Sorting through the latest polling in Gaza, what is coming next, and how to move forward.
I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”
The fundamental promise of Tangle is to share perspectives from across the political spectrum on the most divisive issues of the day.
For the last few weeks, we’ve been covering the Israel-Palestine conflict and everything that has happened since October 7. Throughout that time, you have gotten several Tangle editions that included a wide range of perspectives on this conflict: Israeli, Palestinian, American, European, and, of course, my own. But given the personal nature of this story to me, you’ve gotten an unusually frequent rate of editions that included just my own personal views on what is going on — including last Friday’s 10 thoughts about what is happening in Israel.
Of course, Tangle is my publication, and it’s okay for me to occasionally climb out on some limbs and share my own views independent of others. But in times like these, I also think it is critical for me to elevate perspectives that are decidedly different from my own. At times, my efforts to do that have created some content that is — for lack of a better word — unhelpful. But those same efforts often create content that I find very valuable.
Yesterday was one of those times.
I got to sit down with Yousef Munayyer, a Palestinian-American writer and political analyst who is the head of the Palestine/Israel program at the Arab Center in Washington, D.C. Munayyer is one of my go-to voices on this conflict, as evidenced by the fact that I actually interviewed him for our podcast way back in 2021 — before I even had a proper microphone to record these episodes.
Despite the difficult circumstances surrounding our conversation, it was great to bring him back on. Just like in 2021, while I have bones to pick on plenty of points Munayyer made, I also learned a lot, found his arguments cogent and challenging, felt my own position shifting on certain specifics, and was left feeling that these kinds of conversations should be more frequent. In fact, they need to be more frequent.
Below, we are publishing a transcription of our 40-minute interview. Given the length of our chat, it has been edited for length and clarity. But you can listen to the full conversation on our podcast here.
Isaac Saul: Yousef Munayyer, thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.
Yousef Munayyer: Sure, good to be with you.
Isaac Saul: I'd like to start a little human-to-human here. How are you holding up? How are you doing? I imagine this is a really difficult moment in time.
Yousef Munayyer: Yeah, I mean, it's extremely difficult. The situation on the ground, I think, is difficult for anybody to watch. And for many of us who have family members who are on the ground, under bombs, it becomes increasingly more difficult.
Nobody is okay, even if they're alive, during this time. Everybody is profoundly impacted by this. And I think I speak for many, many people when I say we just want to see it come to an immediate end. So that's more or less, I think, how a lot of us are doing right now.
Isaac Saul: Can you tell me a little bit about what you're seeing? How would you describe the current situation of this military operation in Gaza, and also what you're seeing in the West Bank right now?
Yousef Munayyer: In some ways what we're seeing is new because of the level of spectacular violence that we are seeing. The sheer number of people who are being killed and the amount of destruction that we are seeing is unprecedented. The mass displacement and the level of cruelty I think is something that's hard to find an analogy for in the history of Israeli-Palestinian interaction. And that's saying a lot.
At the same time, there's a lot that's not new here. And I look at what we are seeing today and have seen over the last few months as just the most recent episode within a situation where there is a lack of freedom and justice, and until those things are fundamentally addressed, this is stuff that we'll continue to see. Sometimes it might take more horrific forms than others, and we're watching, as I said, a truly horrific version of this now.
But it is part of a system. It's part of a system that did not start on October 7th, that long predated it, and will most likely exist after this war is over — which I think is probably the most important piece to focus on. And I think without challenging that system, we're likely to find ourselves watching future versions of this.
Isaac Saul: I've been critical of how far this particular bombardment and ground invasion and military response from Israel has gone. I've written a little bit about this in my newsletter, and one of the things I hear very often from a lot of people who are more ardently on the pro-Israel side is, well, what should Israel have done? What were their options in response to the October 7th attack?
And I have different kinds of answers for that. One of which is that there were no good options on the table, and this is a particularly bad one. But I'm curious how you would answer that question. If you could wave a magic wand and have some influence on what happens on October 8th, what's your guidance?
