One has to give credit to PM Netanyahu for snatching a stalemate from the jaws of potential victory and spinning it as an historic triumph. His rhetorical gifts certainly exceed his strategic vision. But the turning point in the recent conflict – and a sure indication that nothing would change, nothing gained, and dangers would still loom ahead – happened at a very early stage when the Prime Minister fired the Deputy Defense Minister, Dani Danon, for vocally opposing Netanyahu’s acceptance of the first cease fire proposal – even before the IDF had uncovered the tunnels of terror. (Imagine if Hamas had accepted that cease fire, enabling them to carry out their planned Rosh Hashana massacres.)
For that prescience, Danon was fired, which also served as a warning shot across the bow of Avigdor Lieberman and Naphtali Bennett, both consistent critics of the PM’s handling of the war. With the hostilities on temporary hiatus (it is expected that Israel will relax its border controls and allow Hamas to import deadlier missiles and cement and steel to rebuild its tunnels; it’s only fair), Netanyahu ably wrapped himself in the mantle of unity the other night. That is also a neat trick, lauding the unity of the nation during this crisis and subtly implying that unity means following his lead and dissent is an example of disunity. People do fall for that line, but how many do will go a long way to determining Netanyahu’s political future, not just nationally but even in the Likud party itself.
His approach reminds me of the Pruzansky Plan for Jewish Unity, suggested many years ago, which, succinctly summarized, proposed that “everyone should agree with me.” Then there will be unity. It was never implemented, to my chagrin, because it turned out that several million other people had the exact same idea. But the overt criticism of the Cabinet dissenters was more election-positioning than a genuine concern about the united front during battle, especially since Lieberman and Bennett gave Netanyahu cover on the right flank by demanding harsher action against the enemy, usually a staple of wartime.
But when the enemy fires 70 rockets on your civilians on the first day of battle and 184 rockets on the last day of battle, it is a stretch to claim that it has suffered some grievous defeat. In essence, nothing changed, except for the 70 Jews killed and the hundreds more wounded. The enemy is unbowed, unbroken and in some sense even more brazen, farcically so, but nonetheless. It was on the ropes during the second week of the war when a conscious decision was made not to win, with “win” meaning surrender. It certainly was doable under the normal processes of warfare, in which the enemy is the enemy, and is not coddled, fed, nurtured and sustained by the very people they are trying to murder.
At one time this was obvious. Rashi comments on this week’s Torah portion (Devarim 20:1) that there is an enemy in war, and that enemy should be perceived as an enemy, with all that entails. “Have no mercy on them, because they will have no mercy on you.” Or, as George Patton put it, “May G-d have mercy upon my enemies, because I won’t.” Something has changed, in which victory itself has become anathema to modern man – especially citizens of democracies – as if victory over an enemy is repugnant, immoral and undesirable. There is more that will be said about this at another time, but the question before us is: what inhibited Israel from actually inflicting a death blow on a ruthless enemy of inferior resources and infinite malevolence? Why does Israel constantly hold back, and even worse, actually send provisions – food, fuel, electricity, water – to sustain an enemy population that wants to destroy it and that voted overwhelmingly for the thugs who govern them and rejoice in the death of Jews? Why not do, for once, what is necessary to win?
Many will point to the customary inhibitors – Obama or the American left, the Europeans, the UN, the Arab street, etc. There is some merit to that but it is ultimately unsatisfactory and self-defeating. The enemy is strengthened, and wars and terror are fomented, when the Arabs realize that Israel will pull its punches, not fight to win, and will flinch from actually changing the dynamic of the conflict. (For example, laying siege to Gaza – and sticking to it until surrender, regardless of world pressure – could have resulted in that very surrender, benefitting especially the Gazans and the Middle East. The siege is an ancient tactic, and the enemy could have controlled the escape from the siege – surrender. But Israel feared doing what is normal, and it will claim it is because of the “world.”) Is that true? Maybe on some level. But I believe there is another factor at work that serves to weaken Israel in every conflict and in its conduct of war and statecraft.
Israel is hampered by its self-definition – by the “values” that it claims renders it unique. In general, those values are noble, but in wartime they are completely misplaced, and often comical when applied.
So Israel’s concern for the preservation of life deters it from laying siege to the enemy – and engenders such anomalies – now so taken for granted by the “world” that Israel could never abandon these prescriptions without being accused of war crimes – as warning the enemy that an attack is coming, calling on them to leave, rushing to provide them medical care and all the provisions meant to keep them alive and fighting for another decade or ten.
There are reasons why armies – certainly not those of the bad guys, but even not those of the good guys, like the Allies in World War II – have never conducted wars in this fashion. It is because it is stupid, ineffective, and serves to prolong the hostilities thereby producing more casualties. But it feels good! These measures feel good and reinforce a sense of moral superiority, but make no sense and are wholly unrelated – and even antithetical to – the Torah’s ethic of warfare. To many people, feeling good about the conduct of war is more important than actually winning it.
