is unsentimental in its analysis of great power competition and the need for states to act in their own interest.

But his approach to the Israel-Hamas conflict has taken a different tone, focusing on the “moral calamity” in Gaza and accusing Israel of abandoning decency and purposely massacring civilians. Freddie Sayers spoke to him earlier this week and asked: how does realism apply to Israel?

This is an excerpt of their conversation, edited for clarity. Watch the whole interview in the video below.

Freddie Sayers: Readers of your Substack piece this week about Israel will notice that where you were so cool-headed, hard-nosed and realistic about the Ukraine v. Russia great-power struggle, your tone is so much more moralistic and outraged when talking about Israeli actions in Gaza. Do you feel differently about this conflict?

John Mearsheimer: I just used my critical faculties to analyse what the Israelis are doing in Gaza, in the same way that I analysed the Ukraine war. I think there’s an important moral dimension to what is happening in the Israeli-Hamas conflict that needed to be discussed. I laid out my views in the Substack piece very clearly. I just want to be on the record with regard to what the Israelis are doing in Gaza, so that at some point down the road, when historians look back at what’s happening, it’s clear where I stood on the issue. 

FS: But, Professor, where was the same level of outrage about the Russian invasion into Ukraine and the details of the humanitarian horrors perpetrated there? There were plenty of them. Equally, what Hamas did on October 7, and some of the statements made from supporters of that side, are awful to witness, but you don’t seem to be focusing on those either. Why not? 

JM: You’re basically saying that I can’t focus on Israel and criticise Israel’s behaviour in Gaza because of atrocities that were committed in Ukraine? And because of what happened on October 7, isn’t that the case?


FS: I’m looking for a consistency of approach, I guess. 

JM: I don’t have to provide a consistency of approach. I’m focusing on what the Israelis are doing in Gaza. I’m not comparing what happened in Gaza, with what happened on October 7, and what’s happened in Ukraine. Those are different issues. You could write a piece like that, but I’m sorry, there’s nothing wrong with me analysing what the Israelis are doing in Gaza, period.

FS: So how does the realist principle for which you are so famous apply to the Israel-Hamas conflict? Could you say, for example, that Israel — if it’s going to act rationally and in its own self-interest — needed to respond dramatically to the atrocities on October 7? That it was their only “realist” option? 

JM: I’m not criticising the Israelis for responding to what Hamas did on October 7 — of course the Israelis were going to respond — what I’m criticising is how they responded. And my argument is that it made no sense militarily to launch a campaign where they’re basically massacring huge numbers of Palestinians and starving Palestinians. There’s no military utility to this. And from a moral point of view, that’s important.

FS: So, had you been in charge, what would you have recommended as a better response?

JM: I think that their response could have been much more selective, and little emphasis should have been placed on punishing the civilian population. The emphasis should have been on going after Hamas, not going to great lengths to punish the Palestinian population in ways that we are watching now.

FS: But how about the reports of Hamas deliberately putting centres of operations in civilian areas, under hospitals, and so on? How do you respond to that? Does that not complicate the idea that the Israelis could have done a surgical strike that avoided any civilian casualties?

JM: Well, there’s no question that Hamas is integrated in all sorts of ways into the civilian population in Gaza. How could it be otherwise? Hamas is not going to build military bases far away from the civilian population so that they present the Israelis with a big fat target. What they have done is they have built tunnels underneath the ground all over Gaza, which is a way of protecting themselves from Israeli bombing campaigns. It makes perfect sense from their point of view. But in doing that, there’s no way they’re not going to be bound up with the local population.

FS: Are you saying you think it’s just an accident of the small geographical area, and you don’t think Hamas is deliberately putting centres of strategic importance in the middle of civilian areas?

JM: I don’t see much evidence of that. The Israelis made the case that this one hospital was a site of a major command and a control post for Hamas and that underneath was the centre of a huge network of tunnels. But once they got into the hospital and checked around, they did not find any significant evidence that supported that thesis.

