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Israel’s missed WWII lessons, and what it must learn now

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, leads a cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on December 10, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, leads a cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on December 10, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Despite the grave mistakes it made that led to the Hamas October 7 attacks, Israel stands at a pivotal crossroads, faced with an opportunity to learn from history and redefine its goals with clarity and resolve. In the seven months since the war erupted, Israel has struggled to articulate a cohesive strategy, but it still has the chance to correct its course.

This moment calls for Israel to fight for the unconditional surrender of Hamas and the safe return of all of our hostages—and to do so in accordance with our Jewish morals, Israeli code of ethics, and international law.

To achieve this, Israel must draw on lessons from World War II, where strategic errors were costly but ultimately led to profound insights and decisive actions. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who sees himself as a historic figure and frequently quotes leaders like Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt, has regularly drawn parallels between their times and the present. This historical consciousness must now guide Israel’s strategy in dealing with its current challenges.

Two pivotal strategic errors by the Allies prior to World War II underline the importance of a resolute and foresighted stance against threats. The first mistake was British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement towards Adolf Hitler. Churchill’s poignant words ring true today: “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.”

Chamberlain’s attempts to placate Hitler only emboldened the Nazi regime, leading to catastrophic consequences. Israel, like Churchill, must recognize that attempting to manage a relationship with terrorist groups that have repeatedly demonstrated their commitment to violence is futile and dangerous.

The second error was the United States’ underestimation of the Japanese threat to Pearl Harbor. Despite rising tensions and multiple warnings, the US believed its defenses were impregnable. The devastating surprise attack on December 7, 1941, shattered this illusion and underscored the peril of complacency. Israel, too, must learn from this lesson. The October 7 attacks revealed catastrophic vulnerabilities in its Gaza border defenses, an oversight reminiscent of America’s misplaced confidence prior to Pearl Harbor.

Both errors—appeasement and underestimation—have, regrettably, been mirrored in the Netanyahu-led policy which culminated in October 7. Netanyahu’s government has, at times, sought to manage rather than decisively counter the threat from Gaza, a form of appeasement that has failed to bring lasting security. Additionally, the failure to foresee and address weaknesses in border security, believing in the fence as absolute security, left Israel exposed to attacks that should have been anticipated and prevented.

In January 1943, President Roosevelt, in a message to Congress, stated, “The elimination of German, Japanese and Italian war power means the unconditional surrender by Germany, Italy, and Japan. That means a reasonable assurance of future world peace. It does not mean the destruction of the population of Germany, Italy, or Japan, but it does mean the destruction of the philosophies in those countries which are based on conquest and the subjugation of other peoples.”

The distinction Roosevelt made is vital: he emphasized the necessity of dismantling ideologies rooted in violence and oppression without annihilating the populations under their control.

The path forward for Israel also requires a dual commitment: to fight for the unconditional surrender of Hamas and to protect and support the civilian population of Gaza. Just as Roosevelt sought to liberate the peoples of Germany, Italy, and Japan from the grip of destructive ideologies, Israel must strive to free Gazans from the tyranny of Hamas and other extremist groups. This means targeting the infrastructure and leadership of terrorism while providing humanitarian aid and ensuring the safety and dignity of innocent civilians.

A clear and unwavering message must be sent: Israel’s fight is against terrorism and tyranny, not against the people of Gaza. By coupling military action with humanitarian efforts, Israel can help liberate Gaza from Hamas and enable it to be rebuilt in a region free from the oppressive rule of terror.

Israel’s strategy in Gaza must be informed by the hard-earned lessons of history. The approach must not only address immediate security concerns but also lay the groundwork for a more stable and peaceful future. Israel, like the Allies in World War II, must act decisively against tyranny while upholding the principles of humanity and justice.

About the Author
Mati Gill is CEO of AION Labs, a venture studio with a first-of-its-kind company creation model for new start-ups utilizing AI for drug discovery and development. Prior to founding AION Labs, Mati was a senior executive at Teva Pharmaceuticals and served as Chief of Staff for Israel’s Minister of Public Security. He is an IDF veteran (Maj. res.)`and currently serves on the boards of the Israel Advanced Technology Industries Association (IATI) and the Israel America Chamber of Commerce (AmCham).
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