Aron Heller

The road ahead for Israel after Oct. 7

How we respond as a nation to this unprecedented calamity may well dictate what kind of country remains – or if one remains at all
IDF soldiers remove the body of an Israeli killed during an October 7, 2023, attack by Hamas terrorists, in Kibbutz Kfar Aza, in southern Israel bordering the Gaza Strip, on October 10, 2023 (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

One way or another, the Oct. 7, 2023, massacre will become a watershed moment in Israeli history. There is no way the country can remain unchanged. The depth of the disaster is so severe that Israel must take a long, hard look at itself and decide what it wants to be going forward.

The last time I wrote in these pages marked a week since the atrocities. In that column I focused on our collective trauma as a nation, feeling it was too soon to discuss the real-world implications of such a monumental crisis. It was not a time to analyze, I argued, it was a time to grieve.

It was only in retrospect that I realized the rationale behind that approach. That first week was a shiva of sorts, a mourning over not just the more than 1,400 human beings who were savagely killed in the most gruesome ways imaginable or the more than 240 taken hostage. It was for the Israel that was lost on Oct. 7, and which will never be the same. To immediately break down our greatest tragedy since the Holocaust into politics, military strategy and public diplomacy felt almost blasphemous.

The enormity of what has transpired is still overwhelming. But only now, as we close in on the Shloshim (the 30-day period marking the second stage of Jewish bereavement) does it seem more appropriate to ask how we arrived at this point and what could lay ahead.

The Oct. 7 massacre thrashed many of the conceptions that guided life in Israel during its first 75 years, and it reinforced many others that have long been overlooked. How we respond as a nation to this unprecedented calamity may well dictate what kind of country remains once the dust settles – or if one remains at all.

One can only hope that this is rock bottom. Here are five elements to hopefully guide us toward a better version of ourselves.

Our existence is not a given

I grew up in a post-1973 Yom Kippur War reality in which Israel always had challenges, but none seemed existential. We were the strongest country in the region, and we had nuclear weapons. Our enemies could bloody us with rocket attacks and suicide bombings, but they couldn’t topple us.

The shock of the devastating Oct. 7 attack shakes those assumptions. Despite our best hopes for normalcy and acceptance, we still must fight for this country’s continued existence.

The first order of business is the most obvious: we must defeat the enemies on our doorstep that seek to destroy us. What goes for Hamas also goes for Hezbollah. The path to that end may lead through regime change in Iran. But simply placating bloodthirsty terrorists is no longer sustainable.

Having said that, we must also have a greater vision beyond perpetually living by the sword.

A massacre so heinous should not be dignified with any geopolitical calculus. But the sad truth is that it offered another excruciating reminder that the Palestinians aren’t going to simply disappear. The right can mock the left all it wants for naively continuing to believe in the now decades-long peace process, but at least the Israeli peace camp tried to find a solution. We need some kind of horizon for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict beyond killing all the bad guys. Who our negotiating partners are and whether that process ultimately leads to Palestinian statehood is less important than creating a reality in which we aren’t constantly living between wars.

That’s no way to live and our enemies want to make Israel so unlivable that enough of a critical mass will leave, weakening the country so much that it will either implode on itself or no longer be able to defend itself. That is an existential threat.

Bibi and Bibism must go

Just two weeks before the massacre, I argued that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was laser focused on peace with Saudi Arabia to secure the political legacy that had long eluded him. Well, now he finally has a legacy.

Netanyahu has presided over the worst military debacle in Israeli history. He arrogantly ignored the military’s warnings and his policy of appeasing Hamas to create an alibi against even the prospect of negotiations with more moderate Palestinians has proven to be an abject failure. The man who touted himself as “Mr. Security” left thousands of Israeli civilians defenseless against a merciless massacre.

That alone should have led to his immediately resignation in shame. But Netanyahu’s sins run far deeper than that.

For the past year, he has led a full-on assault against Israel’s democratic foundations that not only distracted the country away from its real threats but also weakened its military preparedness. He tore Israeli society apart and made Jews the enemies of each other for the sake of his own political survival. It capped a political career built on incitement, deceit and self-preservation that has now brought Israel to its knees.

Even now, he stubbornly refuses to accept any responsibility for what happened, cynically looking to shuck the blame on others.

One way or the other, Netanyahu will eventually go. But everything he represents must go with him: the toxic politics of division, the scorched-earth policies, the “I am the state” mentality. For Israel to recover, it must unite around a common destiny rather than worship a cult of personality around a man who will likely be remembered as one of the greater Jewish villains in our history.

