Michael Oren

Israel’s choice: Body or soul

Israel will almost certainly have to decide whether to destroy Hamas completely or save the remaining hostages
Illustrative: An International Red Cross vehicle carrying Israeli Russian hostage Ron Krivoy released by Hamas drives towards the Rafah border point with Egypt ahead of a transfer to Israel on November 26, 2023. (Mohammed ABED / AFP)
Illustrative: An International Red Cross vehicle carrying Israeli Russian hostage Ron Krivoy released by Hamas drives towards the Rafah border point with Egypt ahead of a transfer to Israel on November 26, 2023. (Mohammed ABED / AFP)

Because everything about this war defies reason, it’s lately had me thinking about Sophie’s Choice. Yes, William Styron’s 1979 novel, the National Book Award winner that was later made into a critically acclaimed movie starring Meryl Streep and even an opera. Sophie’s Choice is a Holocaust story written by a non-Jew who was later accused of dejudaizing the Holocaust by focusing on a Polish Catholic survivor of Auschwitz. Yet it was not only Styron’s heroine that some critics found objectionable but also the prurient nature of her choice. Entering the death camp with her son and daughter, Sophie is forced to choose which of them will go to the gas chamber.

Israel, I’ve been thinking, is now confronted with the same choice. Not between our sons and daughters, but between the two halves of our raison d’êtreThe war with Hamas is forcing us to decide between Israel’s body and our nation’s soul.

Israel was created with a double identity, Jewish and democratic. Yet that duality was mirrored by Israel’s twin missions: to guarantee our fundamental security and sanctify our citizens’ lives. The state would defend itself while promising that those who we send off to defend it will never be left behind. Israel pledged to ensure both our physical and moral existence, our body as well as our soul.

The IDF, accordingly, sent commandoes to rescue the hostages at Entebbe in 1976 and, five years later, fighter jets to blow up the Iraqi nuclear reactor. The same Israel that launched a pre-emptive strike against gathering Arab armies in 1967 airlifted Ethiopian Jews in the 1980s and 90s. For 75 years, Israel succeeded in pursuing both of its founding goals: safeguarding the land as well as its people, without contradiction.

Then, just as the state was struggling to reconcile its Jewish and democratic identities, came the onslaught of October 7. Hamas did far more than catch us off-guard. It struck us directly between the state’s two objectives – literally between our I’s.

If Hamas had only butchered, burnt, and raped 1,200 Israelis and not taken any of them hostage, then Israel could have invaded Gaza and crushed the terrorists without hesitation, flooding their tunnels with seawater. Conversely, if Hamas had killed no Israelis but only taken hostages, Israel could have exchanged them for all the terrorists in Israeli jails. But Hamas, savagely, did both, wholesale murder and mass abduction.

“Forget the military victory,” my daughter exclaimed. “Israel’s only goal must be to free the hostages. If the state won’t do everything to rescue my children should they someday fall prisoner, how can I send them to the army?” To which my son replied, “Without an Israel, you won’t have an army to send them to.” Between my daughter’s position and my son’s, which was I to choose?

This is our fundamental, nightmarish, dilemma. Either we give priority to restoring our deterrence power and returning the more than 200,000 displaced Israelis to their homes, or we focus primarily on securing the hostages’ freedom. Either we convince Iran and its proxies never to attack us again and persuade additional Arab countries to make peace with an indomitable Jewish state, or we fulfill Israel’s oath to never abandon our fellow Israelis. Either we accept an Israel that may well be rendered defenseless or an Israel that our citizens may no longer be willing to defend.

Body or soul, we had to decide, and yet Israel refused to choose either. Instead, we declared a twofold target of destroying Hamas and rescuing the hostages, as though they were not mutually exclusive. And yet, by sheer perseverance and the determination of our troops, we succeeded in pursuing both goals simultaneously. Downgraded and surrounded by the IDF, Hamas opted for a deal. In exchange for a 5-day ceasefire, it agreed to free 50 Israeli hostages.

With that agreement now in effect, Israel has offered to extend it. For every ten hostages released, the IDF will hold its fire for one additional day. If accepted, this deal means that Israel will once again give precedence to saving Israelis over saving the state itself. The choice will once again be delayed.

But for how long? Ultimately, Hamas will not release all the hostages, knowing full well what the IDF will do to it once the last of them is freed. In the end, Israel will almost certainly have to decide whether to destroy the terrorists completely or save the remaining hostages – to choose, once again, between our national body and soul.

Yet a third option exists. There is still time to reframe the goal of the war from annihilating Hamas to securing Hamas’s unconditional surrender. There is still time to offer Hamas free passage from Gaza – recall the PLO’s evacuation from Beirut in 1982 – in return for the hostages’ release. The terrorists can sail off to Algeria, Libya, or Iran. Our captives will be united with their families.

In the novel, Sophie has to make the most unthinkable of all choices, but Israel can be spared that fate. By maintaining the military pressure on Hamas and keeping the door open to further negotiations, we can defend our state and redeem its defenders. Our dual purpose, our body and soul, can be preserved.

About the Author
Michael Oren, formerly Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Knesset Member, and Deputy Minister for Diplomacy, is the founder of the Israel Advocacy Group and the Substack, Clarity.