An Israeli soldier looks on as a helicopter takes off near the Lebanon border (JALAA MAREY/AFP via Getty Images)

February 27, 2024   6 mins

Navigating the wars in Ukraine and Gaza has brought the political theory of realism to the fore, becoming a sudden mainstay of popular and journalistic analysis. More than anyone, University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer, the doyen of American realism, has been catapulted into the position of a global intellectual, consulted widely for both his told-you-so’s and his predictions. But on Gaza he demurs: the circumstances there, he argues, are so far from the conventional inter-state war we see in Ukraine that realism has little traction for analysing Israel’s offensive.

Other adherents of his thought have not followed him. Writing recently for UnHerd, Thomas Fazi claimed that the arguments of realism actually fit the war in Gaza very well. He argues that just as any realist appraisal of the Russian invasion of Ukraine must acknowledge the role of Nato expansion, so too an explanation of this war needs to be as rooted in the regime imposed by Israel on the Gaza strip as in the horrors of the Hamas atrocities last year.

Yet a realist appraisal of any war has to go further than an inductive analysis of its immediate causes to also consider the political character of its protagonists. One of the basic distinguishing features of realism is its focus on state power and the ruthless means by which states secure themselves, leading to the recurrence of violent conflict. And in this war, there is only one state to speak of — the Israeli one. Prior to October 7, the dependence of the Hamas authorities on the Israeli state was so extreme that the strip could be characterised as a de facto devolved province of Israel itself, with Hamas expanding to fill the vacuum left by the Israeli military and settler withdrawal in 2005. And as is now well-established and increasingly recognised, Israel has propped up Hamas ever since as a deliberate strategy for dividing the Palestinians of Gaza from those in the West Bank under the leadership of the Palestinian Authority.

A realist analysis should recognise this Israeli domination over Gaza, but the weight of its analysis should fall on the permissive cause of Israeli policy: the fact of Palestinian national defeat. For if realism is to carry any meaning whatsoever, it must surely include a lucid registration of historic defeats and victories, both political and military. There is one unavoidable fact in the history of this conflict that matters more than Israel’s crude strategies of divide-and-rule, and that is the fact that the Palestinians’ leaders effectively surrendered to Israel many years ago, at the Oslo Peace Accords in 1993.

Oslo was, in Edward Said’s ruthlessly incisive appraisal at the time, nothing short of a “Palestinian Versailles”. In accepting the two-state solution, Said argued, the Palestinian leadership renounced the entirety of Palestine’s national claims, accepting the substitution of municipal for national aspirations, with the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) reduced to the role of policing Palestinians on behalf of Israel. The defeat of the secular Arab nationalism of the PLO would create the void that groups such as Hamas now occupy. But the rise of Islamist factions in Palestinian politics also traces a wider arc in Arab politics that began with Israel’s victory over all the leading Arab states of the era in the 1967 Six Day War. Since then, Islamic conservatism has come to substitute for Arab nationalism as the dominant force in Middle Eastern politics, whether backed by Iran on the one side (Hezbollah and Hamas) or Saudi Arabia on the other (the Muslim Brotherhood, Al Qaeda and Isis).

For Hamas as for other Islamists, the ultimate referent object of politics is the overarching transnational community of believers, the ummah. For them, secular nation-states are provisional makeshifts at best, if not simply idolatrous substitutes for righteous rule. This is significant because as long as there is no agency that can legitimately claim to represent the Palestinian nation, their aspiration to independence remains a defunct and meaningless proposition. Over the years, regional experts have made much of the idea of a so-called “hudna”, a religious notion of ceasefire that some academics take as evidence for Hamas’s willingness to subordinate their religious ideals in favour of accepting secular rule and accommodation with Israel (at least in the short term). But given the fact that Hamas only exists in the ruins of Palestinian national independence, it makes little odds for the future of the Palestinian people, whatever term of Islamic jurisprudence one chooses to drape over Hamas’ thuggish theocracy or the iron fist of Israeli oppression.

Since the defeat of Palestinian nationalism in 1993, there has been no meaningful political agency in the conflict or the region except that of the Israeli state. Any political claim in this conflict that does not begin from this reality will inevitably find itself remoulded around the hard fact not only of Israeli military might but also the fact that the Jewish state is the only real political force in the Palestinian territories. And this is why analysts who otherwise draw from realism end up echoing so many of the liberal humanitarian claims around Gaza — whether describing the Israeli assault as a genocide, or boosting the claims of the International Court of Justice in its recent interim ruling.

