Samuel Heilman
Distinguished Professor of Sociology Emeritus CUNY

Getting to the End Game

OK, so we hear the plans to go into Gaza are set, about to begin as soon as negotiations for the release of hostages bear fruit or break down. What we do not know so much is how we shall get out. How do we get to the end game?  In his October 25th TV address, the Prime Minister still had nothing to say.  But let’s go back a bit to the beginning.

Let’s start with some indisputable facts. Those responsible for the policies and actions that left Israel indefensible on October 7 unbelievably are still in charge of planning and prosecuting this war. First and foremost is Binyamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister during most of the time that Hamas emerged as the dominant leading power among Palestinians – indeed who nurtured it as a counterforce to the secular nationalists of the Palestinian Authority. Yoav Gallant, whom Netanyahu tried to fire, continues serving as the Minister of Defense since 2022 and is a former commander of the Southern Command in the Israel Defense Forces, exactly where the breach that started all this occurred. On the war cabinet, we have Benny Gantz, who unlike these two has already publicly accepted and apologized for his responsibility in the security failures that October 7th revealed, and who served as the Minister of Defense between 2020 and 2022, deputy and alternate prime minister before that and as the 20th chief of General Staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) from 2011 to 2015, when Hamas was growing. With him is Gadi Eizenkot who followed as 21st chief of the General Staff and did not solve the Hamas problem either. The tremendous losses of life and hostages occurred under current chief of staff of the IDF, Herzi Halevy who took over in January this year. All of these men missed or dismissed the warning Egypt offered on the eve of the attack. Why should the people of the Israel trust that these are the right people to lead the counteroffensive in a war that they themselves have characterized as an existential threat to Israel? Why should we believe they have suddenly figured out what they did wrong – even before the inevitable outside inquiry has been conducted? Why should we accept the excuse that there is time after the war for such inquiries, as many of them have urged? Why should we not ask them to resign now in favor of the many people who have emerged as demonstrating greater leadership and wisdom and whose actions have inspired many in recent days and weeks? 

A second indisputable fact is that Israelis are overwhelmingly on a war footing. Few question whether or not this a just war or that it was thrust upon us by a vile and blood-thirsty adversary who denies Israel the right to exist and has targeted civilians in Israel proper both in the south and the north, in land that is not occupied territory. Their barbaric actions on October 7, their focus on innocent civilians (whom they labeled “Jews”, rather than “Israelis” or “Zionists”) hint at what they would do here, should they ever be victorious. As many have acknowledged, therefore, this is a war of “no choice,” imposed upon us, an existential one that we Israelis cannot afford to lose lest it leads to another Holocaust.

A third fact pretty much beyond debate is that the air war is going well and the IDF is performing extraordinarily well and heroically after the lapses of October 7.  Each day – if the reports are true – Israel is destroying both physical and leadership targets of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.  The army is also finding and neutralizing those invading by land and by sea, including attacks from Hezbollah and Syria in the North. The fighting spirit is impressive and after the deep divisions caused by the anti-democratic judicial government agenda appears to have been temporarily set aside and replaced by extraordinary national unity both among the troops and the nation. Most enemy missiles and rockets are being shot down by the Iron Dome and our brave pilots are amazing. If we are succeeding in this way, why do we need to engage in a bloody ground war whose prospects are questionable and whose end game no one knows?

Graffiti on Wall in Kibbutz Be’eri Oct 7 and after
photo Credit Jonah A. Heilman, published by permission

Since the unprecedented attack initiated by the Palestinians who repeated Netanyahu governments ignored and other enemies – including Hezbollah, Iranian proxies, and Iran itself — decide when to attack, it is Israel who parries and counterattacks. But as in chess, the one who makes the first move can control the game unless the other has a strategic end game.  