Yousef Munayyer: I think there's a few ways to respond to that. First of all, I think there's no situation that justifies the mass killing of innocent civilians. And we should make no mistake, this is what we are seeing in Gaza. Thousands of people, thousands of children who had absolutely nothing to do with the events of October 7th, are being killed in what is called an act of defense. That's not justifiable in any circumstances. At the same time though, you do hear people attempting to justify this war by raising the very point that you did. “What is Israel supposed to do? You have to sympathize with this impossible predicament that Israel is in.” I think there's a couple responses to that.
First, we know that this is not the only way that Israel can defend itself, because Israel was capable of defending itself on October 7th, but failed to do that for a number of reasons. What happened on October 7th was not because Hamas was somehow militarily superior to Israel, somehow had more resources and more guns than Israel, or had superior intelligence. It was made possible by a failure of Israeli intelligence and security apparatus. So there is clearly a way to prevent another attack like that from the Gaza Strip.
What it is seeking to do now in the Gaza Strip is not defense. It's some form of accountability, in the most generous description, against the key architects behind October 7th. But it's not defense. And I think it's important to separate those two things.
I would also say that there are people who look at the situation in Gaza and say, “Well if you look at it from the Israeli perspective, this is an impossible situation. What are you supposed to do? There is this group that wants to come and attack you and they have a base here in Gaza. How else are we supposed to respond?”
But I think we need to ask ourselves, “How did this happen? How do you get into a place where there is a group like this that controls this territory and is able to develop the capabilities to launch these kinds of attacks?” And the reason we are in this place is that Israel created an exceptional status in Gaza. There is an occupation in Gaza, and in most normal circumstances where there is an occupation, the occupier — in this case Israel — has security perks that it gets in the role of being an occupier, while also having responsibilities towards the population it occupies. This is supposed to be the way that international law and the expectations of occupation internationally work.
But Israel’s disengagement with Gaza in 2005 created a situation where Israel wanted to retain the right to have the security perks of occupation without the responsibilities of governance or to the people it was supposed to protect in Gaza. And so this predicament that people are being asked to sympathize with is also a creation of decisions that the Israeli government made for self-interested reasons.
And we could go into all of that and the logic behind the disengagement and all of those things, but if we are being asked to appreciate this predicament, we have to also understand the conditions that brought it about. It obviously did not emerge on October 7th. There's a long history to this and including multiple episodes of wars in Gaza that predate this most recent war.
Isaac Saul: One of the wrinkles to that answer is the role Israel played in elevating Hamas. The New York Times had some reporting about funding from Israel that was being passed through Qatar to Hamas, and there's been a lot of discussion about these declassified conversations [Editor’s note: These were not declassified conversations, but conversations that reporters have since shared publicly, and public comments made by officials in the Israeli government] where leaders like Benjamin Netanyahu have been quoted as saying that the tension between Palestinian leadership in the West Bank and Gaza — the Palestinian Authority and Hamas (respectively) — is actually beneficial for Israel's goal of preventing a Palestinian state from existing. What’s your view on Israel's role in putting Hamas into a position where it has power in Gaza, and that general dynamic?
Yousef Munayyer: This is again one of those things that's not new when it comes to the domination of Palestinians, whether by Israel and this most recent Israeli government or previous Israeli governments or going back to the British mandate. This principle of divide and rule has long been practiced against Palestinians by those in power over them. And also, of course, not just among Palestinians. It’s a classical tactic of colonial powers throughout history.
I think that the state of Israel — and you can look at the way that this was discussed at the time by the Sharon government, who sort of made the decision to quote-unquote disengage from Gaza in 2005 — the way that they saw it was as an opportunity to freeze any obligations that they had towards making peace with Palestinians. And at that time, it wasn't about Hamas and Fatah. It was about keeping the West Bank and Gaza as separate entities and keeping them under different status. And the idea here was that if Gaza was separated from the West Bank and the Palestinians were divided, and you could say, well, we have nobody to talk to. If you have no partner to talk to, then you really can't be expected to make concessions for peace, right? You need to have a partner to make concessions to, and if you don't have a partner, what's the point of having this conversation?