FS: I thought they found tunnels directly from the floor of the hospital?

JM: There’s so many stories on what they found in this hospital or that hospital or in the surrounding area near the hospital that it’s hard to keep track of it. But there’s no evidence that Hamas had a major headquarters and the centre of a major series of tunnels underneath any one hospital.

FS: What I’m really keen to hear is what the correct application of your principles of international relations would be to this situation — if you accept Israel as a state, and as an actor that will act in its own self interests, and then you also observe the situation in the countries around it and in Gaza and the West Bank. Is it now the case that one side needs to win and the other side needs to lose? Or do you believe that a two-state solution is a realistic possibility?

JM: I don’t believe a two-state solution is a realistic possibility. Certainly after what happened on October 7, and what has subsequently happened, there’s not going to be a two-state solution. What the Israelis are determined to do is create a Greater Israel, and that Greater Israel includes Gaza, the West Bank, and what we used to call Green Line Israel — Israel as it existed before the 1967 War. And the problem that the Israelis face is that there are approximately 7.3 million Israeli Jews in Greater Israel. And there are approximately 7.3 million Palestinians inside of Greater Israel. And that creates huge problems, because they can’t have a meaningful democracy when there are probably slightly more Palestinians than Israeli Jews. The Israeli government was unwilling to move towards a two-state solution regardless of what happened on October 7, but certainly after October 7, that’s not going to happen.

FS: But if you’re Israel, you wouldn’t advise pursuing a two-state solution because you don’t think it’s feasible because of the antipathy that people in Gaza in the West Bank feel towards Israelis? Isn’t that your position?

JM: I have long been a proponent of a two-state solution. But I have long argued that it was no longer a viable alternative because I thought the Israelis were not interested, after Camp David in 2000, in a two-state solution. But now, after what’s happened, it’s almost impossible to conceive of Israel creating a Palestinian state that is right next door to Israel.

FS: Would you also say that it’s impossible to conceive, having witnessed the events of October 7, of a Palestinian state sitting peacefully side-by-side with an Israeli state?

JM: Yeah, I would agree with that. I think given what’s happened on October 7, relations between the Palestinians and the Israelis have been poisoned to the point where a two-state solution is no longer viable.

FS: So what should our goal be, Professor? We’re here to try to work out what the world should be doing in that region. If you no longer think the two-state solution you’ve supported for so long is realistic or viable, what’s the plan? What should we be trying to do there?

JM: I have no solution. I think what you’re going to end up with is more of the same, which is a Greater Israel that is an apartheid state.

FS: So actually, rather than simply accusing Israel of overreacting, yours is more of a sense that there is no solution here — that what we’re witnessing is simply going to carry on?

JM: These are two separate issues here. The article that you started with focuses just on Israel’s policy in Gaza, and is a critique of its behaviour on moral grounds; the question of what happens with regard to relations between Israeli Jews and Palestinians is another matter. On that front, I don’t see any viable solution because, in theory, there is only one viable solution, which is to give the Palestinians a state of their own. This conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians can only be solved politically, it can’t be solved with military force. And the only political solution that works, theoretically, is a two-state solution. But as you and I discussed a few minutes ago, that train has left the station.

So we’re going to continue the status quo, which is a Greater Israel that is an apartheid state. And I know it’s controversial to refer to Israel as an apartheid state. But Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, B’Tselem, which is the leading human rights organisation inside of Israel, all three of these organisations have produced major reports that make it clear that Israel is an apartheid state. And they use that language. And by the way, I follow the Israeli press very closely. And it’s commonplace for Israeli elites to refer to Israel as an apartheid state. So this is the future that we’re dealing with, and it’s not going to be pretty.

FS: I’m just surprised to hear you use phrases like “apartheid state” which are so specific to the South African experience. In other scenarios, I could see you being critical of people sloppily applying phrases to areas that don’t really apply to them. And some of those organisations you just listed you would have been very critical of in other scenarios. I confess that I’m surprised to hear how enthusiastically you embrace the rhetoric of Israel’s critics.