In its counter-offensive Israel threatens a long ground war, making almost boastful claims about its anticipated success, albeit with many casualties and great violence.  American allies, who have fought such urban wars in Iraq and Afghanistan know how miserable, dangerous, and unsuccessful these are, especially against groups driven by religious ideologies, who embrace martyrdom as a tactic and feel they have little to live for but much to die for – not unlike many of those who Israelis would meet in the alleys and rubble of Gaza – advise Israel to avoid it.  In their wars, the Americans did not have to deal with saving kidnapped civilian hostages who include infants, senior citizens, women, and children, many of whom are wounded and in trauma.  Nor were the American fighters a citizen Army, made up by draftees and reserve soldiers as Israel’s is.  The latter do not have the luxury of fighting a war, like the Americans, where the civilian population goes on about its business.  In Israel, everyone has a loved one in uniform.  And Americans were fighting far from home; Israel is not.  The Israeli home front experiences the war in their bedrooms and streets. Finally, when Americans finally ended their wars with Islamists, the Taliban were back in control, and Iraq was still unstable, while Lebanon remained even more under Hezbollah domination. 

Our most important American allies warn the Israeli war cabinet that it “lacks achievable military objectives in Gaza, and that the Israel Defense Forces are not yet ready to launch a ground invasion with a plan that can work,“ It should believe them. Instead of rushing vengefully into an urban bloodbath, we need to be intelligently planning our end game. That means we need an answer to the question of how to replace Hamas and these Islamist extremists with an alternative leadership and ideas that will offer Palestinians hope and leaders whom they can trust to deliver and whom Israel will help to succeed.  There are such people, we need to be talking with them. 

Don’t believe those in this failed government who claim there are no such Palestinians. There are. Consider for example Salam Fayyad, who was a successful Palestinian Finance Minister from June 2002 to November 2005 and from March 2007 to May 2012 and also Prime Minister between June 2007 and June 2013 who accomplished much for his people that improved their lives. Today he is at Princeton University. Or consider Marwan Barghouti, a prominent and popular Palestinian political figure currently serving five life sentences in an Israeli prison. He was a member of the Fatah Central Committee, and of the Palestinian Legislative Council. Described by many as the ‘Palestinian Mandela’, he is viewed as one of the strongest leadership candidates and knows Israelis well and before his arrest had strong relationships with them and since then from prison helped draft the 2006 National Conciliation Document of the Prisoners.  There are others. The point is Israel needs someone with whom to negotiate and to give the keys to Gaza and the rest of Palestine, someone whom the Palestinians can look to with confidence as having their best interests at heart. Something not true of Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran.  Someone who can accept Israel as a legitimate nation in the region as so many other nations in the Middle East already have and others are ready to if only the Palestinian – Israeli conflict is resolved. 

Without doing this, the ground war is likely to become an exercise in whack-a-mole, a bloody tragedy lasting far longer than needs be, that will neither restore Israel’s all-important image as a powerful military power nor as a moral democratic state.  The people in charge have already undermined such a reputation; why give them another chance to do it again?  They have made us look vulnerable and like victims of a holocaust.  These failed leaders – no one more than the Prime Minister whom over 80% of Israelis think of as responsible for the failures – need to do the right thing and resign – not after the war – but now and allow some of those who understand that we and the Palestinians are planning to be in this land together forever to try to lead.  There is no choice.  Either we live together, or we die together.  If those are the choices, it is clear to me which is the better one. 

About the Author
Until his retirement in August 2020, Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College CUNY, Samuel Heilman held the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center. He is author of 15 books some of which have been translated into Spanish and Hebrew, and is the winner of three National Jewish Book Awards, as well as a number of other prestigious book prizes, and was awarded the Marshall Sklare Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association for the Social Scientific Study of Jewry, as well as four Distinguished Faculty Awards at the City University of New York.He has been a Fulbright Fellow and Senior Specialist in Australia, China, and Poland, and lectured in many universities throughout the United States and the world. He was for many years Editor of Contemporary Jewry and is a frequent columnist at Ha'Aretz and was one at the New York Jewish Week. Since his retirement, he and his family have resided in Jerusalem.
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