And so Israel's policy towards Gaza, which developed into a policy towards Hamas in Gaza, was fit into this self-interested argument about putting off a peace agreement and perpetuating occupation and the expansion of settlements in the West Bank. And again, this is not limited to this most recent Israeli government. Obviously Netanyahu has gotten a lot of attention and a lot of flak specifically for his policy towards Hamas in Gaza, but this is something we see from this Netanyahu government and from previous Netanyahu governments and from non-Netanyahu governments, as well. You could look back and see statements from figures that are today in the opposition to Netanyahu supporting this sort of divide and rule strategy to put off the pressure for greater concessions towards the Palestinians.
So when I talk about this moment being the result of a system that's in place, this is that system. It's a system of unending apartheid, an absence of peace and justice. And there might be people like Netanyahu and others that see the maintenance of the system, the continuance of the system, as one that comes with costs from time to time, but ultimately more benefits for Israel and for the Israeli project and therefore see it as preferable. But I think there are a lot of others who are paying the costs of this, who of course see it differently.
Isaac Saul: One of the things that made me reach out to you in the last week was this poll that you posted on Twitter. It was a thread you posted about some recent polling of Palestinians from Gaza, the West Bank, and Israel. There's a lot to unpack in it, but I'm curious if you could just start by telling us about the poll and what your takeaways from it were.
Yousef Munayyer: Yeah, and there really is a lot. We're not gonna be able to capture it in this conversation. And I would encourage listeners [and readers] to actually go seek out the poll and read through the results and the details, because it is important.
I was looking forward to seeing this poll. I honestly did not know when to expect it because this is part of a series of polls that are done of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and obviously the situation in Gaza right now is so desperate and so dangerous that it's hard to do public opinion polling in these kinds of conditions. But the outfit managed to get it done during the very brief six- or seven- day truce in this war that took place recently so that they could produce some of these results. And I have to say, I wasn't super surprised by the results that we saw.
One of the key takeaways is that support for Hamas has gone through the roof. It was a party that had support previously, but now has far greater support. And I think what's important to note here is that more than just support for Hamas, if you look at the actual numbers, Palestinians support this idea of armed struggle and using arms to confront Israel.
Support for that strategy has also gone up significantly. The number of people who support that strategy is greater than the number of people who support Hamas. And so confidence in this strategy or support for this strategy does not simply correspond with an ideological political preference, right? It's a strategic choice that transcends ideological preferences, which I think is important.
I'm not surprised by this because there's historical evidence in these polls over time that shows this — in moments like this, that happens. However, coming into this, we were at a point already where support for armed struggle was significantly high. And now it's, of course, gotten much higher. I think there are two reasons why this is very important.
First, because the Israeli strategy, or at least the stated Israeli strategy, is that they are doing this to weaken Hamas and eliminate Hamas, and their order of operations that they put forward is to get to peace, first you have to get rid of Hamas. And the way you do that is by doing what they're doing in Gaza. This is their theory of change.
But the evidence that we have shows pretty clearly that this is not doing that at all. In fact, what Israel’s doing is quite the opposite. For anyone who understands the Palestinian experience, no one is going to be surprised by this at all: I don't think anybody has ever succeeded in making their neighbors like them by force and by bombing. It usually doesn't work like that, right? So it's not surprising to see these results in Palestinian public opinion.
The other reason I think it's really important is not that it tells us something about Israeli strategy in Gaza, but it really tells us something about the international community's handling of Israel-Palestine for years. And the failure to take into account what Palestinians think. From this poll, one of the things that was quite striking was that the vast majority of Palestinians want Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority, to resign. I think something like 11% are saying that he should sort of stick around. 11%. And this is the man that Joe Biden says should take control of Gaza after the war.
You know, there's a lot of things we can say about the Biden administration's handling of this, but this problem is not unique to the Biden administration. This approach of trying to shape Palestinians into a mold that suits both American and Israeli interests, but doesn't take into account Palestinian views, is something that has been a cornerstone of American policy on Israel and Palestine for a long, long time. And it doesn't work.
I think part of what we're seeing today is a product of that failure. We need to look this stuff in the face. And that's not easy to do because it requires acknowledging that the parties are much further apart than we'd like to acknowledge. And it's much easier to go back to this boilerplate language about a two-state solution.
But the Israelis don't support that right now. There isn't Palestinian confidence in this right now. And the primary Palestinian voice that's pushing for that has about 11% support among Palestinians. So you need to meet people where they are, and there's no shortcuts to that. Shortcuts bring us to where we are today.