JM: I don’t like words like enthusiastically. I think you’re setting me up for the kill here. There’s no reason that someone who is a realist like me can’t also view the world in moral terms. One can argue, as most realists do when there is a clash between realist logic and moral logic, realist logic dominates; but there are all sorts of cases where realist logic and moral logic are lined up and they point in the same direction. And there are other cases where realist logic is not at play and you can make a moral case for doing something.

And I want to emphasise that in the early Nineties, when the genocide took place in Rwanda, I fully supported American intervention for moral reasons. There was no realist logic at play in that case, but I thought, from a moral point of view, the right thing to do was to intervene. So I think it’s important to emphasise that realists can think about the world in moral terms. 

FS: Let’s apply these ideas to the US-Israeli relationship, then, because that’s something you’ve written a whole book about. What’s your sense of America’s vital interest in Israel? Is there one? Or do you feel like they are spending too much capital and reputation in defending Israel, and you’d like to see that reduce?

JM: The United States has a special relationship with Israel that has no parallel in modern history. The United States supports Israel, almost no matter what it does. It’s unconditional support. It’s truly remarkable. And all sorts of people have said that there is no equivalent relationship between any two countries in recorded history.

So the question is: what is driving this special relationship? What caused it? As Steve Walt and I argue in our book, you cannot make the argument that supporting Israel unconditionally is in our strategic or in our moral interest. In fact, what’s going on here is that the Israel lobby, which is an extremely powerful interest group in the United States, works over time to push American foreign policy in ways that support Israel at every turn. And as we emphasise in the book, there’s nothing immoral or unethical or illegal about this. Interest groups hold enormous amounts of power in the United States. And the Israel lobby is an interest group that has an enormous amount of influence on our policy in the Middle East.

FS: Looking at the last few weeks since October 7, could you not make the case that actually the US has been a restraining influence on Israel? They call it the bear hug: because Israel is so reliant on US support, ever since the first few days after October 7, it is the only country that Israel will listen to pull back. It feels like the initial delay, for example, before going into Gaza, as well as such humanitarian pauses as there have been, are the result of US pressure.

JM: I don’t believe you can make that argument. In minor ways, the Americans have pushed the Israelis to allow some aid to flow into Gaza, but not very much at all. There are all sorts of reports that, basically, a huge chunk of the population in Gaza is starving. And the idea that we have created a situation where the civilian population is getting anywhere near a sufficient amount of food and water and fuel and medicine is not a serious argument. The Israelis are doing pretty much what they want, and there’s no evidence that we’ve put meaningful limits on what they can do.

FS: So how would you like to see the US treat Israel?

JM: I would like us to treat Israel like a normal country. And when Israel does things that are in our interest, we should back them. And when they don’t, we should not back them. In fact, we should go to great lengths to get them to change their behaviour. I don’t think it’s in our interest for the Israelis to maintain the occupation. I hope you understand that, since at least President Carter’s time in office, the United States has pushed forcefully for a two-state solution. But the Israelis have not played ball with us. And the principle reason they’ve been able to get away with largely ignoring our pressure is because of the Israel lobby here in the United States. No President is willing to really coerce Israel in a meaningful way, or has been able to coerce Israel to accept a two-state solution, because the political costs would be too great. And that’s because the Israel lobby is so powerful.

FS: But you’ve said in this conversation that you don’t think the two-state solution is realistic or viable, in part because of the antipathy that people in Palestine now feel towards Israel. So we can’t really blame them, then, by that logic?

JM: You’re mixing up timeframes, Freddie. We’re talking about from President Carter up until October 7. The fact is that’s a very different situation than the situation that exists after October 7. We were discussing the fact that it’s hard to imagine moving toward a two-state solution after October 7, given the antipathy if not outright hatred on both sides; but before October 7, and certainly in the Eighties and the Nineties and in much of the early 2000s, one could argue that you could get a two-state solution.

