Socrates taught us that the wisest of persons is the one who knows that they do not know. Our rabbis have taught us that the wisest person is the one who is open to learning from others. What they both hold in common is the notion that the fool is the person who knows that he or she knows. Acquiring wisdom is a journey which begins with the recognition that one has what to learn and a continuing willingness to learn from others and life’s experiences.
For some, the central question surrounding Operation Pillar of Defense is who won, whose truth prevailed. For me, the central question is what have we learned, and what can we adopt as we construct our future foreign policy. Before the operation, Israel’s policy and public assumptions were founded on a number of beliefs and “truths”: we are alone and can count only on ourselves; the world is against us and public relations is useless in an anti-Semitic universe; in the Middle East the lingua franca is power and compromise is weakness; for all of Israel’s challenges a solution can be found in the use of power; fear must guide our policy while hope is naïve; and once Islam enters into the equation the conversation is over.
All of the above have dominated Israel’s discourse, both when it comes to a nuclear Iran, and with the stalled peace process with the Palestinians. None of the above, however, shaped Israel’s actions in Operation Pillar of Defense. Quite to the contrary, Israel tried out a new set of assumptions and was surprised by their efficacy. It refrained from an extensive ground campaign, not only because it believed that such an operation would not result in additional gains, but also because it would undermine the opportunities made possible by this new set of assumptions.
What have we learned? First, we are not alone. When our actions are grounded on a strong moral foundation and our response commensurate with our legitimate rights, there are many who are willing to stand on our side and by our side.
Second, in such a reality public relations are beneficial, but PR can never be a substitute for good policy.
Third, Israel’s world is most secure when it works in close cooperation with the United States administration (and not merely the Congress), and when it does so, new avenues become possible.
Fourth, while the use of military force could possibly wipe out the existing stockpiles of Hamas missiles, it would not prevent their replenishment. Even with the blockade of Gaza and a friendly Egyptian government, more than 10,000 missiles still found their way into the hands of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Because Israel possesses a hammer it does not mean that the solution to the dangers from Gaza is a nail. Through the confluence of America being a true ally and an Egyptian government both deeply allied with Hamas and at the same time in need of showing the United States its continued importance as a potential constructive force, a new factor was introduced which could possibly alter the current failed status quo in Sinai.
Fifth, Islamic fundamentalism is not a conversation ender. While it breeds no love for Israel or Jews, it is not necessarily devoid of real-world calculations and self-interests, and as a result can be both negotiated with and potentially play a constructive role.
Sixth and most important, while fear is here to stay, foreign policy should not be merely a response to this fear but rather should be geared to creating the possibility for hope. In choosing to suspend for now additional military operations, Prime Minister Netanyahu and his government chose to live up to the rabbinic adage that true strength is sometimes expressed in self-control. It is in such expression that fear ceases to dominate one’s consciousness and behavior, and new and unforeseen possibilities are allowed to enter the arena.
The politics of fear are often popular, particularly in an election season. Fear needs constant feeding and provides purpose, consistency and predictability. Hope is frail and opens oneself to disappointment. Hope is about investing in the unpredictable and as a result often generates great anxiety. Do we dare to really want change, knowing that we may never achieve it? Do we dare to explore uncharted paths and policies knowing full well the precariousness of our existence? Do we dare to open up our old truths to reevaluation without the certainty of where this will end?
Prime Minister Netanyahu chose a new path for Israel. He exhibited great courage, vision, restraint, and skill. None of us knows whether this will prove successful. Have no fear; the old assumptions are lying ever-ready to reclaim their place. Do not worry; our ground forces are still prepared for what tomorrow may bring. Today, however, we are in his debt for his willingness to pursue the path of wisdom – the path which dares to question what one knows one knows, and is also open to exploring the unknown.