So people are looking for easy answers to this. There aren't any. But that doesn't mean that there aren’t ways around it, or that by ignoring it it's gonna go away, or that we won't see major eruptions of violence if we do ignore it.
Isaac Saul: I think that's a good segue into the second part of this conversation I want to have, which is the “what's next” part of this. So everything that's happening right now is increasing the popularity of Hamas as a political organization, and it's damaging faith in Israel, or the Palestinian Authority, or the United States as a legitimate partner to the Palestinian cause. I'm interested to hear how you view Hamas as a political organization. Can peace exist with them as a leadership group in Gaza, and how do we pick up the pieces whenever this war does end with them clearly in control and with their rising popularity?
Yousef Munayyer: This goes back to what I was talking about previously. The United States, in their relationship with Israel, recognizes Israel as a sovereign and independent nation. And because of that, we don't we don't tell the Israelis who to elect. They don't tell us who to elect. They elect their leaders. We have to deal with them. We may not like them. We may not like the choices that they make. The choices that they make may not advance the policies or the visions that the United States sees. Nonetheless, we have to deal with them.
We don't treat the Palestinians the same way, because we simply don't see them as a people who have self-determination and sovereignty and should be able to choose their leaders. That has to change. Obviously Hamas does not fit into the stated vision of the United States. It doesn't fit into the interests of Israel. They're there. And whether we like that or not, ignoring them doesn't make them go away. Nor does it make it any easier to get to some sort of comprehensive agreement, if that is in fact the goal.
At the same time, plenty of people on the Israeli side don't fit within that vision, including the entire government of Israel right now — not just one faction, but the entire government of Israel is not on board with a Palestinian state, with a two-state solution, or with any of that. So we can play this game of “it's too hard” or “the cards are not right, the leaders are not there, they're too weak, they're not bold enough, they're not willing to make sacrifices.” We can say all of that and use that as an excuse to either ignore the situation or just continue with the status quo of supporting Israel no matter what it does.
That hasn't worked.
That hasn't worked, so we need an approach that first and foremost looks inward at U.S. policy and says what's gone wrong and how do we fix those things. This is not a normal moment in the Middle East or a normal moment in Israeli-Palestinian history; this is a major moment. War is a failure, and this is a spectacular war and a spectacular failure.
This is a region where Israel and the United States have a tremendous amount of influence and have been shaping policy and outcomes for a really long time. We need to think about how this happened and how we got here and what we need to change. A couple of weeks before this happened, maybe even 10 days before this happened, our national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, was giving an interview where he said, The Middle East is more calm and stable today than it's ever been. And I have to spend less time on conflict in that region than any of my predecessors going back to 9/11. Okay?
I think this just shows you how out of touch American policy has been with the currents in the region. And that's a product of willful choices. We need to re-examine some of those before we're really in a position to say or to articulate a vision for the future for Israelis and Palestinians.
On that piece, I would just say, look, I don't think Israelis or Palestinians are going anywhere. Certainly not anytime soon. We both live in this space, we both want to live in this space, and the only way you get to peaceful coexistence is through a just and agreed-upon set of rules that people abide by.
That's how it works. And if any party thinks they're above the rules, or if any party thinks the law doesn't apply to them, then you have a system of injustice that just perpetuates violence. That's what we need to break out of. And if the two-state model has failed, as I believe it has, and I believe it has for a long time, the answer cannot be, “Well, we just got to stick with the status quo.” Because we've seen the cost of that. We have to work for different alternatives and prioritize that with urgency. And that's the piece that we have not seen so far.
I think this administration, in their language and in their priorities, has effectively acknowledged that the two-state solution is a vision at best, and not something that we're anywhere close to. But it's simply not enough to just resign to that, especially when the United States is so deeply involved in supporting this system of injustice.
Isaac Saul: So take the two-state solution off the table, then. What's the realistic, difficult answer that you feel is possible in the future? And can Hamas, as a leadership group in Gaza, be part of that?
Showing my cards here, I personally really struggle with a flattening of Hamas and the Israeli government as being on the same footing. And I look at the way everybody's postured right now and I see the Israeli government feeling like there's absolutely no way that they can deal with a group who committed the acts they committed and I see the people standing in the rubble in Gaza saying there's no way they'll ever be able to deal with a group who committed this kind of military incursion in Gaza and all the destruction that's been wrought.
