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On battles and wars – Israel’s predicament and what to do about it

War frames the overall conflict between two foes. A battle represents each particular engagement between the foes. There can be many battles in a war. In a well known saying, it is possible to win the battle but lose the war.

However much it may be called ‘the war against Hamas’, the conflict with Hamas is in fact a battle, not the war. The war is against the wider Iranian axis, although there is also risk that it could spread further, G-d forbid.

At present time, Israel seems to have achieved a temporary victory in the battle, yet is suffering a temporary defeat in the war. 

Israel’s temporary victory in the battle reflects the destruction of Hamas’ military capability in most of Gaza. It is temporary because this battle has not yet been concluded. The parameters of the hostage deal may soon turn this victory into a major defeat.

(To be clear, I pray every day, three times a day, with all my heart, for the safe and immediate return of the hostages to their loved ones. But it is possible to value multiple things at once, the lives and wellbeing of the hostages, the security of the State, the safety of all its citizens, and also for the wellbeing of innocents in Gaza too. The difficult task facing political leadership is calibrating the trade-offs between these important objectives – particularly when all four objectives relate to the sanctity of human life.)

Israel’s temporary defeat in the war refers to the significant erosion of Israeli power. It is temporary because, with wisdom, it could be reversed. Or the opposite, G-d forbid.

Since October 7th, for reasons that are readily understandable, political discourse in Israel has focused too much on power in pure military dimensions – ‘hard power’. It has neglected the importance of power in the form of economic strength, diplomatic influence, and socio-cultural affinity – ‘soft power’.

Hard and soft power are fungible. This means without a good mix of both, neither is sustainable alone. Thus, the Soviet Union fell in large part because its weakening economy could no longer sustain its sizable military commitments. And the European Union is realizing, for all its perceived soft power advantages, by allowing its hard power to wither in the last two decades, it has become highly vulnerable to a re-energized Russia.

Iran’s self-declared strategy in its war against Israel is focused on eroding Israel’s soft power. In this respect, Iran is winning, G-d forbid. Israel has incurred significant soft power losses since October 7th. As a result, Israel’s hard power advantage is now, for the first time in two generations, under serious threat, G-d forbid.

Israel needs, G-d willing, not only countries willing to stand alongside it in conflict and to supply munitions (which requires diplomatic influence and socio-cultural affinity) but also the funds to sustain the country’s growing military commitments (which requires economic strength). To pretend otherwise is fantasy. Such nonsense bravado is reckless and irresponsible when the consequences of such talk concerns the historic existence of the third Jewish commonwealth.

As a religious person, I emphasize my recognition that the ultimate power, and the only one that really matters is Hashem. However, as noted in a previous blogpost, Israel seems to have suffered a significant self-inflicted defeat here too, G-d forbid.

It follows from the preceding analysis that Israel’s leadership must firstly consolidate the victory in battle, and secondly reverse the country’s loss of power. The two are inextricably intertwined.

It is clear that the two apparent pathways currently under consideration will do neither.

Again, without under-stating in any way the heartbreaking predicament of the hostages, and the anguish of their loved ones, if understood correctly, the hostage deal seems likely to grant Hamas a victory in the battle and embolden Israel’s enemies in the war.

(Reports suggest the deal involves significant military withdrawal from Gaza, a long-term truce which would allow Hamas to re-establish its rule and rearm itself via tunnels under the border with Egypt, as well as the mass release of terrorists convicted of murdering Israeli civilians).

On the other hand, while the Rafah operation may indeed help to win the battle, this victory could come at the cost, G-d forbid, of losing the war. Defiant talk from PM Netanyahu, and many strident comments under TOI articles, reflect a fantasy world where the response of the international community does not seem to matter. It is nonsense to dismiss the impact of arms embargoes, ICC warrants, economic boycotts and cultural exclusion, G-d forbid any of the above, as a cost that Israel can realistically incur as a small country surrounded by powerful enemies.

Nor, sadly, would I suggest placing too much confidence in Hashem’s protection, a second time round after the Iran missile barrage, so long as there continues to be deep-rooted division, hatred and evil speech among us.

So what can Israel do? Here would be my plan.

Firstly, stop.

Israel must realize that, as neither pathway it currently faces is good for Israel’s future, it must just stop. And it must use this stop for every advantage to take back the initiative and reshape the agenda.

Stopping, as I previously argued here and here, will enable Israel to draw legitimacy from the fulfillment of UNSC 2728,  and therefore launch a concerted campaign of international pressure on Hamas to release the hostages – the other demand of UNSC 2728 – without resort to a bad deal. World leaders have shown every sign of supporting this campaign and there is significant leverage that can be used against Hamas that has not yet really been explored, in particular via Qatar and Turkey.

