Gregory J Lobo

Gregory J Lobo

Gregory J Lobo, PhD, OSUN Senior Researcher, SOAS—University of London (2023-24); Associate Professor, Universidad de los Andes. Bogotá, Colombia; His most recent book is Nationism. In Defence of Open Societies (Alibri, 2024); Scholar-in-Residence, ISGAP-Oxford Summer Institute for Critical Study of Antisemitism, 2016.

A point of principle and a forever war

A number of commentators on the conflict in what was for centuries called the region of Palestine cast it in terms of a forever war. After all, it has been going on for more than a hundred years, which certainly seems like forever. It started when the leaders of the local Arab population incited violence to stop one aspect of the implementation of the mandate for Palestine after the conclusion of the First World War and the fall of the Ottoman Empire. While other mandates, for Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and others were fulfilled (perfectly? No, not perfectly), the mandate for Palestine, which included a homeland for the region’s Jews – inhabitants of the region for millennia, since long before the Islamic conquest of the area in the seventh century – was not.

Had a state for the Jews been set up in the years following the Great War, as states were for some of the other peoples of the former Ottoman sphere, such a state could have received the Jews trying to escape the Nazis. But it wasn’t, and indeed, the British, at the behest of some local leaders, made Jewish emigration to the area almost impossible during that time. Millions suffered the consequences of that intransigence. Then, in 1947, after the Second World War, the British returned the mandate to the UN. No progress on a Jewish state had been made. Why? The report says this, as quoted by Einat Wilf and Adi Shwartz: “His Majesty’s Government have thus been faced with an irreconcilable conflict of principles … For the Jews the essential point of principle is the creation of a sovereign Jewish State. For the Arabs, the essential point of principle is to resist to the last the establishment of Jewish sovereignty in any part of Palestine”.

            Such a point of principle needs to be understood in order to understand this forever war and its history. Given such a point of principle, such a history, what are the chances, today, for a forever ceasefire, which a forever war obviously demands? Is such a ceasefire even realistic?


Realism is an approach to international relations. We are told by Thomas Fazi in a recent column in Unherd that realism in international relations is, at heart, a rational  [my emphasis] attempt to seek solutions to conflict”. Being rational, “invites us to look for root causes — not for the sake of truth, or for picking sides, but because it is a fundamental precondition for resolving existing conflicts and avoiding future ones”. Despite that clarification, Fazi informs us that he has picked sides: “I belong squarely” he says at the outset, to the side that stands “more or less openly with the Palestinian cause”. A relevant question here is, what exactly is the Palestinian cause? I want to leave that question in the air for the duration of this brief piece. Whatever the nature of that cause, however, to stand with it appears to put Fazi and realists like him in opposition to those who have “taken a generally forgiving view of Israel’s response to Hamas’s terror assault” of October 7, 2023.

Despite being a realist committed to looking for root causes, Fazi does not in fact look far. Indeed, he doesn’t look at all, for he already knows what the root cause is. It is, he asserts, apparent [i.e. true?] that Israels occupation regime, not least the 16-year blockade of Gaza, is at the root of the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict—and is ultimately what provoked Hamass October 7 attack” (my emphasis).

Is Israel, which left Gaza over 16 years ago, and whose blockade” did not seem to hamper the construction of a network of tunnels as well as extensive health, educational and economic infrastructure, really the root” cause of the conflict? Or is Israel simply how Hamas justifies its ongoing violence against Israel, with arguments that amount to “Because Israel”. Hamass attack was provoked”? Is such an assertion not a clear instance of blaming the victim,’ choosing sides, and stipulating “the truth”— or a stab at it? 

Having ignored the rules of realism which he himself has just stated, Fazi continues with his analysis of the conflict, citing those who agree with his realist” position, so as to enthrone it as an uncontroversial one, as the only rational one. The true one. He cites left-wingers. He cites Israelis too. But his citations are no more than opinions and can be met and debunked, or at least countered, by different opinions—perhaps those of left-wingers, surely those of different Israelis. Of course, an opinion for an opinion leaves the whole world polarized, and the destruction unaffected. Realistically, we must do better.

Political-strategic rationality

I want to suggest that an appeal to morality can help us do better. But as Fazi reminds us, the realist” analysis (in addition to not being about taking sides or concerned with the truth) is not a moral one”: it is a political-strategic” one. Being realists, he explains, we should expect that under certain circumstances, states—or quasi-state actors, such as Hamas—will act violently to defend or assert their fundamental interests: survival, security, and sovereignty”. Morality has nothing to do with it! Be that as it may be, in what sense was the survival, security and, indeed, practical sovereignty of Hamas in jeopardy prior to October 7. 

We don’t get an answer. But having explained how Hamas might rationalize its violence, Fazi then changes the subject as it were, and begins to talk about the Palestinians and their actions. [S]aying that Palestinians should avoid violently resisting the occupation—which is equivalent to saying they should simply submit to Israeli domination—is […] naive, from a political standpoint”. He continues: So long as the occupation persists [authors note: the Israelis left Gaza almost twenty years ago], Palestinians will keep resisting; no amount of violence on Israels behalf, short of the expulsion or annihilation of the Palestinian population, will change that reality—indeed, it will only exacerbate it”.