So I’m interested in what you see as an alternative to the two-state solution, and can Hamas be a group that evolves in a way politically that leads with some sort of diplomacy to get to that solution rather than violent uprising?
Yousef Munayyer: I think all political actors can evolve over time. I don't think there's any political actor that can never evolve if conditions change. So I would not look at any one group as a monolith or a permanent fixture in their positions, Israeli or Palestinian.
That being said, I do want to say something about this idea about just the tremendous amount of bloodshed making people think that there's just no way, right? A lot of times in mass conflict situations that have been going on for a long time, sometimes it is the tremendous amount of bloodshed that makes people look at the other side and say there has to be another way. That we cannot just keep doing this.
And right now the answers that we are being given is that there's no alternative to this, that we have to keep doing this. And if more Palestinians support Hamas, well that just means that Israel has to kill more Palestinians. I mean, this is insanity. At some point, voices of conscience need to be able to say there's been enough bloodshed. I don't care who's on the other side, there has to be a way out of this. And if we wait to do that until the next round, it'll be more difficult the next round. And part of the reason it's as difficult as it is today is that we've waited to do that previously.
Obviously it's not easy. There's no Palestinian in Gaza that has seen what they've seen that has an appetite for thinking about living with Israelis after that. But at the same time, as I said, Israelis and Palestinians aren't going anywhere. And we simply cannot accept that the answer is a return to the October 6 status quo. There can't be a going back to that status quo, which was also violent. That was also unacceptable. So, I think if we really wanna see an end to this, there needs to be a radical shift — a radical shift away from the failed policies of the past.
In my view, and I've written about this and others have written about this, I believe that Israelis and Palestinians are not going anywhere anytime soon. And because I believe that injustice is a driver of violence, we need to build systems of justice. We need equality before the law, we need the enfranchisement of all people. These are the basic things that create systems where grievances can be redressed through legitimate processes and not through violence.
That's why you see less violence in democracies than in non-democracies, because those processes exist. Here, they don't. We have a system of military occupation, discrimination, and so on. And so long as that continues, you're going to have eruptions of violence.
So those are the choices before us. I've been thinking a lot about Jimmy Carter in the last couple of months. His wife died recently, and I know he's in difficult shape as well, and he wrote years ago that Israel is facing this choice between peace and apartheid. And I think the Israeli government has really gone down the route of doubling down on apartheid. We heard yesterday the Israeli ambassador to the United Kingdom basically saying there can never be a Palestinian state, but also Palestinians are not going to have a right to vote. So basically apartheid is their answer, in perpetuity.
What I worry about is that there are Israelis today who are looking at this as another binary choice between apartheid or genocide as the options that they face. And there need to be people who communicate to those folks that that's simply not acceptable. That there has to be a different alternative. It would make sense for that voice to come from Washington, but we haven't seen the political courage within our own leaders to do that either.
Isaac Saul: One of the things that I notice about the coverage, especially in the West around this issue and even in our conversation right now, is there's always a central focus on these three players: The Palestinian territories and political leaders, Israel, and the United States.
How do you view the Arab states’ role in this, specifically Egypt or Jordan? There was a brief spurt of news coverage around the fact that Egypt was also maintaining this blockade on Gaza and not letting refugees through. How do you view them and their relationship to the Palestinian cause right now? And what role, if any, do you think they should have in kind of changing this paradigm that you're talking about?
Yousef Munayyer: I think to understand their behavior, the most important thing to keep in mind is that, yes, these are states in the region that are next door, but they're impacted by the geopolitical situation.
They are ethnic kin of Palestinian Arabs. That's obviously very important. But also it's really important to understand that these are authoritarian regimes, which are themselves threatened by the prospect of democracy. And they are part of a regional security architecture where Israel is central and where American security assistance is central. And they too are threatened by the prospect of democratic systems emerging between Israel and Palestine.