Stopping, in the form of a unilateral humanitarian pause, will ease the plight in Gaza, and allow Israel to lead proactively on the humanitarian front, rather than giving the impression (rightly or wrongly) that it is reacting to the demands of others. This is the right thing to do.

Stopping will enable Israel to dictate the terms of the pause to Hamas, keeping Hamas hidden in their tunnels, and – when Hamas commits breaches (because it is clear they will) – allow Israel not only the freedom of response but also to widen again the moral daylight between the two sides, at least in international perceptions.

Stopping will – per their previous declarations – undercut further action by Hezbollah or the Houthis, allowing Red Sea shipping routes to stabilize and reducing risk of the wider more dangerous regional war that many fear, clearly re-establishing Israel as the more responsible party in the conflict and drawing some appreciation from its allies. (Perhaps also providing a face-saving way for Hezbollah to withdraw from the border).

Stopping will take the steam out of growing worldwide efforts for boycotts and arms embargoes, and the surging antisemitism that seems deeply linked to these.

Finally, stopping will give time and space for a rethink and for extensive discussion – domestically among Israelis and globally with Israel’s allies – on how best to secure the release of the hostages, defeat Hamas and resolve the underlying issues.

In summary, stopping will allow Israel to freeze the battle and consolidate its victory while giving itself the option to restart if required in future.

Secondly, Israel must understand that its trump card is Jewish unity.

Israel must understand, as Rabbi Sacks says, ‘the only people that can defeat the Jewish people are the Jewish people’.

I believe that setting aside differences to focus completely on Jewish unity –  on the three Jewish meta-principles of achdut (unity), ahavat (love) and arevut (mutual responsibility) yisrael – will restore Hashem’s full protection like never before.

What does this mean?

Once a stop has been effected in Gaza, all steps must be taken – as a national emergency of highest priority – to bring about real unity.

Elections in Israel, with the way the political system works, will not bring unity – it will deepen division.

Therefore, the political first step is a full national unity government. That means Lapid. It means Lieberman. It means Michaeli (or Yair Golan, or whoever replaces her). More controversially for some, for the reasons set out below, I also believe it means Mansour Abbas. As a national unity government, this also means keeping all the current coalition parties on board. While both right and left may pull faces at this suggestion, everyone must invest, and be seen to invest, in national unity, however tightly noses must at first be squeezed.

But there is a broader civic second step that also involves a stop.

Israel must work on developing a new social contract – in fact, as Jews, it is better for us to frame it as a social covenant. Of course, this will take time. Yet what is realistic to do is to establish a national listening moment.

This also involves a stop. It means to stop the existing political discourses; to stop dictating to each other; to stop threatening each other; to stop protesting against each other; and to stop abusing each other.

Let Israelis individually and collectively listen to every part of society – every one of Israel’s ‘tribes’, as former president Rivlin memorably described them (although I think there are more than the four he identified).

Let Israelis talk through the whole range of emotive issues that divides Israeli society in a spirit of understanding, empathy and collaborative problem-solving, knowing that few have escaped the trauma that has enveloped the country since October 7th.

Let Israelis find old and new symbols of unity; those already deeply embedded in the religious and non-religious consciousness of Israelis of all stripes; and those that may now be created together. The eventual solutions to Israel’s problems may not be fully formed for years, but the listening process will be cathartic and unifying.

Let Israelis also try talking with Palestinians too, and even the Iranians, if they would be willing. It may be a vain, naive hope, but it would come heavily backed by the aspirations of most countries and most peoples around the world who saw in the events a few weeks back a march toward the edge of the abyss.

Thirdly, diversity

Particularly in today’s global culture, I am convinced that restoring Israel’s soft power can best be accomplished through showcasing the hugely under-appreciated diversity of Israeli society.

Israel needs to go quickly beyond the coterie of leaders that currently represent Israel on the world stage. This coterie seems to exclusively comprise angry middle-aged men.

Israel needs to make a concerted push for more representativeness from different communities, different age groups, and different genders – to surprise and engage the world, to give loud expression to Israel’s colorful Jewishness and Arabness, and to give every Israeli a new sense of opportunity and inclusion.

Delivering Israel’s vibrant ideas, innovations and technologies to a global audience in more diverse packaging can help to rebuild the country’s international acceptance and re-establish its leadership in key sectors, providing a powerful riposte to false perceptions and distorted characterizations that currently proliferate.

These three measures – a pause in Gaza, a national listening moment, and a push for greater diversity – would be the start of an alternate pathway to a poor hostage deal and a reckless Rafah operation. These measures can open up new pathways to secure the release of the hostages and the defeat of Hamas, while still keeping every option open for Israel. More broadly, these measures can help create a foundation for national renewal to avoid the weaknesses and vulnerabilities that got us into this mess in the first place.

About the Author
Adam Gross is a strategist that specialises in solving complex problems in the international arena. Adam made aliyah with his family in 2019 to live in northern Israel.
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