As the founding father of British realism E.H. Carr observed, world-history is the real world-court. Any realist who finds themselves resting the weight of their arguments on the feeble claims of international law has forgotten this prior. The reason that both popular and diplomatic opposition to Israel’s reprisals has taken the form of demanding ceasefires in the name of liberal humanitarianism is because there is no agency that can legitimately claim to act on behalf of the Palestinian nation and imprint its demands on the political process. Or, as Edward Said wrote (paraphrasing Karl Marx) in the opening to his 1978 book Orientalism: “they cannot represent themselves, they must be represented”. This is the case for the Palestinians today. The profusion of support for them around the world is in inverse proportion to their political inarticulation and powerlessness. The more hapless and weak they are, the more support they earn.

This is the bitter lesson realism has for this conflict. While a ceasefire may be desirable to relieve the suffering of Gaza’s civilians, it is no diplomatic solution to the conflict. This is not because it is not desirable or because one should never talk to terrorists — there is simply no party to treat with. Israel negotiating with whatever remains of Hamas after the end of the Israeli operations will produce no lasting solution simply because Hamas does not represent the Palestinian nation and does not even aim to. The idea that the two-state solution can be revived is the height of idealist utopianism, as decades of stalled peace talks and ever-worsening violence should have made clear.

But this logic applies to Israel too. As long as it refuses to take responsibility for its victory in 1993, and the Palestinian nation remains dead, any two-state solution will mean Israel devolving its authority to a quisling regime to rule over the prostrate Palestinians. It is hard to see how this is compatible with any definition of genuine Palestinian freedom. And if so, how can there be a lasting settlement to the conflict? Israel is thus in the wrong not for moral reasons but for political ones — it refuses to follow through on the implications of its own victory, opting instead for the dystopian prospect of waging forever war against those it has already defeated many times over.

“Israel is thus in the wrong not for moral reasons but for political ones”

A genuinely realistic analysis should make clear there is currently only one state across the whole of the historic mandate territory of Palestine, and it is Israel. But if Israel continues to evade the task of exercising sovereignty over its subjects in the Palestinian territories, then the only other option for Gaza is some kind of international protectorate. This will be accepted by Israel in preference to ruling Gaza directly and perhaps policed by international forces provided by Muslim states, likely involving Saudi Arabia, if only to preserve Saudi efforts to normalise relations with the Jewish state. Israel’s sovereignty will be compromised by the intrusion of the international community into its territory, and the Palestinians will certainly not be free in a little Saudi-sponsored colony.

It is doubtful that anyone would march for Palestine in this endgame: the Palestinians safely cosseted under a “permanent ceasefire” policed by foreign forces from the ummah. A protectorate for Gaza will return Palestine to its modern roots as a League of Nations mandate, its independence deferred to some remote feature. Doubtless some Quranic mot juste will be found that can be bandied about sagaciously by Western academics in order to give an authentic “decolonial” legitimacy to the new humanitarian colony. Anti-Israel protestors who have marched in cities around the world to condemn Israeli atrocities will find that they were a stage-army in the service of the global NGO-cracy, which will rapidly assimilate Gaza into another province of their own mini-empire of charitable sinecures.

Where does this leave realism in this war? In overlooking the reality of Palestinian defeat, its supposed adherents have allowed moralism to creep into their realism (in modern international relations, moralism means the “international community”). That is to say, they end up supporting the exercise of the exact kind of Western power that they so eloquently criticise elsewhere. That said, realism alone will not offer a solution to the conflict. As Aris Roussinos observed in his recent meditation on realism and E.H. Carr, taken to its logical extreme of endless cycles of competition for power, realism is ultimately barren, with no political meaning at its core.

By contrast, it was James Burnham who conjoined realism with freedom through the figure of Niccolò Machiavelli who, despite his reputation as an amoral powerbroker, understood that strife was a necessary condition for the preservation of liberty and independence. As Machiavelli maintained, anyone who is serious about freedom must be serious about political power — not only to understand how to hold it in check but also to understand how it is wielded and deployed. As long as there is no Palestinian nation, there is no political agency that can bear the weight of Palestinian freedom. All arguments that do not start from this premise inevitably devolve into liberal humanitarian arguments which prioritise the Palestinians’ human rights over their national rights. Conversely, as long as Israel refuses to recognise its own domination over the Palestinians, the longer it will be trapped in a forever war against a people who are already entirely in its power.

Philip Cunliffe is Associate Professor of International Relations at the Institute of Risk and Disaster Reduction, University College London. He is author or editor of eight books, as well as a co-author of Taking Control: Sovereignty and Democracy After Brexit (2023). He is one of the hosts of the Bungacast podcast.