So on the one hand, they deal with domestic turbulence anytime something like this happens because people in their countries are outraged at what is taking place in Gaza and elsewhere in Palestine and their government's lack of support, and because many of these countries have normalized ties with Israel, they see their governments as being complicit in this. As you know, Egypt has a role in Gaza and at the Rafah crossing and so on, and they also understand that democratization presents risks to their regimes themselves. So they have a balancing act that they are trying to maintain that doesn't exactly lend to solving this problem either.
But that's not something that is separate from American interests or Israeli interests, because these are all part of a common collaborative when it comes to a security set-up in the region.
Isaac Saul: So this is probably one of the least important things we're going to discuss today, but before we get out of here, I wanted to give you a chance to share your thoughts on the Rashida Tlaib controversy around the expression “from the river to the sea.”
The reason I want to do that is that, with Tangle and my work, we are very explicitly trying to share a wide range of views on various topics. And I had an opportunity to write about this just from my own personal perspective, which I know differs from yours. I expressed my sentiment that when I hear “from the river to the sea,” I have visions of more militant, extreme, violent Palestinian liberation movements, and it makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up a bit.
I thought it’d be important to give you an opportunity to share your perspective about how you view the historical context of that chant, and why you might disagree with that perspective.
Yousef Munayyer: I appreciate the opportunity to do that. I think the way you put it was very interesting. And I think it's important to ask why it makes you uncomfortable. There were a lot of folks who, in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, heard in that chant something that made them uncomfortable.
And the first thing that they thought of is, “Well, what do you mean black lives matter? Don't all lives matter? Doesn't my life matter?” And we heard what they were saying through our ears the way we wanted to hear it and with our own interests in mind, which I don't think is an abnormal reaction. But the whole point of these things is to make people uncomfortable, to be provocative, and to make people think.
And for Palestinians, when we say from the river to the sea, we're talking about a space — a physical space — where we're from. And I think what's interesting is that when people hear Palestinians say, “Hey, this is our home,” one of the things that they may hear is, “This is our home alone.” And it's a choice to hear it that way. And I think it's worth asking why you hear it that way.
When we talk about the land between the river and the sea, that's just where we're from. I mean, for us to be free in our homeland, that's the goal. So it's as transparent as you can be about what it is that we seek. And when protestors say “black lives matter,” that's not because they want to see white lives matter less; that's because they want to see people recognize that black lives have not mattered. And for Palestinians, the reality is that between the river and the sea, there are millions of Palestinians who are not free. There are millions of Israelis who are.
And that's the fundamental difference. That's what people are working to change, that system of inequality.
I also want to call out something else that's going on, and that's this policing of speech and expression that we are seeing now in overdrive, targeting Palestinians or those who support the rights of Palestinians — not just in the United States, but around the world. We're seeing protests being shut down because of chants. We're seeing student groups being shut down. We're seeing people being fired from their jobs for posting things on social media.
This is a hysterical, repressive climate that has been building for some time, and it's a product of an effort to silence dissent against Israeli policies in the West, specifically because Israel relies on Western support to maintain what it's doing to Palestinians. I think this is a cycle that is going to escalate over time. We're going to see greater Israeli oppression of Palestinians on the ground, leading to greater outrage in the West over Western support for that oppression. And in turn, we're going to see increased efforts to try to repress that activism. And in doing so, I think the Israeli state only reinforces this image of heavy-handedness, which doesn't really sell well among Western publics.
It's getting beyond absurd now. You know, the other day a very well known Jewish writer for the New Yorker, who was writing about Holocaust memory and the horrors that are taking place in Gaza, had a prize named after Hannah Arendt rescinded in Germany because of what she was writing. So you had a Jewish writer, writing about the abuse of state power and oppression and horrific state violence, being silenced by Germans in the spirit of Hannah Arendt.
I mean, it's the height of absurdity; and we got here because trying to defend a system of apartheid in the West requires being absurd.
Isaac Saul: Yousef Munayyer, I appreciate you giving us so much of your time today. If people wanna keep up with some of your work, where's the best place for them to do that?
Yousef Munayyer: I probably spend most of my time putting stuff out on Twitter related to this. You can find me @YousefMunayyer on Twitter, or X, or whatever it's called these days.
Isaac Saul: We'll be sure to link to it. Thanks so much for coming on the show, man, I appreciate it.
Yousef Munayyer: Yeah, thanks for having me.
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