FS: Didn’t Clinton offer a two-state solution to Yasser Arafat and he turned it down at the last minute?

JM: No, that’s not what happened. In fact, after the breakup of the Camp David discussions in 2000, Arafat and the Palestinians continued to negotiate with the Israelis. The negotiations on a two state-solution with the Barak government didn’t end with the end of the Camp David negotiations. They went on after Barak left office and Ariel Sharon came into power. What happened at Camp David, in the latter stages of the Bill Clinton administration, was the closest we ever came to making it work.

FS: Once again: let’s apply your realist lens to this situation. Israel is reliant on US support. Without that it would functionally not survive. Would you agree with that statement?

JM: You seem to think that Hamas is a state and that Israel is a state, and this is a classic case of interstate politics, where realism applies. But that’s not what’s going on here. This is a case where you have a Greater Israel, and Hamas is a group that operates inside of Greater Israel. And this is a resistance movement. That’s what’s going on here. This is not interstate relations. Realism doesn’t have a lot to say about relations between Hamas and Israel. You could argue that creating a Palestinian state and thinking about relations between a Palestinian state and Israel would bring realpolitik onto the table, because then you’d have interstate relations. But this is not a case of interstate relations. Hamas is not a state. You said before that one could argue that Israel is facing an existential threat. This is not a serious argument. Do you really believe that Hamas is an existential threat to Israel?

FS: It might face an existential threat if the US dialled down their support to the level you’re suggesting.

JM: I’m sorry, Israel is a remarkably powerful state. In my opinion, it is militarily the most powerful state in the region. It is the only state that has nuclear weapons. Hamas doesn’t even have a state, right? It occupies Gaza, which is part of Greater Israel — it’s remarkably weak. This is the kind of threat inflation that you get in the West, in places like Britain, where you operate, and in places like the United States, where I operate, that are all designed to justify what Israel is doing. If they’re facing an existential threat, if this is the second coming of the Third Reich, if Hamas fighters are the new Nazis, then you can make an argument that what you’re doing here is killing large numbers of Palestinians to avoid another Holocaust. That’s not what’s going on here. Hamas is not the Third Reich, they are not an existential threat to Israel.

FS: What about the surrounding territories? It sounds like you’re completely unpersuaded by concerns that there could be incursions from the North, that Iran’s influence could grow, that there could be a wider strategic threat to Israel. Does that not worry you?

JM: That’s not a problem. What country is going to invade Israel and threaten its survival? There’s no country. Jordan? I don’t think so. Egypt? I don’t think so. Syria, or Iraq? I don’t think so. Lebanon? No. Is there a problem with Hezbollah? No. Hezbollah has lots of rockets and missiles, and it could do huge amounts of damage inside Israel if it launched those approximately 150,000 rockets and missiles. There’s no question about that. But Hezbollah does not have the capability to invade Israel and conquer any territory and hold on to it. It’s not a serious argument — and nor does Hamas have that capability.

To the extent that Israel might face an existential threat in the future, that would be true if Iran were to get nuclear weapons, because Iran and Israel obviously have hostile relations, and one could tell a story about how a conflict between the two of them could escalate to the nuclear level. Of course, again, this assumes that Iran has nuclear weapons. But Iran is not about to invade or conquer Israel. And again, you don’t want to forget that Israel has nuclear weapons. They are the ultimate deterrent. I’ve yet to see a country that has nuclear weapons disappear from the face of the earth. And I don’t think that Israel is going to be the first country that fills the bill, that score. It’s just not going to happen.

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Freddie and Professor Mearsheimer go on to discuss his predictions for Ukraine, the effects of a second Trump victory and the future of Europe. Watch the video HERE or subscribe to the podcast HERE.

is the Editor-in-Chief & CEO of UnHerd. He was previously Editor-in-Chief of YouGov, and founder of PoliticsHome.