Like almost everyone in Israel, I am agonizing over whether we should subordinate our military campaign against Hamas to a negotiation to free our 136 kidnapped hostages, an unknown but growing number of whom are dead.
I know very well that most western governments, and citizens, as well as Arab countries like Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, etc., very much want us to defeat Hamas, though they prefer to sub-contract the dirty work and the shedding of blood to Israel, while they keep a convenient distance and voice humanitarian concerns.
It seems increasingly clear that there is an unavoidable, tragic conflict between our two stated goals of eliminating Hamas and freeing the hostages. The Hamas leadership are surrounding themselves with the hostages as human shields, and cannot be attacked without our harming them. None of us can agree explicitly to sacrificing the hostages – who gave anyone the right to play God with their lives? We all know what our position would be if, God forbid, any loved one of ours was trapped in Hamas captivity.
Some argue that the long-term goal of liquidating Hamas will preserve many more lives, both Israeli and Palestinian, than will be saved by a short-term ceasefire that includes freeing the hostages, and leaving Hamas in control of Gaza. This is not so simple, and raises more questions than it answers.
For one thing, can Hamas be defeated militarily? How long would it take them to evolve a new generation of leaders and soldiers, even if their present leadership were decimated? 75 years have not been sufficient to quench the Palestinian desire for revenge and the destruction of Israel. Nor, for that matter, were almost 2,000 years sufficient to erase the yearning of the Jewish people for the Land of Israel. Could an international administration for post-war Gaza plus Israeli military control (not that our government has been willing to seriously consider its post-war plan) effectively prevent that? Who knows? It is hard to suspend skepticism.
The argument that only our military pressure can induce Hamas to agree to anything is wearing thin with the passage of time. And it assumes unlimited US support, on which we are totally dependent, for our military campaign. That seems to me wishful thinking, especially with an American election less than ten months away.
If eradicating Hamas is extremely difficult and maybe impossible to achieve, and our time-window to even attempt it is narrow and gradually or not-so-gradually closing because of international pressure, we have to take an excruciating decision. Should we press on with our military campaign, notwithstanding all the unknowns involved? Is that a treasonously defeatist way of posing the question? Or should we take advantage now of the opportunity to negotiate the return of all hostages, insisting first on proof of life, at the cost of agreeing to a ceasefire?
Having paused hostilities, could we then resume them after the return of the hostages, or if, as in the past, Hamas violates the agreement? That entails an undeniable risk, and is not so easily done. It’s not like turning a tap off, and later turning it on again. Conversely, if we don’t take that risk, are we effectively passing up our only real chance of rescuing any of the hostages? If we later stand down only because the US forces us to by withdrawing support, without our having negotiated the return of the hostages, the chances of ever seeing them alive again are slim.
Our political and military leaders tell us that that we will finish Hamas, even if it takes years. Public opinion in Israel is strongly in favour, at least so far. But WE are not the only variable in this equation. Do we have years? Like our ancient forefathers, we are only a regional power, and have to tread carefully and pragmatically around the global conflicts and actors in order to survive. We have to assess reality accurately, soberly, in order to reach wise decisions.
I favour prioritizing the return of the hostages. I have stressed the pragmatic reasons for doing so. But I also feel strongly that this keeps faith with the basic rationale for a Jewish state as the guarantor of Jewish lives, and especially the lives of its own citizens, and with the fundamental sanctification of life of our entire tradition. That is what we’re all about and what distinguishes us so powerfully from our death-obsessed enemies.
I am as conflicted about this as we all are. It’s not a clear call for anyone. But if the above arguments are valid, there is no justification for any delay – just the opposite. Decisions have to be taken. The buck stops.