I am not sure why Fazi does not distinguish between Palestinians and Hamas in what I have just quoted. I know some cite polls that show high levels of Palestinian support for Hamas, but after the last decade of disastrous polls, I for one prefer to take them with a pinch of salt. And indeed, recent reports of heroic demonstrations in Gaza against Hamas seem to belie polling. But what seems to be clear is that despite, correctly, characterizing October 7th as “Hamas’s terror assault” in his opening paragraph, Fazi has just rehabilitated this terror assault as political-strategic, non-naïve, realist (albeit violent) resistance by Palestinians in general and not by Hamas in particular. This is an analytical defect, surely.

Moreover, if we accept Fazi’s realist account, we have to admit what is good for the realist goose is good for the realist gander, the latter, in this case being Israel. And thus Fazis realism, as far as I can tell, seems to have committed him to countenance the annihilation of the civilians of Gaza. Why? Because, as he has just explained, the political-strategic rationality of realism compels states, even the State of Israel, to respond violently to attacks on their fundamental interests: survival, security, and sovereignty. Now, Israel’s survival, etc., really were the target of “Hamas’s terror assault” on October 7. Furthermore, Hamas is on the record affirming, promising, that threats to those fundamental interests will be exacerbated, if only because, according to Fazi’s account, realism demands it. And this means that Israel is quite within its realist rights to defend itself, and indeed, its defense of itself is only to be expected.

The problem with Fazi’s account, however, is that Hamas’s exacerbatory violence is not due to Israels occupation but to its mere existence—“Because Israel” goes the rationale. On October 6th there was no occupation, but there was Israel. Realism demands we acknowledge that local leadership (or those who purport to be leaders) has opposed Jewish sovereignty for more than one hundred years. Not only local leadership: when Yasser Arafat signed the Oslo Accords, which did in fact recognize the legitimacy of the Jewish State in the region, he was met with derision by leading intellectuals (thought leaders?) such as Edward Said, from New York, who called this recognition “an instrument of Palestinian surrender, a Palestinian Versailles”, while urging, in response to said capitulation, unceasing “resistance against the Israeli occupation, which continues indefinitely”. Any state that is Israeli, for Said, constitutes occupation, and thus implacably generates violent response, as per the terms of realism propounded by Fazi. Given the precepts of realism, the annihilation which Fazi warns against is only to be expected. But it would not, according to the logic of realism, be a moral catastrophe. It would just be the inevitable outcome of politico-strategic rationality.

If that was not enough for us to reject realism, consider this further complication: there are ideological and religious—and, therefore, somewhat irrational—dimensions” to the conflict, and, unfortunately, being irrational dimensions, “realist theory cannot account for” them. Surprisingly, however, these irrational dimensions are ascribed only to Israel by Fazi. Now, while not discounting the influence of religious perspectives in the Israeli government, the notion that the actions of Hamas (a quite different entity than the civilian population of Gaza) are unperturbed by ideological, religious and indeed, irrational dimensions, and that it is, therefore, a rational actor is, to coin a phrase, unrealistic. Or are we to include within the purview of what is rational putting every last citizen in the way of what you know, rationally, is a realistic response (according to Fazi) to an attack like 7 October; unless we include antisemitism in our understanding of what is rational; unless “rational” describes gang rape, slaughter, dismemberment, in short desecration up to and including the kidnapping—and the butchery too—of babes in arms?

After October 7, indeed, after a century of this forever war, it would be irrational to believe that Hamas will not use any ceasefire to rebuild its ability to attack Israel’s fundamental interests. It would be irrational to disbelieve their promise to do just that. Such is realism.


Despite Fazi’s claim that realism operates on a higher (or lower?) plane than morality, John Mearsheimer, the most famous realist of all, believes moral analysis has a place in the analysis of this particular conflict. Mearsheimer is famous for his many “rational” analyses of just as many conflicts. His realism calmly explains why, for example, Putin is acting quite rationally in pursuing his war against Ukraine: he’s simply protecting the interests of Russia against the minatory West. Not much to see there. Regarding the conflict in question, however, Mearsheimer has  taken a view that can be described as moral, condemning Israel’s actions since October 7 as nothing less than immoral, and indeed, as running against the grain of history: “I want to be on record so that when historians look back on this moral calamity, they will see that some Americans were on the right side of history”.

History, of course, has no sides. It does not bend this way or that. If the world is in any way “better” today than it was yesterday, it is not because history has a moral arc, but because of moral action by moral actors. This is reality. If we can introduce morality into our analysis of this conflict, there is still the chance for a diplomatic and negotiated solution to it, and even a chance for what we can call a “forever ceasefire,” if you will. It is based on the reality that human beings are capable of acting morally and can opt out of political-strategic rationality—which nowadays sounds very much like a colonizer construct designed to relieve people of their agency (or deny it to them).

The demand

Civilians in Gaza have the sympathy of much of the world, as they have had for decades. It is time for Hamas to have some sympathy for them too. If Hamas can stop thinking of itself as the Palestinian people, as any kind of representative of the people of Gaza, as realist political-strategic actors; if its leaders can start thinking of themselves, to the contrary, as moral agents, then they themselves can stop the destruction of Gaza. Nothing prevents it, if only they were to want it. 

How can Hamas put an end to the suffering that Hamas, in fact, has orchestrated, and thereby open the door to a permanent diplomatic and negotiated solution? It can do this in two steps: by releasing the hostages and surrendering unconditionally. That could happen immediately. It could have happened months ago. Realism must deal with the fact that human beings are moral agents. Therefore, for everyone concerned to stop the loss of innocent life on both sides, this should be our demand: release the hostages and surrender unconditionally. Now. Realists know the consequences of the failure to do so; which does not stop such consequences from being unthinkable.