Alon Tal

Israel’s New Reality: Back to the simple truth of the Iron Wall

Charles Darwin wrote that “it is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.” The same is true of nations. Perhaps the single greatest key to Israel’s success over the past 75 years is our dispassionate pragmatism and the ability to adapt to new realities. For the majority of Israelis, Saturday’s shocking events changed everything. It is remarkable how quickly we have adapted to a new reality.

It wasn’t just Israeli intelligence that got it wrong in the lead-up to Saturday. Most of us in Israel were stunned. As we continue to wipe our damp eyes and hope our broken hearts will mend, it is time to take stock.  The bloodiest day for the Jewish people since the Holocaust requires a sober evaluation.  This is not an intellectual exercise. It is intensely personal.  Most of us know people who were murdered or taken hostage.  Here is my own personal takeaway; how I have changed.

Not only a thousand Israelis were killed on Saturday. A series of assumptions about managing the conflict with Hamas in Gaza (what we call, the “konceptzia”) also died with the bullet-ridden bodies of the victims.   It turns out that there is no empirical basis for the notion that improved economic conditions and Westernization would lead to greater moderation, or that once tasked with running Gaza and all that entails (getting good teachers into classrooms, letting competent doctors run efficient hospitals, fixing potholes), Hamas would, over time, become more pragmatic and less bloodthirsty.  A thousand bodies, including those of babies and their great-grandparents, are evidence that this assumption was simply wrong.

It has been almost twenty years since Israel’s government decided to unilaterally hand over Gaza to the full control of the Palestinians. Since then, there have been all sorts of 20-20-hindsight critiques about how it was done. None alter the essential facts: at the price of a profound national division and trauma, Israel uprooted seventeen Jewish settlements and handed the keys to the Gaza Strip to the local Palestinian population.

By 2007, the Hamas military wing violently seized control and ever since has been autocratically running the show. And ever since, its obsessive, single-minded, paramount objective has been the destruction of Israel.  Its people’s well-being is secondary.

Successive Israeli governments, with both right and left leanings, opted to create incentives for intermittent ceasefires, allowing Gazan residents to work in decent paying Israeli jobs and most of all calling for patience . This was recognized as an imperfect strategy, but ultimately the only realistic policy for living alongside such an extremist regime.  The conflict with Gaza was one for which there might not be a solution in the short-run. But it could be managed and collateral damage minimized due to Israel’s military superiority.

Saturday’s events suggest that those assumptions are no longer valid. The ubiquitous invoking of 9/11 and Pearl Harbor analogies that have come to frame Saturday’s massacres have unequivocal implications. This is not a “battle against Hamas”. There is an autonomous state in Gaza.  Its leaders waged a surprise attack against Israel. They waged a war because they want to eradicate our country and kill its citizens.   So, now we have no choice: we must win this war decisively. Unconditionally.

The world is watching. So is the Middle East. So are Palestinians on the West Bank, with whom I believe we can still reach reconciliation.  Thus far, they see weakness and incompetence.  Fortunately, deterrence is a renewable resource.

When I was doing my compulsory service, I fought in Israel’s first Lebanon War.  From its inception, Israel’s incursion up to Beirut was controversial. Many of us did not believe that this was an “Ein-Breirah” war – a war where the country had no alternative.  That’s why it remains a divisive chapter in our history.  For years now, many Israelis did not perceive a total war to conquer Gaza as a necessity.  During the past three days, the Israeli perspective has evolved.  Conquering Gaza has become a national imperative.

After twenty years we have finally come to realize that Hamas does not embody another legitimate Palestinian political perspective. Rather, it is the local manifestation of ISIS or Al Qaeda Fundamentalism, a fanaticism that deeply believes in a divine mission to extirpate anyone whose perspective is different.   In the world according to Hamas, there is simply no room for accommodation with other religions, or human rights, or women’s participation or sexual preferences……or compromise.

When the world decided that the dangers of ISIS were intolerable, and that it needed to confront these Islamic, fanatical gangsters, the strategy was not accommodation. It was to eliminate them as a viable military and political force.