Forget about “world opinion”

Since Oct. 7, Israeli society has mobilized in a most impressive fashion. Much of that energy has been directed toward disseminating pro-Israel content on social media. The idea seemed to be that by sharing evidence of the gruesome massacre Israel could somehow generate enough public sympathy to make its legitimate counter offensive more palpable to global eyes.

The need for this citizen diplomacy underscores the depth of global animosity toward Israel. But information warfare has been largely futile. Everyone now knows about the sadistic violence Hamas perpetrated on Oct. 7, many just chose to ignore it or are too blinded with bias to care. Ultimately it has been the human suffering in Gaza, which resulted from the unprovoked and premeditated Hamas slaughter, that has generated an outpouring of global sympathy for Palestinians and rage toward Israel. The conclusion is simple: If the world doesn’t “get” Israel this time, it never will.

I’ve long been skeptical of the efficacy of the Israeli obsession with hasbara, or “explaining,” as it seems to be mostly aimed at validating our own sense of righteousness rather than swaying other hearts and minds. Social media is a popularity contest, and we are as outnumbered there as we are at the United Nations.

Sadly, even with all the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, certain battlelines have now clearly been drawn. If someone cannot clearly condemn what Hamas perpetrated on Oct. 7 without adding a qualifying “but” at the end of that sentence to explain its “context,” they are either an antisemite or incredibly stupid. No polished video, trending graphic or catchy hashtag is going to change that.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t keep pressing our case or liking Noa Tishby’s videos. But it does mean that we aren’t going to spam our way into acceptance. As Golda Meir once famously said “I prefer to stay alive and be criticized than to be sympathized.”

God Bless America

The one exception to this principle is American public opinion. Once again, Joe Biden has proven himself to be the American president Israel needs. His unflinching support the past month should put to rest any of the illusions harbored by those Zionists who were charmed by a conman like Donald Trump or who considered hedging our American bets by growing closer to Russia or China.

At the end of the day, it is only America that remains in Israel’s corner, dispatching aircraft carriers to our region, providing massive military aid and protecting us against hypocritical UN resolutions. We’d be lost without this ironclad American support, and we need to make sure it remains.

But Biden may be the last president of his kind. What we are seeing on elite Ivy League campuses is incredibly troubling. The antisemitism and deep-seated Israel-hatred of certain Arabs and their witless sympathizers may be incurable, but we must make sure that the future leaders of America understand that the special U.S.-Israeli relationship must be preserved.

That requires not only diplomatic outreach, but also maintaining our Western values so that we are still perceived as an American-style liberal democracy in the Middle East that is worth protecting.

Rediscover ourselves

The eruption of antisemitism around the world only further validates the necessity of a strong Jewish homeland as a haven for our people.

For that we need to guarantee this is a place where Jews want to live and where they can thrive. That’s on us and it requires setting aside the old ways and rebooting our national priorities.

It means shifting resources from West Bank settlements to the Israeli periphery, battling Jewish supremacists and incorporating the Arab minority as equal partners, extracting religion out of government, cutting subsidies to ultra-Orthodox Jews who avoid the military and the work force and investing in the infrastructure of our future. We must fix our failing education system, reform the electoral system and draft a constitution that defines the identity of the state and guarantees basic rights for all its citizens.

These are not matters of just boosting cohesion and prosperity. They are keys to our survival.

Tel Aviv University economist Dan Ben-David has long warned that these grave challenges could drive away Israel’s best and brightest. According to his estimate, there are fewer than 400,000 individuals who are responsible for keeping Israel in the developed world.

Israel can no longer rely solely on its vaunted high-tech sector. All citizens need the tools to become fully functioning individuals in a modern competitive economy and be integral parts in the defense of the only country we have.

But with the children of the fastest-growing population groups receiving a third-world education, Ben-David argues that Israel will not be able to sustain a first-world economy or a first-class military.

Now imagine the events of Oct. 7 repeating themselves when we don’t have a military capable of striking back and preventing such a catastrophe from happening again.

That’s the future awaiting Israel if we don’t correct course quickly.

About the Author
Aron Heller is an Israel-based writer and broadcaster and a former long-time Associated Press correspondent and journalism professor. He's covered ten Israeli elections, four Mideast wars, dozens of other major world events and has been dispatched on assignments across five continents. A frequent on-air and on-camera contributor, he's previously reported for the Ottawa Citizen, NBC News and Haaretz and has broadcast professional sports games.
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