There are other examples as well. Why doesn’t Israel attack cherished religious assets of the Arab population in order to deter or punish terror – such as shutting the Temple Mount or the Cave of the Patriarchs to them, or even dismantling the mosques on the Temple Mount for relocation in Iraq or Saudi Arabia? Because Israel prides itself on the freedom of religion it guarantees to all, even non-citizens, and even to its enemies in wartime.
Why didn’t Israel declare Gaza a closed military zone, banning journalists and photographers from covering the wars and sparing us the sights of the dead women and children, killed because Hamas forced them to be human shields? Because Israel prides itself on protecting freedom of the press and easy access to anywhere on the battlefield. But such generosity of spirit hampers the war effort and makes victory impossible. There is a reason why war zones are often closed to the press – Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, etc., leading to those wars falling out of the headlines and the public consciousness: it is because wars cannot be won when the hyper-sensitivity of third-parties, especially tendentious journalists, riles up public opinion. As it happens, those wars are being waged by evildoers, but the US in Iraq and Afghanistan often closed certain areas to the press, for their own protection, of course.
There is also something beyond bizarre about the need for every military action or response to require the approval of a gaggle of lawyers before being conducted – or frequently nixed by those very lawyers – but Israel prides itself on being a nation that respects laws, even the international laws of warfare that no one else honors, except occasionally by wistful mention of them after the conflict has ended successfully.
Note that none of these are Jewish values, except in the most general and undefined way. The Torah is quite explicit that wars are to be waged to win, and that Jewish life is not to be lost in the quixotic quest to spare the lives of the enemy, whether military or civilian (granted, in the current context, a distinction without a difference). These are all Western values, but in theory not practice, as few countries inhibit their militaries because of these niceties. Hence the staggering loss of civilian life in the United States’ wars in Middle East, which did not produce much hand-wringing anywhere.
For all the phony and hypocritical criticism of Israel’s conduct of the war in Gaza and the civilian casualties that resulted (relatively few, compared to every other similar conflict), Israel could write the manual on how to conduct urban warfare and minimize civilian casualties. No other war comes even close. But why would they want to? No army should seek to intentionally inflict casualties on innocent civilians, but nor should any army or government encumber its conduct of war and deprive itself of victory by mistaken notions of morality and by adhering to rules of war that seem to be crafted precisely for Israel, and only for Israel, and precisely to deprive it of even the possibility of victory.
That is ultimately a failure of leadership. That the double standard is obvious does not make it a measure of pride. I have yet to hear the Israeli government speak with vehemence and passion, not about the unfairness of the double standard, but against their eagerness to abide by it and about the unfairness of the mere suggestion that it should. And this plays directly into another execrable dimension of Israeli self-definition – the need to feel like victims, to mourn and lament the deaths, injuries, incessant terror and unending hatred – rather than take the war to the enemy in a way that shocks them by the wrath, might and power of Israel.
There are too many Jews that are uncomfortable with Jewish power. They would never admit it, but they prefer grieving at the funerals of soldiers and terror victims to marching in a victory parade. To be sure, I am not at all implying that this is a motivating factor for Netanyahu, Bogie Yaalon or anyone in particular. Nor is it necessarily conscious, but too many people are wedded to the status quo and will never take steps – no matter the provocation – to change it for the better, to seek even the absolute defeat of a single enemy. They are locked into defensive mode, responding, always responding, and always hesitating to take the initiative in a way that will challenge or force the revision of the aforementioned self-definitions.
The glorification of victimhood has seeped into the Jewish DNA because of the centuries during which our blood was shed with impunity. But is unconscionable, immoral and fallacious, and it has to stop. We need not feel guilty over defeating our enemies, nor over the catastrophes they bring on themselves, nor over our survival, nor over our G-d-given homeland. But how we perceive ourselves today has produced a narrative that makes victory difficult, if not impossible, but is not normal.
That the Prime Minister’s popularity is plummeting, and that there is great discontent over the stalemate that ended the current conflict but which 87% of the people feel will just presage the next (and likely deadlier) one within the next two years, suggest that many Israelis are tired of the game, the lack of strategic vision and the disdain for victory that characterizes current government policy. They are looking to craft a new narrative, in which the Jewish people can access the morality of Torah in order to educate the world as to how to combat our era’s brutal, merciless foe – the non-state terror group that lacks any inhibitions and seeks only victory and the fulfillment of its murderous objectives.
When our self-definition encompasses nothing more than the Torah’s values and our willingness to embrace and actualize G-d’s eternal morality, we will be a “light onto the nations” even in the conduct of war and hasten the day of victory and redemption for all mankind.