And so, Israel has drafted 360,000 reservists and prepares to fight a war it has tried to avoid for almost two decades.  We face an enemy with blatant disregard for the value of human life —  not just helpless children in kibbutzim that its commandos gleefully slaughtered — but also their own children who are happily used as human shields. The coming war will be ugly. The images will be painful. When this happens, it is critical never to forget that this war was forced on us.

Because we waited so patiently, the battles will be more painful than they would have been in the past.  I am not sorry about being part of efforts that seek coexistence.  As an ingenuous, decent country, we had to try. But I am also aware that well-intended, idealistic gambles that fail, have a price.  In this case the price seems almost unbearable.  To delay this war any longer is to doom our children to an unendurable reality of living under the shadow of rockets and the constant threat of being mowed down while attending a dance party in the forest.

In trying to distill my own conclusions as I adapt, I find that it helps to return to older wisdom.  My grandfather was a disciple of Revisionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky.  When I was young, still serving as a soldier in the IDF, we argued (passionately, but with great respect) over the best approach for reaching accommodation with the Palestinians. I remain more optimistic about coexistence with Palestinians than he ever was.  In retrospect, there was one thing he got right.

Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s 1923 essay “The Iron Wall” rejected the conciliatory explanations of the time for Arab violence. He  scorned claims forwarded by more apologetic Zionists that:“the Arabs have not understood us, and that is the only reason why they resist us ;if we can only make it clear to them how moderate our intentions really are, they will immediately extend to us their hand in friendship.  He explained that this view was condescending.  The Arabs understood Zionist intentions very well. And therefore, the best strategy for surviving in a very hostile region was to create an “Iron Wall” which could not be penetrated.

Eventually this view would become an implicit axiom of Israeli security policy.  Tragically, for a few hours on Saturday morning, that Iron Wall was breached. And we were slaughtered.

Jabotinsky was not a defeatist. Nor was he resigned to an eternity of violence. He believed that once Arabs give up of hope of “getting rid of us”, moderate leaders would emerge and agreements would be reached. Treaties with Egypt and Jordan, and the more recent Abraham accords vindicate this perspective.  One of the few points of light from this week’s events was the unequivocal condemnation issued by the United Arab Emirates against the barbarity of the Hamas attack.

This is a tough neighborhood.   It is a reasonable individual conclusion to decide that it is simply too tough and that Zionism is not worth the collateral damage. As we see the recent rise of Anti-Semitism worldwide, I see such a conclusion not so much as cowardly, but historically obtuse. Where in the world can you be really be sure that Jews are safe and will remain so? In any event, collectively, leaving is not an option for most of Israel’s 7 million Jewish citizens. That ship sailed long ago.

And so we face a fierce battle. There will be casualties.  These need to be minimized. I believe that an emergency government that brings the wisdom, experience, military savvy and decency of Benny Gantz and Gadi Eizenkot into Israel’s war room, will produce a better outcome. I am very concerned about the superficiality, intemperance and inexperience that characterizes so much of the present government’s leadership. More moderate leadership also sends an important message to Israeli Arab citizens.  But regardless of who is at the helm, we are all in.

It seems that overnight Israel has adapted. Seeing present events as just another round in the endless cycle of conflict with Gaza is no longer acceptable.  The same citizens who intrepidly led the protest against the ill-advised judicial reform, are now back in uniform and on the front lines.

The Israeli army truly is an exceptional military force. After finally getting its act together, the performance of Israeli soldiers in taking out hundreds of terrorists over the few days has been extraordinary. So we will win this terrible war. And, I believe that once we take back the Gaza Strip and remove the Hamas leadership, the possibility of a better future for Israelis – and hopefully for Gazans as well, will be much improved.

No one has a clear endgame for Gaza at present.  I wish I could offer a plan for that. Unfortunately, I have not yet seen a vision that is compelling.  But I do know this: when the dust settles, Israel will be safer. And we can hope that sooner or later, the winds of change and progress that have begun to transform the Middle East will also reach Gaza.

About the Author
Alon Tal is a professor of Public Policy at Tel Aviv University. In 2021 and 2022, he was chair of the Knesset's Environment, Climate & Health subcommittee.
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