How did it come to pass that the world’s top diplomat, the United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres, inadvertently sparked a diplomatic firestorm with his words?
At a meeting of the UN Security Council on Tuesday, Guterres called the October 7 massacres in which the terrorist group Hamas killed more than 1,400 people in Israel and took hundreds of hostages to underground tunnels in Gaza, “appalling,” and said that “nothing can justify the deliberate killing, injuring and kidnapping of civilians, or the launching of rockets against civilian targets.”
But he went on to say, “It is important to also recognize the attacks by Hamas did not happen in a vacuum.”
Guterres then added a long list of Israeli misdeeds and — perhaps unconsciously expecting the reaction that followed — said, “But the grievances of the Palestinian people cannot justify the appalling attacks by Hamas. And those appalling attacks cannot justify the collective punishment of the Palestinian people. Excellencies, even war has rules.”
To some, in Israel and elsewhere, Guterres’ words sounded like a thinly veiled justification for Hamas’ attack on October 7. Israelis were furious, even calling on the secretary general to resign. On Wednesday, Guterres declared himself “shocked” at how his words were interpreted.
The incident underscores some of the patterns in this awful conflict. If the politics are explosive, diplomacy too, is a minefield. Any word is held up against the light of history, and it resonates with a power that only the most skilled and experienced can fully calibrate.
It’s one of the reasons why President Joe Biden, with half a century of experience in the Middle East, has known how to speak to Israelis in a way that allows them to trust him and listen to his advice, while Guterres clumsily created even more problems.
Guterres appeared to fall into one of the other patterns visible since the onslaught by the genocidal Hamas — whose goals are to prevent any peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians and destroying Israel, as its charter asserts. Even as the assault was unfolding, while Israelis were still battling terrorists inside the country, many around the world reflexively, to different degrees, blamed Israel.
In addition, Guterres’ enumeration of Israel’s misdeeds followed a favorite practice of Israel’s critics during the current conflict, acting as if the lack of a peace agreement today were solely Israel’s fault, contrary to all the historic evidence of Israeli peace offers rejected by Palestinians.
For an experienced diplomat, Guterres failed badly. Even as he tries to clean up the mess, insisting that the hostages must be released and that nothing justifies Hamas’ barbarity, he apparently fails to notice that saying this “did not happen in a vacuum,” sounds like an attempt to justify what Hamas did.
His words came on a day when Israel was still enduring rocket attacks and fighting a Hamas effort to infiltrate Israel by sea. It came while Israelis were still trying to identify their dead, still learning about the brutality of the assault, which forensic experts say included burning people alive, killing parents in front of their children and children killed in front of their parents, according to the Israeli Defense Forces.
Barbarity that many in the world have sought to deny, so that Israel brought journalists to see clips that they could barely stand, “young women huddling in fear and then being executed,” or “victims in a state of terror as they wait to be murdered, or covered with bits of their friends and loved ones,” loaded into trucks as hostages.
The response by some around the world, blaming Israel after the worst massacre of Jews since the Holocaust, has added to the sense among some Israelis that global opinion will always be tainted by antisemitism. And it can get in the way of diplomatic efforts on legitimate issues, such as how to ease the terrible situation for Gaza’s civilians without strengthening Hamas.
Israelis, who had been marching against their government’s judicial overhaul for nine months before this calamity, will be the first to say that their country has made grievous mistakes in the past. But students of antisemitism see in this 2023 reaction echoes of history.
American-Israeli journalist Yossi Klein Halevi wrote, “Blaming Jews for their own suffering is an indispensable part of the history of antisemitism,” from the claims that Jews killed Christ to the arguments that Jews brought the Holocaust upon themselves.
None other than Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, explained the Holocaust in those terms just last month, telling Palestinian TV that Hitler “fought the Jews because they were dealing in usury and money,” and Europeans were against the Jews “because of their role in society.”
Guterres may not have meant to, but he did take a step toward justifying the massacres, playing right into Israelis’ mistrust. It’s not that he couldn’t mention more of what’s happening in the region, but it was his “it didn’t happen in a vacuum” that reeks of Hamas apologism.
Unlike Biden, who is no fan of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government, Guterres didn’t seem to grasp what this attack signifies to Israel.
Many have called it Israel’s 9/11, but that is a faulty analogy. Israel is not just confronting a terrorist group. It is facing an organization committed to the destruction of Israel, backed by a nearly-nuclear armed Iran, which also sponsors Hezbollah, a far more heavily armed militia on Israel’s northern border, also committed to its destruction. Israel, a country one-quarter the size of South Carolina, and smaller than New Hampshire, faces armed enemies on its north and south, both with genocidal designs.
If Guterres, or anyone else, seeks to prevail on Israelis to change their tactics or their strategy, he needs to at least understand that perspective.
While it is true that the current Israeli government has been doing its best to kill the prospects of a two-state solution, that is partly because those who fought for peace over decades saw their efforts thwarted, very often by Palestinian leaders.
At Camp David in 2000, President Bill Clinton brought the sides together, but Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat walked away from a deal within reach. “The deal was so good,” Clinton wrote, “I couldn’t believe anyone would be foolish enough to let it go,” adding, “Arafat never said no; he just couldn’t bring himself to say yes.”
In 2008, Israel’s then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in the final weeks of his premiership before he resigned, offered Palestinians a near total withdrawal of the West Bank, a land link to Gaza, some Jerusalem neighborhoods and international control of the Old City of Jerusalem. “Remember my words,” Olmert said he told Abbas, “It will be 50 years before there will be another Israeli prime minister that will offer you what I am offering you now.” Abbas later acknowledged that he had rejected the offer, saying he was not allowed to study the map.
Of course, Israel is not blameless on the stalemate. The far right has opposed giving up land and has aggressively expanded settlements and sabotaged peace. But Guterres’ wording, at a time when Israelis are still learning about the barbarism by an organization that is opposed to a peace agreement and backed by a powerful country that also seeks to destroy it, struck the wrong note.
Guterres should have known better. And that’s putting it diplomatically.
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